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Sweeping statement

When the abbreviation OBC is spelt out, it refers to Other Backward Classes and not Castes. This is the meaning that the Constitution of India gave to the phrase.

india Updated: Jun 12, 2006 00:05 IST

Please read the bold print. When the abbreviation OBC is spelt out, it refers to Other Backward Classes and not Castes. This is the meaning that the Constitution of India gave to the phrase. There is a world of difference between the two and it is only by means of deft political jugglery that the impression has been conveyed that the Constitution is interested in uplifting a section of the population that can be labelled under the totally spurious term called backward caste.

As the Constitution was interested in the lot of backward classes, it did not easily equate them with any cluster of castes, nor did it privilege a solely caste-based criterion to determine them. Backward classes could mean the poor, or village-based artisans, or the unemployed, or those who are in remote regions, or those who are educationally deficient, or those who suffer from food deprivation. In all such cases, the focus is on actual people and not communities. As those answering to such descriptions could come from any caste group, the founding figures of the Constitution, very purposively, used the term OBC strictly in terms of classes and not castes.

Contrast this with the way the Scheduled Castes were classified by the Constitution. Though the job of determining which castes were untouchables proved tricky, in all such cases, only the caste criterion was the determining factor. Economic or educational concerns had no role to play when it came to deciding on the listing of the Scheduled Castes. So when the Constitution clearly states ‘classes’ and not ‘castes’, as in the term OBC, it is deliberate, and not an oversight.

As there were too many competing factors to contend against, the first Backward Class Commission set up in 1955, under Kaka Kalekar, decided to fold up its proceedings after rounds of futile negotiations. Its members found no clear criteria for determining backwardness that would be free from counter claims. In spite of long deliberations, the task proved hopeless and unachievable and this conclusion was more or less ratified by the government of the day.

The Mandal Commission, seemingly, had no problems at all in designating the ‘backwards’. This is because it cleverly masked the term class with caste and put forward a set of criteria where economic and educational backwardness received very low points compared to social backwardness. As the definition for social backwardness was very fuzzy, it was possible to score 12 points on the four criteria within this sub-set. There was no need to go further and consider educational or economic factors, as only 11 points were needed to be eligible for reservations. Space does not allow a full elaboration of the various categories under which ‘backwardness’ points can be awarded in the Mandal formula, but it needs to be noted that the economic criteria get the least emphasis. While on social backwardness it is possible to easily score 12 points, the best one could do in terms of economic backwardness is only three. This is surely a travesty of what it means to be ‘backward’.

The points system also contains other constitutional improprieties. When considering social backwardness, full three points are given if a caste practises child marriage. In this case, you have a clear instance of actually being rewarded for breaking the law. What could be more unconstitutional! Further, again within the category of social backwardness, a caste scores three points if other castes have a low opinion of its standing in society. As is widely known to specialists in this subject, no caste thinks well of any other caste. Even among Brahmins there is no unanimity. All too frequently, charges of being imposters, pretenders and worse are freely traded among them.

This bias in the points system clearly reveals that the Mandal Commission did not want to draw attention to the fact that its intended beneficiaries were really not economically and educationally backward. This is to be expected, as the castes favoured for reservation by Mandal were never really discriminated against in history as the Scheduled Castes were. That they chose not to seek education and urban jobs as the so-called ‘forward’ castes did still does not make them a once persecuted category or community.

It must also be remembered that these so-called backward castes were often the rural dominant castes and they were perhaps, on occasion, more brutal in their persecution of the Scheduled Castes than the Brahmins were. The deprivations resulting from the odium of untouchability were the highest in South India — a region where the traditional dominant castes are, in the main, the designated ‘backwards’ of today. Interestingly, Mandal activists ignore this feature of rural caste interaction.

As the heat and dust of political controversy around the issue of reservations for OBC obscured from view that it was really all about class and not caste, the Mandalites were able to win valuable political points. They also spuriously occupied the moral high ground by claiming that they were adhering to the Constitution, when in fact they were calmly subverting it. By making backward class synonymous with backward caste, the Mandal Commission opened the gates for identity politics of the kind that would be very hard to reverse.

It is just as well that the Supreme Court has asked the government to clearly spell out what it means by ‘backwardness’ and to whom the label should apply. Hopefully, in the course of this exercise, the unpardonable equation of backward classes with backward castes will be exposed and we can all breathe easy that the Constitution has not been breached.

The writer is Professor of Sociology, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.