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Can We De-Stigmatise Reservations in India?

The "politics of recognition" that Other Backward Classes have set into motion has its own set of terms and dynamics that contrast well with that of the dalits' political discourse. The politics of obcs have now brought into the public domain issues that are likely to change the very terms of discourse in which the debate on reservations was pursued for the last three decades. The obc discourse on reservations has de-stigmatised policy; obcs have also articulated their demands beyond community concerns by bringing up issues related to regionalism and linguistic assertion. These can influence the very grounds on which public institutions, policy and political processes have, so far, been perceived and pursued in Indian politics.


Can We De-Stigmatise Reservations in India?

Ajay Gudavarthy

The “politics of recognition” that Other Backward Classes have set into motion has its own set of terms and dynamics that contrast well with that of the dalits’ political discourse. The politics of OBCs have now brought into the public domain issues that are likely to change the very terms of discourse in which the debate on reservations was pursued for the last three decades. The OBC discourse on reservations has de-stigmatised policy; OBCs have also articulated their demands beyond community concerns by bringing up issues related to regionalism and linguistic assertion. These can influence the very grounds on which public institutions, policy and political processes have, so far, been perceived and pursued in Indian politics.

This paper is part of a project on “Affirmative Action and Inequalities in South Asia”, funded by the British Academy and in joint collaboration with Goldsmiths College, University of London; Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu; and Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The author also acknowledges the additional grant received from the DSA programme at the Centre for Political Studies for carrying out fieldwork and is thankful to Sajjan Kumar for his assistance during fieldwork.

Ajay Gudavarthy ( is at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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he singularly debilitating limitation of the system of reservations in India has been to increasingly produce a large number of social groups that suffer various forms of public humiliation, resentment and insult. The purpose of reservations to provide the disadvantaged social groups a head start in realising their potential remains arrested and minimal, due to their inability to overcome the stigma that is a ttached to such policies. Amartya Sen argues that “substantive freedoms” include the idea of “human dignity” that refers, along with access to resources, health, education, equity of opportunities, also to the participation in the life of the community and the freedom to speak without fear. They should all finally contribute towards “giving individuals greater control over his/her environment and thereby increase their freedom”.

Sen considers both a “sense of self” and the capacity “to appear in public without shame” as relevant to the “capability to function”, and hence as falling within the scope of an account of justice and development (Sen 1998). The processes of stigmatisation that are socially and politically constructed replace the “sense of self” with a stigmatised self and public shame. For instance, scheduled castes (SCs) have often been referred to as schaddu or as sarkar ke damad (sons-in-law of the government) to both demean them and also to remind them that what they are getting is a form of “charity and not parity” (Guru 2009: 18). The other form that is often used by the upper caste students in protesting against reservation is to sweep the streets, polishing shoes in the streets, and holding placards that read “murder of merit”. Both polishing shoes and sweeping the streets signify a reminder that earlier dalits (SCs) pursued these functions and therefore were socially accorded a lower social status and to convey to the fellow upper caste students that government policy of reservation will eventually push them towards these menial jobs.

The policies of affirmative action seem to create an inherent conflict between the processes of redistribution and the demands for recognition. While it is a fact that the policies of reservation have created new opportunities for the specific disadvantaged social groups, these however have come at a cost of causing the more intangible injury of misrecognition.

The result is to mark the most disadvantaged class as inherently deficient and insatiable, as always needing more and more. In time such a class can come to appear privileged, the receipt of special treatment and underserved largesse. Thus, an approach aimed at redressing injustices of distribution can end up creating injustices of recognition (Fraser 2008: 31).

As Fraser puts it, stigmatisation is a mode of “adding the insult of misrecognition to the injury of deprivation”. We could rephrase this, in the context of the brahminical social order in India, as “mobility without dignity”. It was precisely to overcome this kind of a deadlock or negation that B R Ambedkar while tirelessly struggling for the material amelioration of the SCs also cautioned them against reducing it merely to r eservation, as the larger agenda was that of regaining honour and dignity and reclaim the title deeds of their humanity that had been taken away by their masters. He argued:

You should realise what our objective is. It is not fighting for a few jobs here and there or for a few concessions. It is the highest cause that we have cherished in our heart, that is, to see that we are recognised as the governing community (quoted from Parekh 2009: 10).

It was in order to regain or reclaim dignity that Ambedkar made a series of experiments that even looked, at times, mutually exclusive. Ambedkar on the one hand wished to use the power of caste as community to overcome the caste system, on the other he argued for its annihilation by abandoning the caste status through conversion. By way of using the caste identity Ambedkar argued that the “depressed classes” need to realise that they are the majority and can easily get political power, provided they succeed in forging political unity. Ambedkar argued:

…the scheduled castes and the backward classes form the majority of the population of the country. There is no reason why they should not rule the country. All that is necessary is to organise for the purpose of capturing political power which is your own (cited from Rodrigues 1990).

Ambedkar’s Argument for Reservations

With this in mind, he argued, as part of the Poona Pact, for separate representation “either through separate electorates” (in the absence of adult suffrage) or through “joint electorates by adult suffrage” (Pantham 2009: 189).1 Finally, it was decided that reserved seats was a better option in order to empower the depressed classes without making them politically untouchable. It was also in this spirit that Ambedkar later argued for reservation, for those coming from the SCs, in jobs (especially bureaucracy) and institutions of higher education. He believed that the new elites (born out of reservation in both representative bodies and jobs) from the SCs would represent and play a positive role by way of both lending confidence to their fellow downtrodden and also struggle on their behalf to extend all the benefits that they themselves managed to get. Through such a strategy Ambedkar felt both a sense of agency through struggle and thereby dignity, as well as economic benefits can be assured to the dalits.

The new born elite would be the social force that would be representative of his belief that “out of hard and relentless struggle that one derives strength, self-respect, self-confidence and recognition”. However, Ambedkar was also amongst the first to realise the failure and criticised the limits of such “politics of presence” when he expressed his disappointment that “the educated few have proved to be a worthless lot, with no sympathies for their downtrodden brethren” they were busy “fighting among themselves for leadership and power” (cited from Parekh 2009: 28). Further, the new elite themselves remained stigmatised, and failed to move beyond the socially imposed frames, as they were perceived to be enjoying undue benefits, and lacked the merit and efficiency to handle the positions they occupied. In fact, Bhikhu Parekh alluding to this is critical of Ambedkar for his insistence and emphasis on the role of the elites. He believes that “Ambedkar’s approach suffered from a strong statist and elitist bias” and the state could not play a transformative role “unless it was led by a Westernised elite, of whom Ambedkar saw himself as one” (Parekh 2009: 22).

The alternative strategy of Ambedkar to regain recognition and self-confidence was by way of abandoning Hindu religion when he famously said “I will certainly not die as a Hindu” and therefore sought “liberation from Hinduism and not reform of Hinduism”. On 14 October 1956, Ambedkar converted to Buddhism in a ceremony in Nagpur. One of the reasons he preferred Buddhism over other religions was that it provided a “theory of social action” through a cultural template. It was, in a sense, a transference of his earlier conviction of building r ecognition and dignity through struggles, as “the fundamental purpose of dhamma is the recognition and removal of suffering through human action” (Vidhu Verma 2010: 60). However, even conversion has not helped realise the kind of recognition that Ambedkar was looking for. Ambedkarite Buddhists are associated primarily with the Mahar subcaste and it has therefore failed to eradicate caste identities and varied forms of h umiliation associated with it.2 Further, the conversion strategy got inextricably interlinked with the debate on reservations. Both neo-Buddhists and dalit Christians have been demanding the extension of reservations to them as they belong to the SC and scheduled tribe (ST) communities, which has made them further susceptible to the popular prejudice that though they are liberated from casteism, they continue to seek benefits accrued due to caste identities. In fact, in a strange but pertinent case dalit Buddhists registered as the Buddhist Society of India, complained of social stigma and filed a case seeking the scrapping of reservation benefits to dalit Buddhists under the Constitution, with specific reference to the Presidential Order of 1990 extending reservation to dalit Buddhists. The Supreme Court of India however struck down and dismissed the petition (Hindustan Times, “Being Dalit Not a Boon for Buddhists”, 7 January 2010).

The other kind of failure of the strategy of conversion as “politics of recognition” has been the objection raised more r ecently by some of the dalit leaders, such as Thol. Thirumavalavan of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi in Tamil Nadu, that conversion is in fact reducing dalits to a numerical minority among the population. He argues that maintaining a numerical high is an absolute necessity, if dalits have to get political power, which is in turn indispensable to their emancipation. Conversion, therefore, negates the other significant strategy of getting representation and thus political power as stressed by Ambedkar and needs to be abandoned as a useful strategy in contemporary electoral-representative democracies. Without political power and the “strategic use” of numerical strength, dalits once again will become dependent on caste-Hindus without agency and capacity for decision-making, entailing and enabling practices of misrecognition. Thus, they believe that certain strategies, in this case, of overcoming misrecognition have adverse impact on representation, spinning off

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complex and conflicting dynamics between recognition, redistribution and representation.

It is imperative to note that both the strategies suggested by Ambedkar get negated as they get inextricably entangled with the processes of legal codification, and thereby become susceptible and subjected to vulgar objectification. While the former strategy of reservation settles to produce a selfenclosed elite that plays an insignificant role in dignifying the rest, the later idea of conversion gets inflected into producing caste identities even outside of Hinduism. In other words, the modern state’s discourse of reservations based on codification

– transition from fuzzy to enumerated communities – arrests the mobility necessary for transformation (Kaviraj 1999; Dirks 2001). As Patchen Markell suggests, the “grammar of recognition” itself becomes a way of classifying procedures by states, “rendering their populations cognisable and manageable” (cited from Feldman 2002: 418). This politics of recognition brings about the classical recognition-redistribution dilemma entailing either displacing demands of redistribution or reifying cultural identities and reinforcing dominant modes of misrecognition (Fraser 2008). The politics of reservations, therefore, needs a new methodology as much as a new social force that can successfully avoid both the problem of displacement and that of reification in order to overcome stigma.

It is in this context that we need to explore the impact and the possibility of de-stigmatising the discourse on reservations, with the inclusion of the “Other Backward Classes” (OBCs) within its ambit. It is no longer sufficient to attempt to liberate groups through reservation without liberating the discourse of reservation itself. For this, it is imperative to have new social forces that can substantially “resignify” (Butler 2000) the meanings and practice of pursuing protective discrimination, through a self-perception and self-confidence that is not a result of reservations but is preordained or prior to availing such benefits. This pre-given self-confidence can then change the terms of discourse through an assertion against externally imposed unjust reading of reservation as a charity, or an undue privilege. This paper will argue that the “second democratic upsurge” that India is witnessing with OBCs as the new democratic social force will construct a new social/political space, by way of liberating all social groups that have been the beneficiaries of affirmative action from suffering humiliation and public shame and by de-stigmatising the discourse of reservations itself.

OBCs as the New Democratic Force

OBCs, in comparison to the SCs, are sociologically distinct in terms of being internally heterogeneous and culturally, socially and economically differentiated. Unlike the dalits, the mobilisation of the OBCs was always self-conscious of internal differentiation. The dalit movement, on the contrary, began as a c ohesive movement of various subcastes that were, though culturally different and hierarchised, were economically similar and Ambedkar could successfully unite them without subcaste conflicts ever taking precedence over the larger conflict with caste-Hindus and Hinduism itself. It was only in the 1990s that

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India began to witness political movements of the subcastes within the SCs. For instance, Andhra Pradesh is witnessing the growing conflict between the Malas and Madigas (Rao 2009). While the OBCs constitute close to 50% of the population (according to most estimates), they are not a cohesive social group either on the basis of objective criteria or in terms of subjective perceptions. Internally differentiated and heterogeneous groups can neither be socially mapped around stable cultural practices nor can they be attributed with certain economic status that will in turn make it possible to value their “moral worth” (Sayers 2005). This difficulty in not being able to culturally codify and socially enumerate them disallows both the process of being externally (objectively) objectified and internally (subjectively) reified. An escape from these processes makes social groups too opaque to be stigmatised, even if they are availing the benefits of reservations. Instead the public domain is gradually witnessing an assertion, without an accompanying sense of shame, by those demanding and enjoying the benefits of reservations.

OBCs can be mapped into three different categories around the axis of social status, income and educational qualifications. The upwardly mobile backward classes have both economic (land, and property) and political power. The middle level backward classes are the dominant castes – the peasant castes

– in the rural areas that are slowly and gradually improving their educational status. Finally, the most backward classes (MBCs) or extremely backward classes are the service castes that are largely landless, belonging to low income groups and are precariously perched between the other OBCs and the dalits (Pai unpublished). Within this tripartite division these castes/ classes can be further differentiated around varied axis including that of region, for instance, between the north and the south. For instance, with regard to the MBCs, while in the north they are mostly poor and landless, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu

the Vanniyars for example, designated as MBCs are an assertive, economically better-off and upwardly mobile caste who have formed their own political party, the Pattali Makal Katchi (PMK). The Karunanidhi government designated them the Vanniyars as MBCs in 1989 and provided them 20% of the total 49% reservations in educational institutions and government employment…(ibid).3

The backward classes in the south due to the anti-brahmin movements in the early 20th century gained reservations from the colonial government in both higher education and employment. The bulk of them therefore not only hold professional jobs but are also well versed in English, and enjoy urban lifestyles.

Similarly, in the north the debate is increasingly shifting from inter-caste discrimination to intra-caste differentiation and discrimination. The Hukum Singh Committee report in Uttar Pradesh, constituted in 2001, pointed that there are 79 subcastes within the OBCs. The backward caste category consisted of just one caste – Yadav (also called Ahir/Gwala/Yaduvashiya); more backward castes (MRBCs) included 8 subcastes

– Sonar/Sunar/Swarnkar, Jat, Kurmi/Chanau/Patel/Patanwar/ Kurmi-Mali/Kurmi-Sainthwar, Giri, Gujjar, Gosain, Lodh/ Lodha/Lodhi/Lot/Lodh-Rajput, Kamboj; and finally the MBCs) included 70 sub-castes (A K Verma 2010: 12).4

On the one hand across economic status the subcastes got differentiated, while on the other the various jatis have emerged as “large conglomerates of what were earlier small and varied subcastes”.

These two contrary trends, one, the differentiation and undermining of the inherited forms of constitution of castes and, the other, that of the process of internal unification have had a simultaneous run (Alam 2008: 9).

This simultaneous move towards fusion and fission between various caste groups makes it difficult to either map or identify them with certain essentialised traits; instead it takes a more pragmatic turn. In the course of my interviews with a cross s ection of students, and professionals coming from the various subcastes identified as the OBCs, one of the key feature was the pragmatic and purely legal approach to the issue of reservations.5 Backwardness, unlike untouchability, does not produce a victim-subject and whose subjective perception is not constructed either with self-contempt or a stigmatised victimhood. It seems to instead produce a citizen capable of speaking and asserting the language of rights, legal and constitutional entitlements, and pointing towards the limitations of planning and public policy in the past. In other words, a pragmatic political-language has replaced an essentially cultural-moral idiom, in which the dalit movement continues to locate itself, for asserting the need for reservations. The pragmatic approach, in this case, represents both a certain distance from the identity standpoint one is speaking from and also a selfconscious understanding of one’s caste-identity and the forced backwardness without any accompanying anxiety about being stigmatised.


For instance, Ravi Kiran is a Yadav from a village near Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. His father is barely literate and sells clothes on a bicycle. He himself got educated in a municipal school till fifth standard and then shifted to a public school education in the English medium. He recollected that the education in his public school was expensive, and he used to wear torn shoes, and vividly remembered being punished for not paying fees on time. It is interesting to observe that suffering poverty of this nature has resulted in a resolve to achieve social and economic mobility, and not in self-contempt and victimhood. The traits of victim-subject, in contrast, distinctly frame the making of dalit subjectivity. When asked about availing the provision for reservation in education and jobs he clearly articulated that:

I will claim. It’s given constitutionally. I do not have the fear that if everyone knows I am an OBC. I cannot be discriminated…It’s a right. I should not be discriminated on caste grounds…It’s illegal.

To carry the argument further, another distinct dimension that is impacting (read dignifying) the discourse of reservation is the fact that groups that are dominant and enjoy political and economic power are themselves wanting to be part of the reserved category. For example, some from the upwardly mobile Jat community have argued “If Khatis, Charans, Sunars, and Darzis are declared as backward, why not us” (Datta 1999: 2630).

Rajputs are mostly organised in Delhi to confirm their status as backward. It is a telling fact that backward class movement

clamoured for the ‘Kshatriya’ status which was denied to them by forward castes…Today, it is no longer interested in assessing the ‘Khastriya’ status rather the All-India Federation for Backward Classes as well as its varied local forms, have as their chief concerns: access to state resources, representation in decision-making spheres of the government… (Yadav 2002: 4500).

Demands from such dominant groups are gradually making reservations a more generalised feature of the Indian polity, rather than being identified with any specific caste, community or classes. This in turn makes it very difficult for the socalled forward or upper castes to denounce or stigmatise the discourse of reservations. Instead, this debate has headed in the direction of “reverse social osmosis” seeking reservation for the poor among the upper castes (A K Verma 2010: 13).6 It has also enabled to seek a renewed justification for the reservations to the SCs and STs. In course of my interviews all the respondents argued that it is justified to give reservations to the dalits, and some of them expressed the view that though for OBCs it should be time-bound and follow the criterion of creamy layer exclusion but for dalits at least for some time more it should be given unconditionally. More than altruism, what these views reflect is the realisation that without fully justifying the reservations for the dalits, OBCs cannot demand reservations for themselves. This pragmatic approach has reinforced, and will further entrench, the idea that reservations are a justified means of achieving social justice, and not a sop for a few.

In the case of the OBCs, for instance like that of Yadavs, it is interesting to observe that they use various ways to generate their own sense of self-confidence. Lucia Michelutti argues that in course of her fieldwork she discovered that even rich Yadav businessmen in Delhi kept buffaloes and cows in their farmhouses and they proudly declared that in spite of being rich they cannot forget their “origins and traditional skills”.

The Yadavs are proud not only of their genealogical link with Krishna the cow-herder but also of the animals that they rear. In India the species of animal a caste domesticates has a bearing on its social status, and since the cow is at the top of the animal hierarchy, the Yadavs consequently think that they must have a high ritual status (Michelutti 2007: 651).

Yadav political organisations such as the All India Yadav Mahasabha (AIYM) portrays Krishna as the “leader of social justice” and construct a distinct “ethno-historical imaginary” that also emphasises the need for a “muscular ideology” that reminds the state that they are no pushovers. The physicality of their politics working with “gang solidarity” represents the performance dimension of their own version of self-respect. Many in the course of my interviews expressed views that Yadavs have low intellect, are violent and “not good in studies but fit for physical activities”. These perceptions might influence the Yadavs to realise the importance of education but fail to dislodge their self-confidence of who they are.

Michelutti argues that Yadav caste rhetoric constructs “Yadav essences” that includes the idea that every Yadav has

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“a predisposition for politics” and “they say that in every Yadav there is a Mulayam” (ibid: 647).7 It is this predisposed self-confidence that they induce into the discourse on reservations. Reservations are merely a tool to achieve what is the predisposed talent of the community, and does not define their essence. The discourse on reservations becomes vernacularised – “the process through which ideas and practices of democracy become embedded in particular cultural and social practices and in turn become entrenched in the consciousness of ordinary people” (ibid: 653). It is the internal practices that define and inform the spirit of reservations rather than other way round.

Resignifying Reservations

Reservations for the OBCs in spite of following the quota system are fast transforming the way they are perceived in the popular imagination in the public domain. This, in part, is also due to the new modalities through which they are being implemented.

Since caste was not the only criterion and overcoming backwardness was the purpose, the debate and the accompanying clauses in implementing the OBC reservations were different from that about the dalits. These criteria in themselves have had an impact in de-stigmatising the provision of reservations. One of the central issues was the inclusion of the creamy layer exclusion criteria in implementing the OBC reservations. The Justice R N Prasad Committee set up in 1993 to decide on the definition of creamy layer termed it as

when a person was able to shed off the attributes of educational and social backwardness and has secured employment or has engaged himself in some high status profession or trade (RN Committee Report, 1993).8

Apart from the balancing act of making sure that most deserving individuals within the OBCs benefited from reservations, the criterion of creamy layer exclusion had its own positive impact in overcoming misrecognition due to reservations.

The conventional argument against creamy layer exclusion in reservations has been that

by disqualifying those most likely to succeed in elite institutions,

creamy layer exclusion undermines the very purpose of the proposed

law (Deshpande 2008).

The other more culture-centric critique of creamy layer was that the elites in each community have “given confidence to the others to aspire for higher positions in life rather than come in the way of their advancement, were matters of no relevance to this process of deductive reasoning” (Balagopal 2009: 17). This line of reasoning however does not sufficiently interrogate whether and how creamy layer exclusion itself will add to the confidence of those availing reservations, and in a manner distinct from the way an elite-induced confidence works. Ambedkar himself realised the role of elites in providing others in their community with the confidence to move upwards; however this dependence on elites has lead to new classes within each community, and in turn to a process where the distance between the elites and non-elites was so marked that the elites identified more with the affluent classes/castes rather than with their own communities. It is due to these reasons that states such as Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra have witnessed

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bitter subcaste conflicts within the dalits. The Madigas in Andhra Pradesh, under the leadership of the Madiga Reservation Porata Samithi (MRPS), at one stage even argued that Malas were more “ruthless oppressors” than even the brahmins.

In a sense, reservations almost had a counterproductive effect in overcoming caste hierarchies and accompanying prejudices. Even those who moved ahead within their castes did not wish to be identified with their communities. This process far from adding to confidence has in fact enabled a process of stigmatisation where the popular belief was that the elites of these communities were rank opportunists and abandoned their fellow-sufferers once they benefited from reservations. The upper caste often used this to delegitimise the very idea of reservations being useful to no one except those few who directly benefited from it. In other words, it was argued that there was no rub-off effect socially which was often offered as a justification for reservations.

It is in this context that the creamy layer exclusion in a subtle way resignifies reservations as meant to neither create self- enclosed elites nor be dependent on elites to induce confidence in others. Elite-induced confidence makes it possible that the very modality of pursuing reservations is based only on a “need based approach” and is therefore a temporary measure to correct an imbalance rather than a permanent feature. Even Ambedkar had argued that the reservations for the SCs and STs need to be time-bound and restricted to a period of 10 years, though he had restricted this criterion to the case of reservations in political representation. Time-bound reservations seem to be necessary to achieve both redistribution and recognition. The Supreme Court, in fact, was of the opinion that r eservations should not be in perpetuity but should be periodically revised. The earlier anxiety, in the case of dalits, was that this was the only instrument available to them to provide opportunities, given both their economic plight as well as the overwhelming prejudice against them. However, in the case of the OBCs it seems that given the ability of these groups to articulate their grievances openly, the time-bound criterion will offer them the opportunity to counter and negate those who either use it to discredit reservations as such or those who stigmatise groups that benefit from such advantages.

It is interesting to observe that all the interviewees from both the lower MBCs and the upwardly mobile OBCs supported the idea of creamy layer exclusion. Amit Yadav, whose father is a class-IV railway employee in Asansol, was of the opinion that “reservations are only to get jobs…what is important is education”, therefore once you have the required income there is very little need for reservations and the creamy layer criterion should be applied. Similarly, Rajesh, who belongs to the Pasi (fishermen) community and hails from Sahibgunj, a small town in Jharkhand supported the creamy layer exclusion criterion, in spite of belonging to the Economically Backward Caste (EBC). He also observed that “more information about state policies and proper implementation will lead to less conflict… and more will agree with the creamy layer criterion”. It could be observed that in order to get state benefits these young students did not wish to compromise on their dignity.

The debate on reservations is also being substantively transformed in the manner in which the idea of merit is being appropriated by these new claimants of reservations, in contrast to the dalits. In the case of the dalits, for various reasons, reservations and merit got dichotomised into two watertight compartments. They mostly argued that the very idea of merit is bogus and a fraudulent-construct of the uppercastes, but did not provide any alternative basis for it. Similarly, Courts that pronounced judgments in support of reservations always believed that though this is a drain on the resources and efficiency of the system, it was necessary to provide special provisions for certain social groups that have failed to adequately avail the opportunities provided by the state and society alike. While this has a public reasoning for reservations, it has in a subtle manner reinforced the dominant prejudice against groups availing of reservations. This is very similar to the way courts pronounced judgments on rape (punishing the accused for violating the chastity of the victim); in the process they further reinforced the dominant notions of sexuality and lack of control and agency of women on their body and glorifying a “victim-subject” in need of protection.

In fact, with regard to caste, this mode of reasoning that courts have furthered was borrowed from the debates in the constituent assembly, while making provisions for quotas.

It was argued that departures from merit selection in the form of group quotas would harm public interest in an efficient administration and good government…the Constituent Assembly made it clear that such special provisions shall be subjected to the ‘maintenance of merit and efficiency’ of the administration (Sahoo 2009: 27).

One such caveat was to exclude those professions that require higher skills and specialisation in the name of “public interests”. For instance, Ananthasayanam Ayyangar argued in the constituent assembly that “with regards to appointments which require enormous skill and capacity, certainly these rules cannot be relaxed, because public interests demand otherwise” (Constituent Assembly Debates (CAD) (Proceedings) Volume IX, 30 July to 18 September 1949). It was never debated as to what will be the impact of this on groups availing reservations and nor was it deliberated, even by the presentday courts, as to how we could impart these high skills to individuals coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. It was almost assumed that it was not possible to impart such specialisation, but for what apparent reason, remained largely without a debate. The courts in a convoluted manner reinforced the idea of merit and efficiency of the dominant caste groups and dalits themselves rejected any viable or alternative notion of merit. Both these factors entrenched the hegemony of the dominant castes and dalits effectively remained outsiders to public institutions, and thereby silently suffered humiliation, rejection and indignation.

Re-Appropriating Merit

As against the dalit discourse, the OBCs seem to have re-appropriate the discourse on merit. They have a pragmatic approach to the idea of merit. Most of the interviewees accepted that merit is essentially linked to the opportunities and there is no community or caste that is intrinsically meritorious or disabled. Along with this, however, they argued that there are many examinations in which OBCs are the toppers, and qualify in open competition. Santosh Kumar, from Madhubani district in Bihar, who is a Gupta and from the Baniya community a rgued that even within OBCs there is stiff competition and in spite of reservations it is not easy to get through. He took pride that those who qualify through reservations are also therefore meritorious. Amit Yadav argued that if you take a headcount you will find that “maximum number of intelligent people come from the OBC communities”. This kind of an appropriation and linking of merit, competition and reservations goes beyond a dichotomised approach that allows for public shaming of those belonging to the reserved categories. Along with this, the Central Educational Institutions (Reservations and Admissions) Bill 2006, that introduces reservations for the OBCs in central universities, provided for a unique provision of increasing seats for the general category students. The earlier argument of illegitimately cutting into the seats did not hold at all, and it also proves the point that groups other than the upper castes have a legitimate claim on the resources of the nation.

OBCs and Politics

Along with the new modalities, OBC politics are, unlike dalits, not exclusively caste-centric. Along with caste they are articulating their demands and politics on the lines of region, religion and language. This mode of pursuing politics across multiple axis and not just caste alone also makes it difficult to essentialise and objectify them. They are active in articulating various issues that are of significance in the high politics of the centre and the state, which in turn has a moderating impact on their caste-politics in general and the demand for reservations in particular.

Rajini Kothari argued that extending reservations to the OBCs is part of “a great secular upsurge”, as it brings together “not only all the lower castes but also the poor or ‘backward’ of other religions, while at the same time it prevents Hindus from acting as a solid bloc” (Kumar 1992: 299). As Kothari argues, “Caste, indeed, is the great seculariser in a society being pulled apart by convoluted religions bent upon tearing apart the social fabric” (Kothari 1990). The fact that there are OBCs among Hindus as well as the Muslims bringing them together within the ambit of the same state policy, has its positive impact of foregrounding backwardness and economic or class-centric issues. However, along with this, some scholars have also argued to the contrary that this lumping together of backward castes and religious minorities has resulted in the growth of communalism and Hindu identity politics. For instance, Ornit Shani has argued, in the context of Gujarat that,

In spite of an inter-Hindu caste reservations conflict and prevailing class tensions among them, an all-Hindu consolidation against Muslims emerged..Their general impoverishment in the city [of Ahmedabad] made it difficult to explain why and how the rhetoric about their peril to the Hindu majority became persuasive. Moreover, upper caste groups who led the anti-reservation struggle and the communal instigation started gaining support from some groups among the Dalits who did not obviously benefit from their agenda (Shani 2007: 132).

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OBC communities have also gained access to political and economic power, not merely through caste-centric politics but also through the politics of region. OBCs have been a strong force behind the phenomenon of formation of regional parties across the country and spearheaded the collapse of the “Congress-system”. For instance, in Andhra Pradesh, the backward classes were the mainstay of regional parties such as the Telugu Desam Party (TDP).

In January 1983, the state saw the eclipse of the Congress(I) government headed by Kotla Vijaya Bhaskar Reddy and coming into power of TDP…In the political charade NTR proved to be cleverer. He established himself as the unchallenged champion of the BCs by enhancing BC reservations to 40% (Shatrugna 1994: 2398).

More recently in Andhra Pradesh, the struggle for a separate state of Telangana had its roots along with other issues, in the loss of livelihood of traditional service castes. In various districts the Joint Action Committees (JAC) formed to mobilise people and organise protest rallies were represented by the various caste groups. In some districts, as scholars have observed “seventy per cent of these groups are backward castes…” (Kannabiran et al 2010: 79). The OBCs have been in the forefront of not only the demand for share in the resources but also to legitimise the social recognition of their culture in the struggle for a new state.

The movement for Telangana…has become a movement with unique characteristics. Masses belonging to all walks of life have come out to the streets with their cultural symbols. We can see dalit-Bahujans beating drums and dholaks, the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) with their ploughshares and bullock carts, shepherds with their flock, toddy tappers with their moku (rope assembly used to climb palm trees) and muttadu (the belt they wear to keep their hatchet) and stone-breakers with their own iron artefacts (ibid).

Similarly, the OBCs are active in the demand for smaller states such as Bundelkhand that includes six districts in Uttar Pradesh, and seven districts in Madhya Pradesh. It is an OBC dominant region with OBCs constituting more than 50% of the population and the issues of backwardness are being articulated along the lines of regionalism by the OBC organisations and not caste alone, with unusually active support from the Government of Uttar Pradesh itself headed by Mayawati.

Linguistic Assertion

OBCs have also been foregrounding the question of language that was put on the backburner for sometime now in Indian politics. After Independence the question of official language included primarily the status of English. Similarly,

the second major issue then arose concerning which one or more of the major languages of India should be adopted as the official language of the country (Brass 1990: 162).

Hindi was considered as a possible option since it was spoken by the largest number of people in the country, however the non-Hindi speaking states objected as it would give those in the north an undue advantage as it would be the language for holding exams for employment in public services, and also the fact that non-Hindi languages are equally national. Revisiting this issue as part of the Official Language

Economic & Political Weekly

FEBRuary 11, 2012 vol xlvii no 6

Act 1963, on the material issue of entry into the union public services, it was agreed that all the languages listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India, that is, “all the major regional languages as well as Hindi and English, could be used as a media of examination” (ibid: 166). With the OBCs coming into public institutions in a big number following the new reservation of 27%, they are re-articulating the issue of use of Hindi for the purposes of employment and also education.

The bulk of the interviewees were not only from small towns, and first-generation graduates but also mostly educated in Hindi medium till their graduation. Again, somewhat in contrast to the dalit politics, they have a more pragmatic approach to the issue of language. They, on the one hand, refuse to attach any stigma for having studied in Hindi m edium and, on the other, recognise the need to know English for the purpose of jobs and being in tune with global requirements. Here again the dalit movement has argued that English is a mode of “emancipation” for the dalits and the only secular language. Dalit activists such as Chandrabhan Prasad in fact went to the extent of building a temple for the “goddess of English” in Uttar Pradesh, as a mark of gratitude and celebration of Thomas Macaulay’s birthday (The Wall Street Journal, “A Dalit Temple to ‘Goddess English’ ”, 30 April 2010). Others, such as, Kancha Illiah (2011) have argued that:

English education is the key for adopting the modernist approach suitable to the globalised India. The upper castes have handled the contradiction between English and their native quite carefully. But when it comes to teaching English to the lower castes they have been proposing a theory that English will destroy the ‘culture of the soil’.

These arguments again were vulnerable to the assertions that dalits continued to suffer from a colonial hangover and were victims of western hegemony. It could also be argued that such strategies of emulation are the renewed form that “Sanskritisation” has taken in modern times.

In contrast, for instance, Nishad Vaibhav, from Champaran in Bihar, graduated in Hindi medium and argued that Hindi “should be allowed”, and nonchalantly said that “teachers help to study in English…but I write in Hindi and do not see a problem in this” during the course of this author’s interview. One of the modes of assertion of the OBCs, and of making their presence felt in public institutions such as universities has been by demanding that teaching and study material be made available to them in Hindi, as it is officially recognised and is the public responsibility of the authorities. In fact, Mulayam Singh Yadav, made a strong pitch for education in mother tongue as against English to give an edge to the lower castes/classes in India.9

This agenda has been at odds with that of the dalit politics. Reflecting on this, Chandrabhan Prasad has observed that,

When a couple of years back, we launched English as the goddess, some prominent OBCs intellectuals were upset with me. I later realised that ‘remove English’ was the first major political movement the OBCs had launched in the North India. I also understand that, the Dravidian movement accorded excessive importance to Tamil language and saw English with contempt (Prasad 2008).

The issue of Hindi overlaps again with the conflict between a small – mostly upper caste – English-speaking elite and the

vast majority who are well-versed in various Indian lan-terms and dynamics that need to be factored as indispensable guages. However, public institutions would now come under to any process of democratisation. These are bound to be in a new stress and need to recognise that merely providing res-conflict with received forms – read dominant – upper caste ervations to the OBCs is not sufficient but they will have to discourse of articulating issues of democracy, equality and make space for other related curricular issues. This could be dignity. The politics of OBCs have now brought into the public read as asserting space within the institutions and also ques-domain issues that are likely to change the very terms of distioning the elite-bias through which they have been operating course in which the debate on reservations was pursued for so far. In other words, though the Official Language Act pro-the last three decades. Overcoming the stigma of reservations vided a provision for the use of all major Indian languages, is most likely to impact not merely the OBCs and other beneficithere were no resources or necessary back-up provided to aries of such affirmative policies but is in fact set to influence actualise these provisions. the very grounds on which public institutions, policy and politi-To conclude, it needs to be recognised that the “politics of cal processes have, so far, been perceived and pursued in

recognition” that OBCs have set into motion has its own set of Indian politics.


1 The British prime minister announced the “communal award” wherein he granted both separate electorates and reserved seats to the Depressed Classes in 1932.

2 Though it does not mean that this strategy has been given up by the dalit movement, as recently as in 2006, 20 lakh people converted to Buddhism, in order to celebrate the 50th year of Ambedkar’s Deeksha (Verma 2010: 61).

3 Even around occupation the MBCs could be differentiated between the specialised service castes such as the lohar and sonar and the artisanal service castes such as the Julaha, and Kumbhar.

4 There was an attempt in Uttar Pradesh to subdivide the reservation in accordance with the recommendations of the Hukum Singh Committee, through an Amendment to the Uttar Pradesh Public Service Act. However, the Supreme Court in its order dated 14 December 2001 and 21 January 2002 stayed the implementation of the provisions of the Amended Act (A K Verma 2010: 12).

5 Fieldwork included intensive interviews with about 50 students and professionals from the OBC communities for a period of one year between January to December 2010. The first round was carried out in Delhi, and the second round was conducted in Hyderabad. The interviews included questions about family background (parent’s educational qualifications, and income) candidate’s educational bac ground, experience regarding movement from his/her village to the city and urban lifestyle; views on reservations – both for the SC/STs and the OBCs; on the issue of creamy layer and merit; intra-OBC division, and perceptions about the relation with other dominant castes and the dalits. Names and case history of those cited are given in this article without any change. Prior permission of the candidates has been taken.

6 Reservations for the poor among the upper castes was suggested by the Mayawati government in UP.

7 Mulayam Singh Yadav who was the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and presently heads the Samajwadi Party (SP), was a wrestler before he came into active politics.

8 Rupees 1 lakh of annual income was decided |as the ceiling to decide who fall within the creamy layer criterion. It was later increased to Rs 2.5 lakh in 2004, and currently it is fixed at Rs 4.5 lakh.

9 Mulayam also made statements against use of computers, which he later retracted. This agenda against English also is, ironically, s imilar to the agenda of leaders such as Raj Thackeray of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS).


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