Wednesday, February 1, 2023
HomeOpinionGoodbye, General Category. EWS quota ends savarna’s long-enjoyed casteless identity

Goodbye, General Category. EWS quota ends savarna’s long-enjoyed casteless identity

10% quota in government jobs and educational institutions is not an inclusive affirmative action policy but will exclusively benefit the so-called 'General Category'.

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The emergence of EWS or the Economically Weaker Section has brought a major shift in the caste discourse in India. The widely popular term ‘General Category’ is now in the past. With the Supreme Court upholding the validity of the 103rd Constitutional Amendment granting 10 percent reservation to upper castes, every social group in India now falls under the ambit of the quota policy and the politics related to it. Nobody can now say they don’t have a caste. The much-cherished, but hollowed, claim of castelessness enjoyed by the savarnas doesn’t exist anymore.

For long, caste and identity politics was disparagingly used only for the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and the Other Backward Classes. The savarnas enjoyed the invisibility in caste discourse because of the ‘General Category’ tag. Not only would they look down upon the quota beneficiaries, but they also held a moral high ground by propagating a false notion of ‘merit’. According to them, reservation is the opposite of merit. Clearly, they won’t make such claims now.

While it would be futile to expect savarnas to understand and acknowledge the social capital they enjoy because of the ‘forwardness’ of their caste in the hierarchical system, accepting the EWS quota takes away all their anti-reservation arguments. More so because the amount of quota awarded to them — 10 percent — is a lot more than their share in India’s population, which also means they would be getting more than they deserve, proportion-wise.

Another aspect that disarms their anti-quota rhetoric is the deceptiveness of the term EWS. It sounds like this category is meant for poor people but the Union government definition clearly disproves that as well. In lawbooks and in the Constitution, EWS is defined as “all those who are not covered under the existing scheme of reservations for the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes.” This legal definition makes EWS exclusionary. Being poor is not sufficient to get an EWS certificate. One has to be not currently covered by the quota system. It’s not like a BPL (below poverty line) card or the inclusive affirmative action policy currently in place for SC, ST, OBC or Physically Challenged categories.


Also read: Why upper castes polish shoes or sweep roads when protesting quota for Dalits and OBCs


Savarnas’ idea of generalness

Caste as a social fact and also as a social system is meant to benefit the higher-ups in the caste ladder more. Despite being the beneficiary of the caste system, the higher castes have always tried to skirt their caste identity. As and when they own it or flaunt it, it’s always to exert dominance or pride. But whenever there is a discussion on caste politics, it is essentially a discussion of OBC or Dalit caste politics, whether it’s coming from people on the street to media professionals to academicians.

The term ‘identity politics’ was and still is associated with lower and middle caste assertions. The Brahmin, Baniya and Thakur leaders aren’t leaders of their caste groups. They are ‘General Category’ leaders whose caste isn’t a matter of discussion. It’s no wonder that M.K. Gandhi is known as the “Father of the Nation” whereas Dr BR Ambedkar is relegated to being the “Saviour of Dalits.” When academics study caste issues, their gaze is mostly on Dalits. Indian sociologists conduct studies called Dalit and Tribal Studies as if forward castes don’t require any scrutiny. Any attempt by upper caste ‘reformers’ to eradicate caste happens by turning their gaze on the lower rung of society. Reformers have never tried to reform the upper castes who are the fountainhead of the caste structure and the discriminatory practices. It is also true that upper castes’ attempt to challenge caste hierarchy and any form of discrimination is celebrated as reformative, but the same attempt by oppressed castes are treated as indulging in caste politics.

Sociologist Satish Deshpande sees these as the after-effects of social justice policies of the governments. “As a modern republic, India felt duty-bound to “abolish” caste, and this led the State to pursue the conflicting policies of social justice and caste-blindness. As a consequence, the privileged upper castes are enabled to think of themselves as “casteless”, while the disprivileged lower castes are forced to intensify their caste identities. This asymmetrical division has truncated the effective meaning of caste to lower caste, thus leaving the upper castes free to monopolise the “general category” by posing as casteless citizens,” he argued.

This invisibilisation of upper castes was similar to the invisibilisation of whites in the race discourse and of men in the gender discourse.

In the pre-Mandal Commission era, it was easier for the upper castes to hide behind the General Category. As most of the population was outside the purview of affirmative action, and many of the northern states were yet to implement OBC quota, the gaze was on the SC and ST. They were seen as a caste/social group taking benefits of government policies. As “Others” or “General” was not listed as beneficiaries of the affirmative action policies, it was easy for them to assume castelessness, which itself was a privilege and meant placing oneself higher up in the social hierarchy.

Then came the Mandal Commission and it became slightly difficult for the upper castes to invisibilise themselves because the binary of reserved and unreserved emerged. But not being the beneficiary of quota policies was the “saving grace” for the upper castes. The asymmetrical division of quota beneficiaries and the non-beneficiary allowed the upper castes to make claims like “we don’t believe in caste” or “we don’t have a caste.”

The idea of castelessness was also associated with the notion of merit. The whole paradigm of social justice and affirmative action was seen as a system in which the upper castes (or General Category) people did the work of nation-building whereas the quota category people got the benefits of the dole offered by the governments.


Also read: Ramana’s collegium didn’t diversify judiciary. Data shows most judges are upper-caste Hindus


The veneer of castelessness is now gone

EWS quota demarcation potentially changes where the upper castes were placed in the caste discourse. Or the way they used to see themselves as caste-blind “normal” citizens. The EWS quota has fixed them in a new identity. The BJP-led Union government’s EWS quota, brought just before the 2019 Lok Sabha election, clearly indicated that the upper castes have emerged as a voting bloc.

Now, no one can say that identity politics is only about lower and middle-caste politics. The upper caste voters are such a strong bloc that, barring DMK, no political party is legally opposing the EWS quota. Fearing backlash, no political party from north India impleaded itself in the EWS case in the Supreme Court. With the EWS quota, political encashment of caste is no more a Dalit or OBC thing. The upper castes can also be wooed and cajoled. Their caste is now an overt thing.

As a social group, the ‘upper caste’ is an emerging phenomenon in matrimonial columns as well. More and more advertisements seeking marriage alliances from upper castes are visible in newspapers and websites. Requirements like “Any Upper Caste will do” and “Upper Caste No bar” in matrimonial advertisements clearly denote that a new social group has arrived. The EWS quota is going to ossify the identity of the upper caste.

Lastly, no one should make jokes and memes on reservation anymore. Every caste is now a quota beneficiary! Read this brilliant article by Arvind Kumar on the de-stigmatisation of caste reservation in India.

Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine and has authored books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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