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Target practice

The Supreme Court has rightly criticised the Centre for indulging in quota politics, writes Dipankar Gupta.

india Updated: Mar 29, 2007 23:56 IST

The Supreme Court has not just stayed the central law, which ordains 27 per cent reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs), it has also severely admonished the government for indulging in “vote-bank politics”. The significance of this remark should be seen in the context of the Supreme Court’s astonishment that while the government is advocating 27 per cent reservation, it has done so without the necessary homework. It neither has a clear idea of the basis on which these classes have been identified, nor the number of OBCs in the country.

It was earlier decreed by the courts that OBCs cannot simply be identified on the basis of caste as this goes against the spirit of the Constitution. While the Constitution allowed for Scheduled Castes (SCs) to be identified purely on the basis of caste and their attachment with the ugly prejudice of untouchability, OBCs need something more than just caste identification.

Hence, the Mandal Commission came up with three criteria, viz., social, educational and economic, to determine backwardness. These criteria were flawed from the start for excessive weights were given to markers of social backwardness, which were unverifiable, and fewer points were given to economic backwardness, for which there were tangible indices. Clearly, the framers of the Mandal Commission set out to provide a charter for the upwardly mobile, well-to-do agrarian classes in the garb of ‘backwardness’.

Sneaking in privileges for certain castes in this fashion surely does harm to the democratic nature and content of our polity and the Supreme Court is correct when it observed that reservations for OBCs were not only yielding to “vote-bank politics” but also dividing society on the lines of caste and birth.

All of this is relevant especially when one keeps in mind that by the government’s reckoning, even Yadavs and Jats are among the backwards. Things have come to such a pass with the caste-obsessed vote-bank politics that successive governments have indulged in, that few know that the OBCs was devised to specifically to keep castes out of the picture. This fact has now become completely obscured in popular political discourse.

The apex court’s query as to how many can be counted as belonging to the OBCs is a perfectly logical one, especially as the government is enforcing quotas in higher education. This job should have preceded the enactment of the government Bill. If there are to be quotas, then we need the numbers, which were nowhere in sight. Had it been a question of ‘affirmative action’, then perhaps numbers are not that necessary, but a different set of legislations are required and one that unambiguously steers clear of any quota, or quota-like consideration.

In terms of figures, we have a host of issues. The first, which should not be undermined and has already been mentioned, is the set of criteria to be employed in denoting backwardness and it just cannot be my favourite castes. Economic backwardness has to play a dominant role, followed by educational backwardness. The criteria social backwardness as it stands is highly dubious, made worse by the fact that communities get rewarded if their boys and girls get married before the legally permissible age. Now that can hardly be allowed!

Second, we have to get the numbers right. The apex court is right that there has been no census enumeration on caste grounds since 1931, so where have these figures come from? The 1931 census is not only over 75 years old, but the criteria that was used then have long become defunct. Additionally, it must be borne in mind that the understanding of ‘forward’ and ‘backward’ has changed over time. In 1911, for example, there was a furore as certain castes resented their placement down the hierarchy. Today, they would fight if they figured as high castes. How political calculations have changed.

But keeping this reality in mind, it has to be admitted that even in 1931, the figures for ‘backwards’ could be spurious, and had to be adjusted on a number of counts, not least of all because of political and status motivations. Further, certain castes that existed in 1931 have either disappeared or have morphed themselves or have become part of other caste clusters. The arrival of caste associations from the late 19th century onwards, and with greater rapidity after 1920, has also led to significant changes in caste nomenclatures and relative positioning.

The Supreme Court’s consternation is further compounded by the fact that the National Sample Survey (NSS) puts the proportion of OBCs to approximately 32.1 per cent of the population while the National Family Health Survey pitches the figure at 29.8 per cent. These figures contrast starkly with Mandal Commission’s data, according to which 52 per cent of the population should be counted as OBCs. Surely, not all three can be right and, therefore, the court is perfectly justified in asking for authentic figures.

Further, it needs to be remembered that by Mandal’s own admission, reproduced in the Mandal Commission report, state governments did not come up with the required information on educational and social profile of backward classes. He admits that the exercise done by the commission was not scientific or academic and would certainly not pass stringent criteria. If all this be true, how can the government calmly proceed with the Central Educational Institution Reservation in Admission Act in 2006 and reserve seats on a quota basis for OBCs. The ‘C’ now clearly stands for ‘Castes’.

It might be recalled that following the Indra Sawhney case in 1992, the Supreme Court ordered the setting up of a committee headed by Justice R.P. Prasad to look into the matter of the ‘creamy layer’ so as to exclude such people from benefiting from OBC reservations. It must be made clear that the creamy layer does not apply to SCs or STs. The Prasad Committee made a series of recommendations as to who the benefits cannot be extended to, regardless of their caste status. It kept in mind economic factors, position in the services categories as well as land owned. It is interesting that the government has overruled any consideration of the ‘creamy layer’ when it comes to OBC reservations. In other words, it does not matter for the UPA-led government how well-off or powerful a person or family may be as long as the caste is right. This is vote-bank politics with a vengeance.

Caste is used as a resource in perpetuity by the advocates of OBC reservation. The Ambedkar-led reservation policy for SCs and STs was motivated with the aim of rooting caste out of all public considerations in the county. In Mandal-type reservations, the aim is not to eliminate caste but to represent caste. This makes a great difference to how democracy is practised. It is, therefore, in the fitness of things that the Supreme Court raised the red flag of OBC quotas and the exacerbation of social differences.

Finally, let us ask the all-important question: why did the founders of the Constitution not favour the identification of OBCs with caste. The reason simply was that such straight correlations were not possible on a national scale. Some castes are powerful in villages but not in cities, some in one province and not in another. In addition, the fact that other than SCs, no other caste faced discrimination in terms of temple entry or drawing water from the village well or going to school, surely must have added as a disincentive for those framing our Constitution in looking beyond the SCs for fixing reservation-based quotas.

The truth is that OBCs, such as they are listed today, have never faced historical disprivileges. If they must be given reservations, then injustices and discriminatory practices against them have to be established. Failing this test, the rationale for OBC reservation crumbles and degenerates to a species of vote-bank politics.

Dipankar Gupta is Professor, Social Sciences, at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi