How Mandal changed, and did not change, India
On August 7, 1990, the then prime minister, VP Singh, made a historic announcement in Parliament. Singh declared before both Houses that Other Backward Classes (OBCs) would get 27% reservation in jobs in central government services and public sector units.
By giving reservation to OBCs in employment, Singh was fulfilling only one half of the first recommendation of the Mandal Commission. The Mandal Commission was set up on January 1, 1979, under the chairmanship of BP Mandal. It submitted its report on December 31, 1980. The second half of the Commission’s recommendation was the reservation for OBCs in central educational institutions. The OBCs had to wait till 2006 for this.
The Mandal Commission had also recommended land redistribution and change in relations of production. It said in its report, “Reservations in government employment and educational institutions, as also all financial assistance will remain mere palliatives unless the problem of backwardness is tackled at its root. Bulk of the small landholders, tenants, agricultural labour, impoverished village artisans, unskilled workers, etc, belong to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes.”
The Commission further commented, “It is the Commission’s firm conviction that a radical transformation of the existing production relations is the most important single step that can be taken for the welfare and upliftment of all backward classes. Even if this is not possible in the industrial sector for various reasons, in the agricultural sector a change of this nature is both feasible and overdue.”
No Union government has taken any substantial steps to bring about the structural change that was advocated by the Mandal Commission. We are moving in the opposite direction. Even though OBCs have got 27% reservation in employment and education, implementation remains inadequate. Agriculture, the backbone of the rural economy, has become economically unviable. Industrial capital remains firmly in the hands of the upper castes.
Last month, the central government admitted in the Madras High Court (HC) that OBCs were not given reservation in the All India quota of medical seats in courses such as the Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery and Bachelor of Dental Surgery since 1986. This will hopefully change from next year as the HC has given clear directions to set up a committee to look into this issue. But one wonders how many such other cases exist in which OBC reservation is not being implemented just because no one has noticed yet.
The Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), for example, do not offer reservation in teaching posts and have no intention of doing so in the future. These 20 IIMs had requested the Union government to include them in the Institutions of Excellence category, which would exempt them from the implementation of reservation in faculty positions.
The data collected by scholars Christophe Jaffrelot and Kalaiyarasan A shows that OBCs occupied only 8.37% posts in the Class A of central government services and only 10.01% of the Class B posts. These figures demonstrate the severe under-representation of the communities that make up more than half of India’s population.
The history of reservation for the backward castes goes back to 1902 when Shahu Maharaj, the ruler of the princely state of Kolhapur, reserved 50% jobs for backward castes (all communities except forward groups such as Brahmins, Prabhus, Shenvis and Parsis).
When India’s Constitution came into force in 1950, the question of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes was already settled. But what is meant by backward classes and who should be included in this category were questions that remained mired in controversy for decades. The Jawaharlal Nehru government set up a backward classes commission in 1953, which drew up a list of 2,399 communities listing them as backward. But the government did not act on this report.
The Nehru dispensation was largely hostile to the idea of accepting caste as the basis for defining backward classes. This view was shared by the upper caste-dominated media and academia too, which would have preferred “secular” criteria such as income, literacy, or occupation. The belief that acknowledging ascriptive units such as caste would make them firmer in the minds of people was held by many. (The secularists have finally won with the institution of quotas for “economically weaker sections”, which makes income a criterion for backwardness.)
Due to the government’s inertia, the OBC category could not gain any meaningful traction nationally until August 7, 1990. Retrospectively speaking, the four lost decades did immense harm to OBCs. They remain severely under-represented in government jobs and the corridors of power, and, after the promising start of the 1990s, their political representation, too, has weakened. Hopefully, the 30th anniversary of the Mandal moment will give a new fillip to their politics.