Giving Backwards a push

Sub-categorising OBCs

An egalitarian society is a utopia, one based on the ideal of equality. Article 14 of the Constitution guarantees equality before the law. That means un-equals cannot be treated equally. Measures are required to be taken for the upliftment of un-equals to bring them on par with the advanced classes. In view of this, the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) proposed the sub-categorisation of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) back in 2015. In October 2017, President Ram Nath Kovind, in exercise of the powers conferred by Article 340 of the Constitution, appointed a commission to examine the issue of sub-categorisation of OBCs, chaired by retired Justice G. Rohini, to ensure social justice in an efficient manner by prioritising the Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs).

The First Backward Class Commission was set up under the chairmanship of Kaka Kalelkar in January 1953. The commission submitted its report in 1955, classifying 2,399 backward communities, with 837 of them classified as ‘most backwards’. But the report was never implemented.

The Janata Party, in its election manifesto in 1977, called for an end to caste-based inequalities. It promised a “policy of special treatment” in favour of the underprivileged sections of society. Thereby, the Second Backward Classes Commission or Mandal Commission (headed BP Mandal) was established in 1979 by the Janata Party government with a mandate to “investigate the conditions of socially and educationally backward classes within the territory of India”. The commission’s report stimulated a section of the Indian population, known as OBCs, and instigated a fierce debate on the policy for underprivileged and underrepresented groups in Indian politics.

Though the report was submitted on December 31, 1980, it remained in deep freeze until in 1990, former prime minister VP Singh’s government accepted the Mandal Commission report, which recommended 27% reservation for OBC candidates in central government services and educational institutions. This resulted in a paradigm shift in the national polity and thereby ‘OBC’ made its way into the lexicon of India’s social justice movement. Soon after this, political upheaval and violent protests took place nationwide.

Two years later, the Supreme Court, in its order of November 1992 in Indra Sawhney and others vs Union of India observed that “there is no constitutional/legal bar” to a state categorising backward classes as backward or more backward and had further observed that “if a state chooses to do it (sub-categorisation), it is not impermissible in law”.

So far, nine states, namely Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Puducherry, Karnataka, Haryana, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Bihar and Tamil Nadu, have carried out sub-categorisation of OBCs.

As proposed by the union cabinet, the Justice Rohini Commission has been set up to achieve the following objectives: firstly, “to examine the extent of inequitable distribution of benefits of reservation among the castes/communities included in the broad category of OBCs, with reference to the OBCs included in the Central list”; secondly, “to work out the mechanism, criteria, norms and parameters, in a scientific approach, for sub-categorisation within such OBCs”; and lastly, “to take up the exercise of identifying the respective castes/communities/sub-castes/synonyms in the Central List of OBCs and classifying them into their respective sub-categories.” This landmark decision was taken on the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, which stiffens, in the spirit of his teachings and philosophy, the government’s efforts to achieve greater social justice and inclusion for all.

The lack of credible data is the overriding challenge this commission faces. The data on castes began to be collected since India’s first decennial census itself, which was completed in 1872 under the British Raj. The colonial government continued to accrue information related to castes till the 1931 census, but after that, censuses haven’t followed the practice of collecting data on castes.

So, the only reputable nationwide data on caste comes from the 1931 colonial census. However, data on castes was collected under a separate census called Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC). But, a cursory inclusion of the caste question in the SECC has resulted in largely unusable data.

At present, we don’t have accurate figures of the population of OBCs. Different surveys have thrown up different numbers.

The OBC community feels that 27% reservation is inadequate compared to its population, which the Mandal Commission had put at 52%, extrapolating from the 1931 colonial census.

As Census 2021 is approaching, the government can constitute an expert group to find out ways to undertake the task of counting caste data in census forms. This would give us fairly accurate demographic data about various caste groups in India and help reshape the nature of affirmative action policy in India. It’s regrettable that even after 70 years of Independence, we still rely heavily on colonial-era census to form our policies. This step will ensure that we have better information on caste for the future dialogues.

The present move by the government to sub-categorise the OBCs would affect the socially and educationally advanced communities within the backward classes who have gained from the policy of positive discrimination over the past four decades. If implemented, this step would prioritise the Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) and would adhere to the principles of social justice.

Lastly, this move would bring about a drastic and paradigm shift, just as the Mandal Commission did. Let’s hope that this step will not lead to violent protests of the kind that took place in the wake of the implementation of the Mandal Commission report.

(Mohapatra is Assistant Professor of Sociology, Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi; Pal is a Student Fellow (elected) of Royal Anthropological Institute, UK)

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