Over 70 years after independence, there is a strange race amongst India’s multitude of castes and sub-castes to be declared a backward community, in order to gain preference in jobs and education. In the world’s fastest growing economy, this is a troubling sign of the ground realities.
For centuries, people belonging to the backward castes in the complex structure of Indian society had been keen to hide or at least underplay their castes. Most would attempt to pass off as belonging to a higher level in the pyramid, be it for getting a job, finding a match for marriage or simply in a social gathering.
However, over the last two decades, there seems to be a trend of several castes in India to seek status of backward communities and hence qualify for quotas in government jobs as well as places in good public schools. While if the demands came from really backward communities, it would sound logical and acceptable, however, of late, the reservation seekers are communities that dominate the socio-politico-economic landscape in their respective states, thus turning the entire principle of positive discrimination on its head.
Battle for reservation
There have been numerous agitations, most of them violent and extremely tricky for politicians to handle, especially as these communities represent a significant block of votes.
Take the Jats in northern India for instance. Jats are essentially a farming community of landholders spread in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. They hold immense political and economic clout in parts of these states. For instance, in Haryana, they hold for more than 50 pc of the total land, a precious resource in a densely-populated state where agriculture is a major part of the economy. Many Jats have also sold their lands, at extremely high rates, to real estate companies for construction of homes or offices as well as to companies for setting up factories.
Yet, the Jats have been seeking reservation in government jobs as well as preference for their children in public schools. Their agitations have frequently disrupted life in northern India and the Indian capital. Though the agitation is on the backburner currently, it is bound to rear its head again, with elections approaching in Rajasthan in about four months and six months later in Haryana.
The situation is very similar in the western states of Gujarat and Maharashtra. In Gujarat, the Patidars – also traditionally well-to-do landholders –brought the state to a complete halt last year, ahead of local elections, forcing the government to open negotiations.
And for the last two months, Maharashtra has been on the boil as the Marathas have been asking for reservation for themselves. In the latest round, last week, violent incidents gripped the industrialised parts of western Maharashtra.
Like the Patidars in Gujarat and the Jats in Haryana, Marathas account for about 30 pc of the total population and these communities’ political strength is evident as most of the chief ministers in the respective states have hailed from their community.
The demanding upper caste
Demands by dominant castes for reservations put a question mark on the status and efficiency of the reservations that were initially instituted only for the two of the most excluded and backward sections of the Indian society – the tribals and the dalits, the castes that figure at the bottom of the social pyramid. Together, these two communities constitute about 31 pc of the country’s population and both segments have been exploited for centuries.
However, when the reservations were granted, soon after the Indian independence, the system was meant to last only for 10 years and their protection was reinforced with numerous laws protecting the two communities from exploitation and abuse.
However, centuries of exploitation could not be overcome in merely a decade of quotas, especially when large parts of the two communities were unable to benefit from these measures and the exploitation has continued in many villages. Dalits are even today made to live in separate colonies, away from other communities, and being denied access to temples and village wells. Hence, the Indian Parliament has been extending the reservation, with the last extension granted in 2009.
Door to OBC quota
However, in a cruel twist, in late 1980s, and in face of a massive social unrest, the government decided to extend reservations to another set of communities – called Other Backward Communities (OBCs) and granted them their own quotas. It was this move that opened the Pandora’s box, leading to demands from all the other communities, including Jats and Marathas – to seek their own set of reservations and be classified as OBCs.
Left to their own devices, politicians would have surrendered to them, too, and granted reservations. Many of them tried granting quotas to these communities as well. But thankfully, the courts intervened and struck down the additional quotas, limiting the total number of reservations – for places in schools or jobs – to 50 pc of the total available.
Demands from even dominant communities across the country, including in the most well-to-do states like Maharashtra, Gujarat and Haryana, speak volumes of the current scenario in the country. Indian economy and education are believed to have grown multifold over the last seven decades. However, the growth clearly has left behind large swathes of the society, with a small minority of rich and well-connected groups creaming the benefits of the development of the country. This is clearly visible from the sharply rising inequality in India, amongst the highest in the world, with 73 pc of the wealth generated last year going to the top one percent of the population.
Jobs – within the government or even in private sector – are rare as are places in good schools, unless you can afford to pay about 100 times the average monthly salary in India as the tuition fees for one year.
Instead of creating additional quotas, the politicians would do well to ensure that the fruits of development are spread across the entire country in an equitable and just manner. So that the communities could then compete and race ahead towards development and not backwards!