Changing the debate
The phenomenal rise of Hardik Patel in Indian politics poses some rather uncomfortable questions on the nature of the affirmative action in India. Unlike their counterparts in the Schedule Caste or Schedule Tribe, it is the claims of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) since the 1980s that has generated much controversy and political capital for certain regional political parties. The very concept of Other Backward Class, constituted by the Mandal Commission in the 1980s and brought into force by former Prime Minister VP Singh, remains in the throes of ambiguity. For the uninitiated, Other Backward Class (OBC) is a collective term used by the Indian government to classify caste communities that are socially and educationally disadvantaged.
In a judgment, which laid down new norms for identification of backward classes for benefits of reservation, the Supreme Court held that “social groups that would be most deserving must necessarily be a matter of continuous evolution”. Moreover, the principle of affirmative action under the Constitution obligated the state “to reach out to the most deserving” class, which in today’s context may have included the transgender community. The court’s position was in response to the previous UPA government’s decision to include Jats in the OBC quota, which it naturally quashed.
According to Ram Manohar Lohia, an activist for the Indian independence movement, irrespective of the question of merit, reservations would raise the five most downgraded groups of Indian society, which include tribal communities, women, Sudras, Harijans and Muslims, into positions of leadership.
Such a strategy of reservations, according to Lohia, would radically transform the social structure to such an extent that even the so-called upper castes would stand to benefit. Contrast this viewpoint with Patel’s claim on Sunday that he would take his agitation seeking OBC status for politically and economically dominant Patidar community across the country. While claiming that reservations had “taken the country back 60 years”, the 22-year-old said that he was seeking the quota for Patidars as “the system today is hollow”. Although not many are inclined to agree, it is true that the OBC quota system is indeed hollow and not just for the Patidars.
Instead of establishing a clear line of social mobility among the truly dispossessed, the OBC quota system has accentuated the role of caste in Indian politics. For the uninitiated, the Patels, are seeking a slice of the 27 percent OBC quota in government colleges and jobs, which puts them in a confrontation with 146 other community groups in the OBC list. In other words, the creation of an OBC quota system has led to what one editorial in a leading business newspaper called, “the entitlement grabs by numerically important <g data-gr-id="34">castes</g> that have been able to acquire political heft”.
The current agitation, however, also has its seeds in the average Patidar’s economic condition today.
Political commentators have speculated that the Vibrant Gujarat development story has not <g data-gr-id="32">aided</g> large sections of the Patel community, with its primary focus on big business and large-scale investments. A once prosperous agricultural community, the Patel community, in the recent past, had invested most of their surplus income accrued from agriculture into micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs).Unfortunately, many of these MSMEs have been labeled ‘sick’, despite the fact that Patidars have dominated the economic and political landscape of Gujarat. Located in major business districts of Gujarat, which hold a significant number of Patels, MSMEs employ more than 21 lakh people. Many of them now have been rendered unemployed. Economic downturns aside, when a politically and economically dominant caste seeks affirmative action from the State, it is safe to say that the current system for reservations loses all meaning. Instead of following a blind strategy of merely expanding the scope of OBC reservations based on a particular community’s political heft, policymakers need to open up a renewed debate on how to get rid of caste discrimination. Irrespective of how absurd the current agitation may look, there is no doubt that caste discrimination continues to cast a long and dark shadow over Indian society.