While there will be three major changes under the Modi government’s new OBC commission, it won’t transform how we approach caste-based inequalities.
At its national executive meet held recently in Bhubaneswar, the BJP passed a resolution to accord constitutional status to a new OBC commission. However, the announcement is ringed with irony and highlights the resilience of misconceptions about reservation. Before discussing the irony, it is important to assess the immediate implications of the decision and the intent behind it.
The Narendra Modi-led government proposes to replace the existing National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC), a statutory body, with a new constitutional body, tentatively named the National Commission for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (NCSEBC). Three major changes are likely to result from this relatively minor transition from statutory to constitutional status.
The first of these changes is that the proposed body will have the same legal status as the Scheduled Caste (SC) or Scheduled Tribe (ST) commissions. The SC/ST commissions have been accorded the status of civil courts, which means that they can take cognisance of the complaints and grievances of the members of the communities they represent and are empowered to initiate legal action to redress them. The current OBC commission does not have this right and the proposed change will remedy this lack and meet a longstanding demand of backward community leaders.
A second, rather more important, change is that with the grant of constitutional status to the NCSEBC, the power to revise the Central List of backward classes will be transferred from the central government to parliament.
A third likely change, on which constitutional experts will have the last word, is that state governments will no longer have the right to maintain and revise their own OBC lists, just as they are unable to affect the lists of SCs and STs.
Most media reports mention these changes and discuss the potential benefits they may bring to the BJP. The BJP will be able to claim credit for fulfilling a longstanding demand of the backward classes, that their commission be accorded the same status as the NCST or NCSC. An even bigger benefit is that the room for manoeuvre available to opposition parties will be severely curtailed.
So far, opposition parties have brazenly promoted movements demanding reservation like those of the Jat, Maratha or Patidar castes because this was a costless method of creating difficulties for the ruling party. Since the power to grant reservation rests with the central government, the anger of the agitators can easily be directed towards the party in power at the Centre. With the new Bill, the authority to grant reservation will rest with parliament – where opposition parties are also represented – thus deterring the irresponsible behaviour of opposition parties. Henceforth, opposition parties will also have to be seen to be playing a constructive role in resolving the complex issues raised by the clash of interests of the different castes and communities comprising the backward classes.
If this is all that is proposed, then the supporters of the initiative, most of whom are BJP leaders, seem to have the upper hand. Their main arguments, namely that the difference of status between the NCBC and the NCST/NCSC was an indefensible anomaly in need of correction and that transferring power to the parliament was a step forward since it might ensure that debates on such issues will be more comprehensive and transparent.
Moreover, P.S. Krishnan (the retired civil servant who served as the secretary of the Mandal Commission), a committed supporter of reservations for backward classes, has expressed the hope that the initiative to set up the NCSEBC will be used as an opportunity to enable the subdivision of quotas so that the emerging inequalities within castes comprising the backward classes can be addressed.
On the other hand, those who oppose this move or are suspicious of the government’s motives, are worried that the reform could go much further. Even if one ignores narrow and self-centred complaints (like those of some Yadav members of parliament that their quota will be slashed or abolished) there remain many unanswered questions. Though there is as yet no authoritative statement or reliable information on these questions, speculation of this sort cannot be confidently discounted given the BJP’s style of functioning and especially that of its pradhan sevak.
The primary issue is that of reform versus transformation. Does the new commission aim to fundamentally alter existing policies instead of merely improving upon them? Two possible changes have caused concern. First, will economic backwardness also be made a criterion for granting reservation in addition to the existing social and educational criteria? This leads directly to the second worry, that the new commission may be a ploy to extend reservation not only to dominant castes but to the so-called ‘upper’ castes. Clearly, such a step would not only make a mockery of the reservation policy but in fact turn it on its head. While such a move would certainly be both politically and ethically retrograde, it is possible that the BJP sees in it the opportunity to extend its support base into the backward and most backward castes without angering its traditional upper caste supporters.
It may be recalled that a similar suggestion was put forth by none other than RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat recently. Though some analysts believed that such remarks had cost the BJP dearly in the Bihar polls, the sweeping victory in Uttar Pradesh may have changed political equations.
Everyone knows that only a government that has a strong hold over power, has an undisputed strongman as its leader and is ideologically confident can withstand the pressure of powerful communities which are electorally, socially or economically significant. Despite the Modi-led government meeting all three criteria, its stand on the key issue of reservation is disappointing so far because its possible reformist agenda is mere formalism while its possible adventurous agenda is both absurd and regressive.
However, if reservation policy is at a dead end today and the problem of caste has got more rather than less entangled, the blame does not lie with the Modi government alone. It is a matter of historical record that the fundamental objective of reservation was to provide a real and concrete guarantee of equal citizenship rights to excluded sections of society. This was an unconditional commitment that had nothing to do with backwardness, poverty or illiteracy. The end was equal citizenship for all and eradication of caste discrimination, while reservation (and its particular method of a predetermined quota) was only the means, and one among many at that. From almost the very beginning of our republic, we have managed to completely forget this fundamental aspect of reservation and have come to think of it as a welfare programme, so much so that today we insist on confusing ends with means.
In the context of the 21st century, a policy like reservation is faced with many tough challenges. The neoliberal economic policy, which now dominates both the public as well as the private sectors, neither wants to create decent jobs nor is capable of doing so. Besides, some analysts believe that even if reservation is extended to the private sector, it will only account for 2-3% of all jobs. Such considerations are bound to undermine the relevance of reservations. There are several other reasons why reservation is no longer adequate for tackling caste discrimination and inequality. The time has come when we should be looking for options beyond and in addition to reservations, keeping in mind always that caste is primarily a social and political issue rather than an economic one.
The rising internal differentiation among all caste groups poses another kind of challenge. New methods are needed to deal with the deep and extensive disparities that exist among different Dalit, Adivasi and backward communities. On the other hand, there is dire need to curb the tendency to equate all kinds of caste reservations. The distinction between Dalits and Adivasis on the one hand and backward classes on the other needs to be maintained, as their social status continues to be significantly different. The language of backwardness flattens and erases the important distinctions between varied forms of discrimination and social exclusion. It is true that several backward castes also face discrimination and exclusion, and that most Dalit and Adivasi communities are indisputably backward, but there is a sea of difference in the mutual proportions of these disabilities.
Dealing with the deep-seated prejudices that are part of popular common sense poses the most serious and difficult challenge. The section of the urban middle class that is quite influential in shaping popular opinion is dominated by upper castes. These so-called “twice born” castes are of the firm and unshakeable opinion that caste is actually dead, but is being kept alive purely because of the media and electoral politics. From this perspective, the pervasive and decisive influence of caste on our society becomes invisible. Caste is only visible in the context of reservation and electoral tactics. In order to get rid of such longstanding prejudices, it is necessary to show the caste discrimination is an integral yet invisible part of normal social life and that policies like reservation are attempts to correct this bias.
What the government really wants to do with the proposed NCSEBC, only the honourable pradhan sewak would know. What we do know for certain is that caste discrimination cannot be tackled by merely renaming commissions.
Satish Deshpande teaches sociology at Delhi University. Views expressed are personal.
Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman. You can read the Hindi version of this article here.