Affirmative action, in simple terms, is all about representation and enabling access for people or communities who were/are historically unrepresented and to remedy the historical injustice inflicted by the dominant socio-economic and political castes on Dalits, Adivasis, women and backward communities. In post-Independence India, the Constitution promises and guarantees reservation in public educational institutions under Articles 15 (4), (5) and (6), and in government services and jobs under Articles 16 (4) and (6), and in the legislatures (Parliament and state legislatures) under Article 334. Earlier, reservation was provided only on the basis of social and educational backwardness of community or (caste). However, after the 103rd Constitutional Amendment in 2019, reservation was extended to economically weaker sections. The major objectives of reservation for Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs are not only to reserve jobs in public services but also to empower them and ensure their participation in the decision-making processes of the state.
However, recent data shows that, despite the reservation policy, the quotas are not requisitely filled, leading to under-representation of already disadvantaged and marginalized social groups of SCs, STs and especially OBCs in the higher echelons of government services and most of its institutions. The Department of Personnel and Training in 2018 under the Right to Information Act revealed that in the forty central universities, OBC reservation is only applicable up to the level of assistant professor and its share is almost half (14.38 per cent) of their 27 per cent legal entitlement.
Significantly, the number of professors and associate professors in central universities appointed under OBC reservation is 0 per cent. In the IITs and IIMs, out of the total 9640 sanctioned faculty strength, the representation of SCs, STs and OBCs altogether make up just 9 per cent of the total faculty in IITs and 6 per cent of the total faculty in IIMs. As per data received from seventy- eight ministries and departments, including their attached and subordinate offices, the representation of SCs, STs and OBCs in posts and services of the central government as on 1 January 2016 was 17.49 per cent, 8.47 per cent and 21.57 per cent respectively.
This grave violation of the reservation policy demands serious introspection as to why, despite constitutional guarantees, the representation of SCs, STs and OBCs is skewed in educational institutions and government jobs. This reflects not only caste prejudices, but also the unwillingness of dominant castes to give up their inherited privileges, often expressed through deceptive notions of merit and efficiency.
We need to find new modalities of implementing reservation and removing the institutional discrimination that includes the lack of support to weak students and ascribing insinuations to their capability, which has restricted their participation in public spaces. More so, what is needed is to ensure that reservation is only one part of the move towards an egalitarian society. However, we need to constantly keep asking the fundamental question about what needs to be done after reservation. We need to provide an institutional and societal support system so that the benefits of reservation are equally availed of by all who are entitled.
Affirmative action is important to uplift backward classes not only economically and socially, but also politically.
Sadly, all dominant backward classes see the benefit of reservation but fail to understand its objective. They have land, resources and opportunities and are not looked down upon. Their economic affluence has provided them with respect in society, whereas the classes which have been kept away from resources should get the first claim over them and the opportunities ensured by the government.
Till recently, holding land meant economic and social hegemonic dominant castes did not ask for anything. But now, when education and jobs have become important, they have started demanding reservation. For instance, the Patidars of Gujarat demand that either they be given reservation or reservation should be scrapped entirely. This reflects an inadequate understanding of the mechanisms of social justice even within the upper Shudra community.
Lessons from the legacy of socialist politics
The 2019 Lok Sabha election was a classic case of Mandal vs Kamandal politics fought in the most fertile grounds for ‘backward class’ consolidation in north India. The BJP, under the leadership of Narendra Modi, has precipitated an existential crisis for the socialist vision of Lohia. The SP, the BSP and the RJD were supposed to work with that vision but did not. The appeal of these parties for social justice to Dalits, OBCs and Muslims, fuelled by the twin engines of reservation and safeguards, failed in the face of the BJP’s strong cultural, Hindu nationalistic and caste-centred politics. As the results in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar show, the RJD, SP and BSP failed to stitch together the basic social coalition of OBCs, Dalits and Muslims, which was considered their home constituency and which had powered their surge in the Hindi heartland under Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav as well as Kanshiram–Mayawati. Over time, the umbrella of OBC and Dalit outfits ceded chunks of their traditional vote banks to the BJP.
Secondly, Shudras/OBCs, even after forming the government in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, could not challenge the tenets of Hinduism where their spiritual equality is not established. Caste association did take place in the early days, but they functioned around the logic of Sanskritization. They never challenged Brahminism and pure vegetarianism. The caste federation that could unify all Shudras was absent within the Shudras in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Moreover, the caste ‘associations served as a vehicle for Sanskritisation’, as argued by Jaffrelot. The RJD in Bihar and the SP in Uttar Pradesh did appeal to the conscience of Dalits, Muslims, OBCs and Adivasis but the process was visible merely in the course of vote-bank politics. As a result, the battle that the former socialist leaders won was limited to the political sphere. The social sphere was kept Brahminic. The social structure played an important role in keeping caste alive and functional.
Shudras, instead of challenging the social hierarchy, tried to achieve upward mobility by imitating Brahmins. The concept of purity was deeply embedded within Shudras in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Therefore, in these states, instead of tearing the janeu, Shudras asked for janeus to make themselves equivalent to Brahmins and Kshatriyas. This was visible in the janeu andolan or janeu movement in Bihar. But they could not become equals. The failure of socialist parties in questioning the social hierarchy created space for right-wing political parties to gain through faith and religion.
Thirdly, the politics of subcategorization within Shudras and the failure of the RJD and the SP to capture the political aspiration of the lower section within OBCs paved the way for mistrust within the community. It was mainly Brahmins, Rajputs, Kayasthas and Bhumihars who lost political power, and the Yadavs and Kurmis were the major beneficiaries among Shudras. The domination of Yadavs in Bihar politics was challenged by a different type of social engineering by the Nitish Kumar–led JD(U), by categorizing Shudras and OBCs into Extremely Backward Caste (EBC), Backward Caste (BC-I) and Backward Caste (BC-II). However, nobody addressed the unequal education system. The bureaucratic and intellectual power remained in the hands of Brahmins, Kayasthas and Bhoomihars.
Lastly, the Mandal Commission played the unifying factor for all OBC communities, as the aspiration of different castes among OBCs was nearly the same. But Dalits and OBCs were never united. Untouchability was not seriously addressed. Post-Mandal politics abandoned all other egalitarian agendas. In regional parties, new cadres are neither being promoted nor are they given key responsibilities.
Strategising for the future
The caste federation within the lower castes is invisible at the current juncture in Indian politics. In north India, the first attempt to unite backward castes was in Bihar in 1930, during the Triveni Sangh, named after the rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati, between the Yadavs, Kurmis and Koeris. To counter these forces, the Congress formed the Backward Class Federation in 1935. Later on, not much discourse around caste took place. Since Shudras/OBCs did not produce sophisticated English- educated intellectuals, the discourse was only around political power and land. This has its limitations. The RSS–BJP used this Hindi–Sanskrit base in its favour.
But at the current juncture, it is disheartening to see that the RJD, SP, BSP and JD(U) have shown their serious limitations. These parties have moved away from the larger anti-RSS–BJP agenda and kept themselves engaged in a cockfight. Leaders like Lohia, Karpoori Thakur, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Charan Singh, Kanshiram and others created their own spaces and had their own narratives. The context in which their politics operated is different from the one that exists today. Moreover, the past three decades of Shudra/Bahujan politics has been governed on the lines drawn during the Mandal agitation. Now they need a new strategy.
Despite the rule of regional parties in the post-Mandal era, the state machinery at the national and regional levels remained Brahminic. It constantly created and took advantage of rifts between minorities and Hindus. Also, the tensions between Dalits and Shudras were politically encashed by casteist forces. The only way out is for all secular parties and forces, including the Congress and regional parties headed by Shudras/OBCs/Dalits/Adivasis, to form a broad national coalition to defeat the RSS–BJP and save the secular Constitution and democracy.
This excerpt from The Shudras: Vision For A New Path has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.