Caste in an aggressive mould
Of late, the various strata of the landowning, surplus-producing peasantry claiming to be the Other Backward Castes (OBC) have launched an aggressive, even violent agitation in support of their demand for quota-based reservation in public services and educational institutions. The Gujjars of Rajasthan (from 2012-2014) blocked railway tracks and thousands of trains could not move to their destination because agitators would not allow the Railways to perform its duties unless the (Gujjar-led or the BJP-led) state government conceded their demand for reservation in public institutions. State governments held negotiations with aggressive agitators and “conceded” their demands before the agitation was called off. The story has been repeated by the same surplus-producing, land-owning Jat classes and castes in states like Delhi, Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh for reservation. State governments, under pressure from the powerful Jat community, conceded the demand for reservation. However, the Jats of North India, the All-India Jat Mahasabha and 285 Jat khaps launched an agitation for inclusion in the OBC list of Reserve\d Category and the Manmohan Singh Government (UPA II) in March 2014, conceded the demand of Jats in Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand for “inclusion” in the Central list of OBCs. All hell broke loose when, on March 17, 2015, the Supreme Court of India “struck down” the Centre’s decision to include Jats in the reservation quota for the OBC. The Court not only quashed the given decision but also made a significant observation about what is social backwardness. The Court rejected “caste” as the sole criterion for identifying a socially backward class group as provided in the Constitution because like Jats, the Marathas in Maharashtra also have demanded inclusion in the category of OBCs. A similar agitation for reservation broke out recently in Gujarat. Over 4 lakh people marched in Surat on August 17, this year, under the leadership of Hardik Patel, demanding OBC status for Patels or Patidars. Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti's agitation has spread to the rural and urban areas of Gujarat. As in the case of other powerful social groups like Gujjars in Rajasthan or Jats in the north and north-western states, the state government in Gujarat appointed a committee headed by the Health Minister, Nitin Patel to look into the reservation demand. Hardik Patel organised a massive crowd of more than 25 lakh agitators in Ahmedabad on August 25, which led to police firing because the agitators became violent. What happened to Narendra Modi's highly publicised “Gujarat model of development” just an year-and-a- half after the Lok Sabha elections of 2014? Around 25 lakh people on the streets of Ahmedabad during the Patel agitation, asking for reservation due to rising unemployment of the youth, especially the educated ones in Gujarat, exposed the hollowness of Modi's claim.
A few significant questions need to be examined on the issue of reservation in public institutions. Historically, the British colonial rulers were aggressively following the policy of “divide and rule” because they wanted to create a fragmented society in order to prevent a united anti-colonial struggle. Hence, they identified Muslims and Scheduled Castes among the Hindus as separate and special social groups. With the motive of confronting M.K Gandhi, the sole spokesperson of the All-India National Congress, the colonial rulers picked up Mohammed Ali Jinnah and B.R. Ambedkar and offered “special concessions” for communities represented by these two leaders. Gandhi put up a big non-violent fight against the colonial policy of dividing Hindu society into fragments and became the champion of the Harijans and supported the policy of reservation for the poor and discriminated groups among the Hindus. The Constituent Assembly in India guaranteed 15 per cent reservation for the Scheduled Castes (the Shudras) and 7.5 per cent for the really marginalised Scheduled Tribes. The reservation policy for the Dalits or Harijans or Shudras and Tribals has a “national consensus.” It has been implemented by all the governments as a Constitutional obligation. The bone of contention in post-Independence India, both in the Constituent Assembly and during the last 70 years, has been around reservation for the Backward Classes. Indira Gandhi appointed the Kaka Kalekar Commission to examine the issue but the report of the commission was put in cold storage as it would have led to social dissonance. Later, the Morarji Desai Government set up the Mandal Commision to look into the same issue in January 1979. Indira Gandhi, who returned to power, allowed the Commission to function and submit its report, though she didn't attach any importance to it. Erstwhile Prime Minister V.P. Singh's political survival was threatened by Jat peasant leaders like Charan Singh and Devi Lal. To upstage these Jat leaders, he accepted the Mandal Commission report on August 7, 1990. He announced reservation of 27 per cent for OBCs at all levels in public institutions. The issue that who is a Backward and who should be included in the 27 per cent reservation quota, has become a bone of contention among different caste groups who are competing to be included the list of Other Backward Castes (OBCs) so as to get the benefit of reservation. It is appropriate to state that the Backward social caste class groups may be very poor, or engaged in professions where they are self-employed or are peasants, marginalised classes and castes. Agitation in the recent past by Jats, Gujjars, Marathas or Patels, claiming backwardness, is absolutely unlike the “historically discriminated” groups such as the untouchables or Shudras. Hence, the land-owning class or petty owners of some property, unlike the Shudras, cannot demand reservation on the plea of redressal of historically inherited category of “outcastes” in the Hindu society. It is a blatant lie that these property-owning peasant castes are socially discriminated. Hence, their claim for inclusion in the OBC quota list is unjust. Several members of Jats and Yadav community get to the reigns of political power like Charan Singh and Mulayam Singh. Similarly, the Patels in Gujarat are a ruling group, with leaders like Keshubhai Patel, a powerful BJP Chief Minister. The Gujarat assembly has a considerable presence of Patels. One wonders the basis for these communities to claim a status of backwardness. The rural and urban poor should be given “special reservation” but unfortunately, this is never demanded by the agitating Patels, Jats, Gujjars or Marathas. These castes are powerful in their respective states and are in a position to bargain and get reasonable and unreasonable demands met. It must be made clear that the upper strata of the Backwards are not fighting for the cause of social justice. On the contrary, because of their status and land ownership, they exploit landless Dalits and commit atrocities on them as evident in Tamil Nadu and Haryana. If agitations for inclusion in the OBC Quota list reflect the “agrarian crisis” and “jobless growth in India,” then reservation is not the solution.
The writer is Prof Emeritus, Centre for Political Studies, JNU