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Milking Backwardness?

If the creamy layer has to be kept out, it is important to shred the Mandal report down to its tailpiece, writes Dipankar Gupta.

india Updated: Aug 28, 2006 06:43 IST

The big lie is that backward castes have been persecuted and marginalised through history by the upper castes and treated akin to the untouchables. The Mandal Commission has leveraged this lie to its advantage to benefit precisely those castes that are economically and socially among the prosperous in rural India. But what most people do not realise is that behind this big lie, there is a big truth that is grim and tragic. What is kept from view is the unpleasant fact that it is the backward castes who were, and continue to be, the worst perpetrators of caste atrocities in rural India. When a big lie conceals a big truth, it is like marrying off a woman in purdah.

For nearly a hundred years, Scheduled Caste activists have petitioned authorities to protect them from these so-called 'backwards'. Swami Achyutanand's plea to the British in the late Twenties in this regard is particularly poignant. Ironically, even the Mandal Commission openly admits this, and also mentions castes like the Yadavs and Kurmis who are particularly notorious in this regard. We can add many more like the Jats, the Thevars, the Goundas, the Okkaligas, the Gujars, and the list can go on.

But the Mandal Commission, from the beginning, was designed to purposefully advance the interests of this band of castes who are among the economically and socially advanced sections in rural India. This can be gauged from the fact that in determining backwardness, the Mandal report gives least weight to economic criteria and the most to intangible social criteria that even reward a caste for breaking the law and marrying their children before the legal age.

Therefore, if the creamy layer has to be kept out, it is important to shred the Mandal report down to its tailpiece. The methodology this commission designed to determine backwardness was made to order to protect the telltale bulges of the rich. Why else should each of the categories under economic backwardness, such as extent of indebtedness and quality of dwelling, receive only one point each? These are objective and verifiable characteristics that address the essence of backwardness. Yet, it is the fuzzy social categories that are hard to pin down that get the maximum of three points on each count.

Against this background, it is not surprising that the backward caste reservationists have no intention of keeping the creamy layer out. To do so would be to undermine the raison d'etre of their mobilisation in favour of the Mandal recommendations. The Left parties have been fooling themselves all along because they have not taken a hard look at Mandal's formulation and naively assume that it is possible in the real world to have the cake and eat it too in equal slices. Parliamentarians of the CPI and the CPI (M) should realise that if the creamy layer is not in, then the RJD, for example, which is an alliance partner in the UPA, is certainly going to opt out. Anyone who thinks that the Mandal recommendations can be adopted by keeping out the creamy layer is whistling for the moon.

Imagine, Lalu Yadav or Sadhu Yadav or the Jat leaders of west UP going along with the RN Prasad Expert Committee that was set up to determine the creamy layer. According to this panel, even MLAs and MPs belong to this category. To accept the exclusion of the creamy layer would be clearly suicidal for OBC activists as they are in the thick of politics. How can anybody believe that the OBC protagonists would ever agree to such a debilitating clause that kills their future prospects? Besides MLAs and other elected representatives, the Prasad Committee also includes in the creamy layer Grade A and B Class I and Class II officers in the government and those holding equivalent positions in other public and private sector undertakings. If OBC reservationists are aiming for jobs in the private sector and seats in IIMs and IITs, it is precisely because they want to belong to the creamy layer and butter their way to the top.

When some well-meaning judges, academics and Left-leaning activists believe that it is possible to uphold OBC reservation and keep out the creamy layer, they are obviously thinking with their hands in their pockets. Such idle musings can only be excused for these urban dwellers, but only just. The village is not a distal another world any longer - it is just there beyond the last traffic light. A closer look reveals the village bang in the middle of urban India, for migrants from a thousand mud huts have made the cities their messy homes. It does not then take long to familiarise oneself with the realities of the village and one's surroundings, but it is so much easier to follow the current of political correctness. It must also be said for the record that politicians are perhaps the least in touch with village India, not even the Yadavs and the Gujars, whose looks falsely give the impression of rustic authenticity.

I have on various occasions interacted with OBC politicians who represent rural India and have found them to be invariably members of the creamy layer as defined by the expert Prasad Committee. They easily earn more than Rs 2.5 lakh per annum and when they are not themselves substantial landowners, they have children, or other family members, in the armed forces, trade and in the professions - all of which officially belong to the 'creamy layer'.

But the point that needs to be underscored is that invariably, they know very little of the village they come from, but know more about their own class interests. Their knowledge of what is going on in Scheduled Caste hamlets is next to non-existent as is their awareness of distress migration starting from where the shadows of their dwellings end. Yet, it is these people from the creamy layer of the backward castes whose opinions are said to reflect the reality of the village.

The only way the creamy layer injunction can be upheld is if backward classes are not determined by Mandal standards. This would mean that castes should not be the digital units of backwardness, for then that would create logical difficulties. No caste, not even the so-called forward castes (another mangled term), is uniformly backward. True, only 2 per cent of backwards from village schools graduate but then the forward castes are just about 4 per cent better off. In which case, 94 per cent of non-backwards are actually living out a backward life.

Let us remember in conclusion that the founding figures of the Constitution very self-consciously kept caste out of any calculation of backwardness. The judges of the Indra Sawhney case took the easy non-constitutional route by saying that if backwardness has to be determined, it is best to begin with caste. If judges can be culpable to constitutional impropriety, why blame the politicians alone. The creamy layer is here to rule and Mandal recommendations were designed for just that.

The writer is Professor of Social Science at Jawaharlal Nehru
University, New Delhi

First Published: Aug 28, 2006 06:43 IST