by Shahid Alam (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 44, No. 10, Safar, 1437)
In deeply class-conscious society like India where everyone tries to project himself as being “superior” to others, a curious phenomenon is underway. Hundreds of millions of Hindus are clamoring to be granted “backward class” status. This is no joke. The reason is purely economic: seekers of the lower class status want to be included among those who get preferential treatment for the fiercely contested university placements as well as government jobs.
Hitherto muttered softly, objections to the preferential treatment erupted in full fury last August when the powerful Patel community in Gujarat state (home of Prime Minister Narendra Modi) protested against the policy that has been in place since 1950. They demanded that the Patel community also be given preferential treatment as they have lagged behind others since this program was introduced. The Patels’ claim is not borne out by reality: as merchants, they are far better off economically than most people in Gujarat state or indeed elsewhere in India.
The reserved quota scheme was given legal cover in the Indian constitution soon after partition. The aim was to take credible affirmative action to uplift those who had for centuries been crushed by the cruel caste system. The affirmative action program initially included people designated as “schedule castes” and “schedule tribes.” At the bottom of the caste pyramid, these people had little or no prospect of ever getting out of the miserable state into which they were born. The program aimed to not only guarantee equality of opportunity but also specified outcomes such as reserved places in educational institutions, government jobs, and seats in state assemblies as well as the Indian parliament.
While greatly resented by other castes — because they were left out of the scheme they viewed as favoritism toward the lower castes that they had suppressed and exploited as part of their way of life — and due to competition for scarce jobs, opposition to it turned violent in 1990. More than 10 years earlier (1979), Janata Party Prime Minister Morarji Desai had established a Commission of Inquiry headed by the parliamentarian B.P. Mandal to study how the affirmative action program could be improved. The commission’s mandate was to examine social, economic and educational indicators of various castes to determine their status in society.
The Mandal Commission report recommended that the affirmative action program not only be maintained but extended to “Other Backward Classes” (OBCs) as well. It discovered that 54% of the population was “backward.” It took another decade before the central government then headed by another Janata Dal Prime Minister V.P. Singh decided to accept the recommendations to extend allocation of reserved seats in education as well as government to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Being designated ‘“backward” became a ticket to a guaranteed job even if not a license to riches!
Welcome to India, the world’s self-proclaimed largest democracy. Instead of clamping down on caste racism, the government found a way to get around it hoping that once people were lifted out of poverty they would be socially accepted by the “upper-caste” Hindus. Despite decades of such affirmative action, caste racism remains deeply entrenched and there is little upward social mobility for people belonging to the lower castes. One indicator of this is that there are few cross-caste marriages, for instance. These are not only deeply resented but those trying to cross the caste barrier are often killed.
When the V.P. Singh government extended the affirmative action net in 1989 to include Other Backward Classes, riots erupted across India. The following year (1990) there were widespread protests, strikes, and even self-immolations by a number of students. Singh had some decency; he resigned. India’s current Prime Minister Modi has a much thicker skin. He refuses to resign despite massive protests in his home state of Gujarat in August and the drubbing his party got in the Bihar state elections whose results were announced on November 8.
Though the Gujarat protests may outwardly have been about getting acceptance in the affirmative action program, its much broader objective was to abolish this system altogether. A little bit of detour into history is necessary to understand India’s social stratification.
The caste system has pre-modern origins. It consists of two different concepts: varna and jati. Varna may be translated as “class” and refers to the four social classes in the caste pyramid: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. There is a fifth class of people referred to as Dalits and originally considered “untouchables” because they are not only thought of as being of lower social status but also “unclean.”
Caste stratification is based on occupation. The Brahmins are the priestly class and sit at the top of the caste pyramid. Kshatriyas were rulers and administrators; Vaishyas were traditionally farmers, merchants, artisans and tradesmen while Shudras brought up the rear and belonged to the labor class. The fifth class, excluded from this traditional stratification, is that of Dalits and considered so unclean as to be untouchable. They are forced to do the most dirty work like cleaning toilets and sweeping streets in India.
There are 595 million people in India without access to toilets (UN figures). Those sho have toilets in their homes often use very primitive structures. They are little more than a raised platform inside an enclosure. People defecate between them and this human excreta is cleaned by Dalits. Hundreds of thousands of Dalit families are forced into this degrading work and have continued to do so for generations.
It was this realization by B.R. Ambedkar, himself of Dalit origins who converted to Buddhism in 1937, and became India’s first Law Minister to propose the affirmative action scheme. He drafted India’s constitution and incorporated reserved quotas in jobs and education for the “backward classes.” It was a progressive step and meant to give the oppressed people some chance of breaking out of extreme poverty and caste-based discrimination.
The hope was that people would gradually grow out of caste discrimination as people from the lower castes made their way up the economic ladder. At least this is what India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had hoped for but caste consciousness has not withered away. It has become more entrenched.
Despite his Western education, Nehru was not about to give up his caste prejudices. Belonging to the Brahmin caste, he rejected Ambedkar’s suggestion to set an example by breaking down caste barriers. Ambedkar had asked him to get his daughter Indira and later his grandchildren Rajiv and Sanjay married into lower castes. Nehru contemptuously dismissed the idea.
Even before Nehru, Karamchand Gandhi (erroneously called “Mahatma” — meaning holy man) had launched a campaign against separate reserved assembly seats for the lower castes in order to raise their status in society. It was the British that had suggested this in 1937 but Gandhi vehemently opposed the idea and even went to jail for it.
While Gandhi described the “untouchables” as Harijans (meaning children of God), he was not prepared to allow them to rise up within the political system. Gandhi was from the third rung of the caste pyramid — Vaishya — and barely above the Shudras and Dalits but he could not stomach their success. His argument was that this would divide Hindus.
There were two problems with this argument. First, Hindus were already divided along caste lines. Second, Hindus did not and still do not consider Dalits to be part of Hinduism. So why hit a tantrum about separate electoral rolls and seats for them in the assemblies? Gandhi’s Hindu chauvinism was at work. He could foresee that if the Dalits went their separate ways, Hindus would lose politically because they were in stiff competition with Muslims. For the sake of Hindu political power, this self-proclaimed holy man — fraud in reality — wanted the Dalits to pay the price.
The entire caste debate has now assumed farcical proportions even if Dalits continue to pay a steep price for being branded as untouchables. There is no uniform application of the affirmative action program across states. In some states, such as Tamil Nadu, 69% of educational positions and government jobs are reserved for the “schedule” and “other backward classes.”
The program has proved so attractive that even Brahmins are clamoring to be classified as backward. They are forging certificates to claim they belong to one of the backward classes. An entire cottage industry has sprung up issuing fake certificates to Brahmins to declare them Dalits. Brahmins want to have it both ways: socially, they call themselves Brahmins and enjoy upper caste status while economically they want to be classified as Dalits so that they could get a share of the reserved jobs.
Backwardness, thy name is India!