When reservations were initiated by the Maharajah of Mysore in the early 20th century, he and his subjects would have had no idea that this would lead to major problems in later years.
Decades later, many members of the Constituent Assembly could not understand why backward castes were termed as "backward classes". How could castes be classes? And what were scheduled castes/tribes? What were these schedules?
Of course, as we know now, the schedules were the tabulation of the castes and tribes considered the most backward and depressed by the British Raj. The OBCs or other backward castes were also backward but not as backward as the SCs/STs.
For quite a while this classification lasted as the Kaka Kalelkar Commission did not expand the list of classified backward castes and tribes.
The Mandal Commission, which had been suppressed, was resurrected by Prime Minister VP Singh in 1990. Then there was a political storm. Some upper caste youth burned themselves to death. Many, especially from the upper castes, wanted the genie put back into the bottle.
The anger ruled the streets for months. The Supreme Court decided that the more affluent OBCs would belong to the "creamy layer" and would not be eligible for reservations. This Constitution Bench had only one backward class judge, Justice Pandian, who dissented and pointed out that the Constitution only referred to "socially and educationally backward classes."
There was no reference anywhere to any economic criterion. Any student of caste knows that backward classes are socially backward, and this leads to educational backwardness.
A rich Dalit or Adivasi retains her rights as most backward. Then why this revisionist judicial decision? Because the judges were influenced by the redoubtable lawyer Fali Nariman who persuasively argued this unconstitutional argument.
|The Jat quota stir saw a lot of violence. (Photo credit: PTI)|
The genie was out of the bottle. In the 1970s, in Gujarat, the Patidars strove to get Rajput status which was socially more respected. They gave up this venture in 1980.
For the last few years they have done a volte face, and have lobbied for OBC status so they can get reservations in public sector jobs and educational institutions. Similarly, the Jats in Haryana have rioted in support of OBC status. Now the Marathas in Maharashtra are marching for OBC status, with an additional demand that the SC/ST Atrocities Act be amended so the Dalits and Adivasis do not get as much protection from the upper castes.
With unemployment rising, low creation of new jobs and higher inflation looming, the openings to jobs in the public sector is a highly popular illusion. With neoliberal economics holding sway, PSUs are being systematically being slowly privatised.
These means jobs in the public sector would consistently diminish, denying the backward classes access to them. In the current socio-political environment, private sector openings are also declining.
So what now? Firstly, reservations are a product of long term social and educational backwardness. It is a callous demand by the Jats, Patidars and Marathas to use forcible tactics to wrench concessions from the state, to which they are not entitled, at the cost of genuine claimants.
But several measures that BP Mandal advocated, such as free hostels for the backwards, as well as training in skills which would empower them in the job market, have not been taken up adequately.
The spurious "creamy layer" concept must be withdrawn. The Supreme Court has moved away from some earlier decisions in the past. It must overturn this one at the earliest.
Because of the mishandling of social empowerment schemes, only the basic skeleton of the Mandal Commission is now left. It would be supercilious to write off Mandal. Instead, such measures that have been recommended in the past, should be strengthened and widespread to diminish caste inequalities in Indian society.
This is essential for establishing an egalitarian and forward looking India. But this effort should be based on constitutional measures and be more substantially funded than is the case now.