Dismantling the hegemony
The caste-based survey findings released by the Bihar government present a watershed moment in the course of ensuring affirmative action for the marginalised sections of society. It can pave the way for similar reforms in other states where hegemonic dominance of influential classes still persists
The Bihar government released the caste-based survey report on October 2, 2023. Bihar — one of the densely inhabited states of the country — has a population of around 13 crore. “As of now, the government has published the statistics of 215 castes in the state. It will table the statistics of the comprehensive economic survey report in the state Legislature after one and half months,” Bihar CM Nitish Kumar said in a meeting with the representatives of nine parties from Bihar, including the BJP.
The report revealed that 27.1 per cent of the population is from the underprivileged classes or ‘other backward classes’ (OBCs), while 36 per cent are from the very underprivileged classes or ‘extremely backward classes’ (EBCs), 19.7 per cent are from Scheduled Castes (SCs), and 1.7 per cent are from Scheduled Tribes (STs) and rest 15.5 per cent constitutes upper caste (Brahmin 3,65 per cent, Rajput 3.45 per cent, Bhumihar 2.87 per cent, Kayastha 0.6 per cent) general category communities of Bihar.
Jadavs (OBC) with 14.26 per cent are the dominant community of the state. Comparing caste data for 1931 and 2023, Chinmay Thumbe commented that during these nine decades, caste structure in Bihar has remained broadly stable. Shares of Brahmin (5.5 per cent), Rajput (5 per cent), Bhumihar (3.6 per cent) and Kayastha (1.3 per cent) have declined while Jadav’s share (12.7 per cent) has improved.
While the Prime Minister Narendra Modi has described the survey report as “paap (sin) to divide the Hindu society”, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi hailed the report and tweeted that Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) constituted 84 per cent of the population. The Wire quoted Rahul Gandhi saying, “Only three out of 90 secretaries in the government of India belong to the OBCs who control barely 5 per cent of the budget. Jitni aabadi utna haq – ye hamara pran hai (rights according to the size of the population – it is our resolve)”.
Leading the way
A National ‘Other Backward Classes’ (OBC) Conclave on December 21, 2021, saw politicians across party lines, experts, activists and community leaders sign the ‘Delhi Declaration’ to push for caste census, sub-categorisation, reservations in promotions, and other critical issues, reported The Wire. Bihar has shown the way by publishing the 1st part of the caste survey. Following Bihar’s example, demand for similar reports is being raised in other states also.
VCK and TVK, allies of the DMK, and PMK, a constituent of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), asked the Tamil Nadu government to launch work on a Caste Census to ensure that the quantum of reservation to various communities is in proportion to their population, reports Deccan Herald.
After Bihar, the Odisha government is all set to announce the survey report it undertook this year in May on backward classes. The report has put the number of OBC at 46 per cent of the state’s population.
Caste Census conducted by the Karnataka State Commission for Backward Classes in 2015-2016 is likely to be submitted in November this year. Organisations of Veerashaivas and Vokkaligas — two dominant communities of Karnataka who opposed the census report — will meet soon to decide their course of action. Leaked data from the census indicated a significant reduction in the population of the Vokkaliga and Lingayat communities, reports India Today.
Beginning of caste-based reservations in India
In India, reservations were introduced during British rule at a time when the subcontinent could be broadly divided according to two main forms of governance — British India and the 600 princely states. Mysore in south India and Baroda and Kolhapur in western India took considerable interest in the awakening and advancement of the minorities and deprived sections of society, writes Bagwan Das (2000) in the Economic and Political Weekly, October 28.
In 1844, Lord Hardinge gave stimulus to English education by linking up knowledge of English with government employment. He declared that English knowing Indians would be given preference in government employment. This made English education more popular. Brahmins in the Madras presidency and the Bhadralok (Upper caste educated Hindus) in the Bengal presidency took advantage of the new educational policy and occupied most of the posts available in the administration. Brahmins in Madras, comprising barely 3 per cent of the total population, occupied more than 80 per cent of the posts.
In the princely state of Mysore, the Tamil Brahmins monopolised all the jobs. The Maharaja of Mysore introduced a few reforms with a view to giving a larger share of jobs to the Kannadiga Brahmins, Vokkaligas and Lingayats beside the untouchable castes and the Muslims. Reservations were thus introduced in 1918 in favour of a number of castes and communities that had little share in the administration. (Das 2000)
Abhinav Chandrachud in his book ‘Seats Are Reserved: Caste, Quotas and the Constitution of India’ (Penguin Random House, 2023) traces the history and making of the reservation policy. He writes:
* In 1916, a new political party called the South Indian Liberal Federation was formed. Known as the ‘Justice Party’, the party submitted a memorandum to Secretary of State Montagu in Madras in 1917 and asked that non-Brahmins be adequately represented in the legislature and all branches of the government. Their demand was that, like Muslims, non-Brahmins too should get separate electorates. Eventually, the government agreed to reserve 28 out of 65 general seats in the Madras legislature for non-Brahmins – possibly the first caste-based reservation in a legislature in British India.
* In 1928, the Bombay government appointed a committee headed by a member of the Indian Civil Service, O.H.B. Starte, to inquire into the educational, economic, and social condition of the depressed classes and aboriginal tribes. Dr B.R. Ambedkar was a member of the Committee. In July 1930, the Starte Committee submitted its report to the government in which it recommended that the term ‘backward classes’ be used to denote three kinds of communities: (i) depressed classes (i.e., ‘untouchable’ castes); (ii) aboriginal and hill tribes (i.e., tribes that were residing in forests, or those that had been doing so in the recent past); and (iii) ‘other Backward Classes’.
* In 1931, census officials in Bombay decided to categorise Hindus on the basis of their education and economic condition. They classified Hindus into five clusters: ‘advanced’, ‘intermediate’, ‘other backward’, ‘primitive’, and ‘depressed’.
* In May 1933, the Bombay government passed a resolution accepting the recommendations of the Starte Committee, with one modification. The government noted that the committee had ‘laid down no definite criterion’ for determining who the ‘Other Backward Classes’ were. So, the Bombay government decided to adopt the ‘rough working’ principle that the ‘Other Backward Classes’ would ‘comprise classes which are approximately at the same stage of social and educational advancement as’ the depressed classes (i.e., untouchable castes) and aboriginal and hill tribes, and ‘are so backward as to need special help from the Backward Class Officer’.
* The Bombay government prepared three schedules to its 1933 resolution accepting the Starte Committee recommendations. Schedule I contained a list of 47 ‘depressed classes’. Schedule II had 29 aboriginal and hill tribes. Schedule III was the longest list – it consisted of 125 ‘Other Backward Classes’. However, the term was not restricted to Hindus. Included among the Other Backward Classes was the ‘Miana’ tribe of Muslims.
* In October 1934, the backward class officer appointed by the Bombay government prepared an annual report on the working of his department. In it, he referred to the depressed classes that had been set out in Schedule I as the ‘scheduled classes’. This was perhaps one of the earliest references to the depressed classes as the ‘scheduled classes’. The Government of India Act, 1935, referred to the ‘depressed classes’ as ‘Scheduled Castes’.
* By 1945–46, Bombay province conferred the following benefits on members of the ‘backward classes’. Firstly, some backward class students would receive scholarships, grants, and fee-waivers. Secondly, 15 per cent of the seats in teacher training colleges were reserved for male backward class teachers. Thirdly, in government services, between 10 and 20 per cent of posts, like clerks, revenue officers called ‘talathis’, and bailiffs in courts, were reserved for the backward classes. Finally, the government provided housing to depressed class families at nominal rates.
A Mandal Commission was set up in 1979 by the Indian Government. The main aim of this commission was to identify the socially or educationally backward classes and recommend steps for the advancement of the same. The Mandal Commission concluded that India’s population consisted of approximately 52 per cent OBCs, therefore 27 per cent of government jobs should be reserved for them.
Currently, reservations given to the applicants in educational institutions or government jobs are: SC (15 per cent), ST (7.5 per cent), OBC (27 per cent), Economically Weaker Section-EWS (10 per cent), Persons with Benchmark Disabilities (4 per cent). Thus 59.5 per cent reservation is given to various categories such as SCs, STs, OBC and EWS in respect to government jobs and educational institutions. Further, 4 per cent reservation is provided to people with disability.
Dravidian model of reservation
Tamil Nadu, which once initiated the reservation movement for the non-Brahmins, has 69 per cent reservation at present. It is bifurcated into 18 per cent for Scheduled Caste, 1 per cent for Scheduled Tribes category, 20 per cent for Most Backward Castes (MBC) and 30 per cent reservation for Other Backward Castes (OBC). The Tamil Nadu government has decided not to implement the 10 per cent quota for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), introduced by the Modi government in 2019, as it is against the ideals of social justice. EWS quota applies to only general category candidates who constitute around 15 per cent of the population.
It is argued that in prioritising the counter hegemonic articulations of the trainees against the exploitative Brahminical social order, Dravidianism evolved a new common sense of equity as the bedrock of popular, electoral democracy. At its simplest, the Dravidian model of governance is about peace, progress and prosperity, which is achieved by pursuing the principles of social justice, rational thought and action firmly rooted in equity, reports Frontline. It is a political philosophy focused on providing inclusive growth to people belonging to all walks through targeted social interventions. These interventions are primarily focused on negating caste and gender based negative externalities. Targeted intervention has been the hallmark of Tamil Nadu since the days of the Justice Party, which on November 17, 1920, decided to offer free lunch to schoolchildren in Chennai Corporation. Since then Dravidian parties in power have implemented welfare schemes to uplift the downtrodden, reports Times of India.
Data on various socio economic parameters justify the success of the Dravidian model of reservation and inclusive development. The latest Multidimensional Poverty Index 2023 is a case in point. According to the report, Tamil Nadu, ranked third, experienced a decrease of 2.56 per cent in the headcount ratio between 2015-15 and 2019-21. Thus, the percentage of the total population in Tamil Nadu living in multidimensional poverty declined from 4.76 per cent in 2015-16 to 2.20 per cent in 2019-21, resulting in an estimated 19,58,454 people escaping poverty in the state. Compared to Tamil Nadu, the country as a whole experienced a decline of 9.89 percentage points in poverty, dropping from 24.85 per cent in 2015-16 to 14.96 per cent in 2019-2021.
Caste survey: a game changer
In 2002, political theorist Kancha Ilaiah predicted that Narendra Modi, the OBC chief minister of Gujarat, was one day going to be the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. Later in an interview, he explained that his prediction was based on the Left parties’ indifference to understanding the caste question. After Mandal, the BJP and the RSS wings started looking at caste-question seriously because when Babari Masjid was demolished they mobilized a lot of backward classes. Though they opposed Mandal reservation, they wanted the backward classes to be part of the Hindu religion.
Around 1994, a non-Brahmin called Rajju Bhaiya became the Sarsanghchalak of the RSS. Then he recruited a large number of backward classes, a large number of youth, and he promoted people like Narendra Modi, Uma Bharati at that time. Earlier, the first backward-class chief minister of Uttar Pradesh was a BJP man — Kalyan Singh. He was the chief minister in 1992 when the Babri Masjid was demolished.
In the 2014 election, by making Modi the Prime Ministerial candidate, in all the Shudra regional party ruling states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, and Maharashtra and so on, the OBC votes were garnered by the BJP, and it managed a clear majority at New Delhi. The second time in 2019 elections, Narendra Modi claimed that he is an MBC (Most Backward Class) and again managed a clear majority in the Parliament. A socio economic caste survey is very likely to disrupt the OBC vote bank of BJP.
The statistics gathered by a survey suggests that only 17 per cent of OBCs had voted for BJP in 1996 Lok Sabha elections. The figures largely remained the same in the 2004 and 2009 elections. However, the BJP got 43 per cent of the OBC votes in the 2014 elections. The Hindutva party’s OBCs vote share further swelled, with 48 per cent of them voting for it in 2019 polls. Recognising the importance of OBC votes for his party, the PM announced the Vishwakarma Yojna in his Independence Day address, his last ahead of the 2024 polls. The scheme involves giving financial and technological help to ironsmiths, wood workers, goldsmiths and others engaged in leather and aluminium-related occupations in rural India.
In such a backdrop, the caste survey acts as a tool for Nitish Kumar to take on the BJP’s clout among OBCs and bring them back to the fold of the regional parties in the Hindi heartland. “The caste survey in Bihar is going to prove a watershed in the history of India. All the states must adopt it. The Centre should have carried out the caste census in 2021 itself, but it delayed it. Now the time has lapsed,” the Bihar CM said ahead of the INDIA meet at Mumbai.
The caste survey lends credibility to the long-standing contention that the quota for Other Backward Classes is not proportionate to their population. It is argued that the data from the survey has pushed the BJP into a tight corner, when seen in context of the 10 per cent quota for the Economically Weaker Sections of the general category, introduced by the Narendra Modi-led central government in 2019. In Bihar, the general categories, or upper castes, constitute only 15.5 per cent of the total population. A 10 per cent EWS quota means more than 64 per cent of the general category population stands a chance of getting reservation in government jobs and seats. In contrast, the OBCs only have 27 per cent seats reserved even as their population in Bihar is more than 63 per cent. This means that less than half of the OBC population of the state will be deprived of reservation, reports Scroll.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, the English-educated Brahmins and Upper-caste Bengali Bhadroloks took advantage of the new educational policy of the British Raj and occupied most of the posts available in the administration. In south and western India, political movements for reservation of non-Brahmin lower castes gained momentum after World War I. As a result, various rules were framed in those parts of India for the reservation of the untouchables, indigenous tribes and other backward classes.
At present, the states of Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh have 69 per cent and 82 per cent (the reservation for Scheduled Caste is 13 per cent, Scheduled Tribe is 32 per cent, OBC is 27 per cent and EWS is 10 per cent) reservation for socially disadvantaged castes and classes, respectively. Unlike in South and West, the upper caste English educated Bhadroloks (gentle folk) of the erstwhile Bengal Presidency still maintain their dominance in most of the socio economic domains of West Bengal.
While the Hindi-speaking states have produced a number of political leaders, like Kanshi Ram, Mulayam Sing Jadav, Sibu Soren, Lalu Prasad Jadav et al, from Dalit, Tribal and OBC communities, post-independence Bengal has failed to produce any such leader. Hegemony of Bhadroloks still continues in Bengal. A socio-economic caste survey is urgently needed to assess the present socio-economic status of various communities and make affirmative action plans to uplift the vulnerable groups.
Views expressed are personal