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Dr Strangelove

The good Dr Singh and his ministerial colleague, the other Dr Singh, want Indians to be one-dimensionally identified as OBCs, MBCs, etc.

india Updated: May 29, 2006 00:35 IST

The Good Dr Prime Minister has a good Dr Nobel Laureate as a friend who has some very wise things to say about the politics of identity. “A person belongs to many different groups, of which a religious affiliation is only one. To see, for example, a mathematician who happens to be a Muslim by religion mainly in terms of Islamic identity would be to hide more than it reveals... To concentrate only on [9th century mathematician] Al-Khwarizmi’s Islamic identity over his identity as a mathematician would be extremely misleading, and yet he clearly was also a Muslim.”

Somehow though, Amartya Sen’s observations don’t seem to have made much of an impression on his buddy, Manmohan Singh. For, the Prime Minister will be enacting  an enabling draft bill that will subsume the goulash of identity markers that make millions of us ‘Indian’. Sen focuses on the debilitating practice of the tag of ‘Muslimhood’ being thrust on people across the world who happen to be Muslim, drowning out anything else they may be. Singh, in the meantime,  has joined the ranks of ‘community’ leaders who have herded Indians into their nicely labelled caste pens. Singh and his new-found friends will obviously call it ‘empowerment’. I’d rather call it ‘sucking up to a votebank’.

So who is an OBC? According to the First Backward Classes Commission (known fondly as the Mandal Commission), an OBC has to belong to a caste -- thus the ‘caste’-link to a ‘class’ category -- or community that fulfils four main characteristics:

i) Low social position in the traditional caste hierarchy of Hindu society.

ii) Lack of general educational advancement among the major section of a caste or community.

iii) Inadequate or no representation in government service.

iv) Inadequate representation in the field of trade, commerce and industry.

The Mandal Commission prepared a list of 2,399 “backward castes or communities”, 837 being categorised as “most backward”. But these ‘indicators’ in the commission report made in 1980 were based on the 1961 Census. Which makes it not too surprising that while Mandal states that 52 per cent of the nation comprises (comprised?) OBCs, others have wildly varying figures. The 1999-2000 National Sample Survey Organisation puts the OBC population percentage at 32 per cent, while the 1998 National Family Health Survey puts it at 29.8.

For all I care, the percentage of Indians with an urge to raid the fridge after midnight could be 52, 32 or 29.8. Quite unlike the complete empirical firmness of the number 27 -- the percentage of seats to be reserved for OBCs in our institutions of higher education. To add to the confusion, of course, there are the OBCs who lie outside the ‘low social position in the traditional caste hierarchy of Hindu society’. The government is a bit fuzzy about whether Muslim OBCs can also line up outside the backgate.

So maybe the best way of defining an OBC is: a caste or community for which the UPA government will be reserving 27 per cent of seats in educational institutions.

Which makes me simultaneously scratch my head and come to another aspect of the Great Indian Fudge: this noble notion of being Indian first and other things after. By firming up the definition of the OBC, it seems to me that the UPA government is telling large sections of the population: you’re OBC first, you’re OBC second and then other things.

Unlike belonging to a religion, belonging to a modern caste-categorisation is not a static thing. Sania Mirza will be a Muslim (among many other things) however many cars she endorses. For the person deemed as an OBC, however, the object is ultimately to break out of OBC-hood. After all, social justice is about providing a crutch till the missing leg starts growing -- which, at least in theory, is the whole point of reservations and why people like Ambedkar were keen on a strictly time-bound reservations policy.

But then, who would be politically dumb enough to want ‘backwards’ to wither away and drift into the general mainstream when such groupings can be nourished till kingdom come as a ‘constituency’? Also, it’s way easier than providing social justice to all those who need it. And by pushing for reservations, the ‘secular’ Congress can play Mayawati-Lalu-Mulayam without being oh-so-terribly casteist.

There was a time when I knew families that were pretty clear that their women (convent-educated, fluent in English Bengalis) would marry gents of their caste -- or at least of an ‘acceptable’ caste. But as these women grew older (and more desperate to shake off intimations of permanent spinsterhood), their families threw caste considerations to the dogs and they made do with good men from outside the ‘circle’. I figured that caste was finally becoming an anachronism at least in urban India.

Poor fool that I was, I hadn’t reckoned for the UPA government’s go at playing Mad Max Weber. So if a foreigner asks me whether India in 2006 is still a caste-ridden society, my brain will surely frizzle in confusion as I consider Article 15 -- “Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth” -- and the other sections of the Constitution the UPA government will quote from.

The good Dr Singh and his ministerial colleague, the other Dr Singh, want Indians to be one-dimensionally identified as OBCs, MBCs, etc... never mind whether these tags will help these ‘caste’ entities in the long run or not. (See UP and Bihar for clues.) Now if Manmohan Singh gets shy about proclaiming his government’s casteist credentials because of his latest move, he really shouldn’t. After all, he’ll be helping 52 per cent of Indians. Or is it 32 per cent? Or 29.8? Damn it! Let’s just call them OBCs and play along, shall we?