Former Bihar CM Karpoori Thakur was among the pioneers of positive discrimination for social welfare, and the BJP seems to be following in his footsteps.
On Gandhi Jayanti, President Ram Nath Kovind appointed a new panel to examine the sub-categorisation of other backward classes (OBCs) for a “more equitable distribution” of quota benefits. Incidentally, the Union Cabinet had cleared this proposal only in August.
“Positive discrimination” measures have played a crucial role in subaltern empowerment in India. In the southern and western parts of the country, it was a byproduct of the anti-Brahmin movements of colonial times. Its impact resulted in a changed social profile of these states.
Unlike in these states, in the ‘Hindi heartland’ (especially Bihar), the trajectory of social empowerment charted a relatively different course. It was essentially the product of a “peasant movement”. In this backdrop, the role of socialist, communist, and Left-radical movements of various streams played a key role in subaltern empowerment.
Initially, “class issues” were more prominent than social ones. By 1977, a decisive shift had taken place in politics in the north, especially Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The assertion of what is called the “upper backwards” was in full play, immediately after Emergency and in the parliamentary polls of 1977.
In Bihar, Karpoori Thakur, a powerful leader of the socialist movement, not only advocated for class agenda, but equally, emphasised social deprivation as propounded by Ram Manohar Lohia. Even though he came from a minuscule lower backward social base, he got elected as chief minister, defeating a powerful upper caste leader, Satyendra Narayan Singh.
Thakur emerged as an all-encompassing leader of the backward constituency, but he anticipated a larger-than-life influence of “upper backwards”, not only in the electoral realm, but also in bureaucracy. At least, he wanted to ensure that extreme backwards entered local bureaucracy, which he thought could be a final shot in their arm.
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So he introduced the Mungeri Lal Commission, which submitted its report after six years in 1977. It recommended that OBCs be divided between two categories: extremely backward classes (EBCs) – which included weaker sections of Muslims, like Ansaris and Rayins, and backward classes.
Even before that, Bihar wasn’t a stranger to the idea of “sub-categorisation for positive discrimination”. Way back in 1951, with the purpose of distributing scholarships to students, the first Chief Minister of Bihar, Sri Krishna Singh had created two lists that became popular as Annexure-I (EBCs) and Annexure-II (OBCs).
It wasn’t just Karpoori Thakur who systematically cultivated this social constituency, Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar did too. For the first time in the 1991 parliamentary polls, and later, in the 1995 Bihar assembly polls, Lalu co-opted EBC candidates by giving them tickets. However, it was Nitish who institutionalised this co-option, by giving them 20 per cent quota in panchayat polls.
Given the full attention these three leaders paid to this constituency, their social and political empowerment is absolutely unprecedented.
Nitish Kumar extended this sub-categorisation idea to the Dalit social constituency as well. Not only was the literacy level poor amongst the Dalit groups, educational attainment too tended to diverge.
The Musahar caste’s social condition was the most dismal among the Dalits. They provided the bulwark for the radical movement in the state.
The government in Bihar later notified a subset of the Dalits as ‘Mahadalits’ – the most oppressed. They initially constituted 69 per cent of the Dalit population. The government in Bihar rolled out several initiatives, keeping their needs in mind.
Sub-categorisation of Dalits was not limited to Bihar. In Punjab, 50 per cent of jobs were reserved for Balmikis and Mazhabi Sikhs as far back in 1975. In Haryana, almost 20 years later, in 1994, “positive discrimination” of 50 per cent in recruitment was introduced for Chamars, Rahgars and similar castes.
The proposed “positive discrimination” in favour of lower backwards by the Union government, whose contours are not very clear, is essentially a variant of the Karpoori formula. No doubt, these strategies played a decisive role in their subaltern and electoral empowerment. But, in the backdrop of the current stagnation in employment generation, “positive discrimination” remains a mere “opium” being churned out by governments for electoral dividend.
Once upon a time, when the state was at the “commanding height” in matters of the economy and thus in the employment sector, “positive discrimination” held substantive logic. But this agenda has remained an electoral carrot, and is not necessary for subaltern empowerment. Nevertheless, the agenda of “positive discrimination” is still the axis around which social mobilisation takes place.
The BJP has already followed an unprecedented strategy in Uttar Pradesh by co-opting the EBCs – both in the 2014 parliamentary and 2017 assembly polls. The present strategy of “positive discrimination” by the Union government will just be the icing on the cake.
Shaibal Gupta is Member Secretary, Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI) in Patna
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