Convene special session of Parliament and all state assemblies to prepare white paper on status of caste today in India…

martin
Martin Macwan
…to celebrate seven decades of national independence and 125th birth anniversary of Dr BR Ambedkar, who laid foundation for caste-based reservation for SC/ST/OBC and for women in political sphere…

By Martin Macwan*

The Patidars, popularly known as ‘Patels’, are far from ignorant to know that to acquire other backward class (OBC) status for securing reservation in Gujarat (each State has its own commission and list of its own castes), they have to file a claim before the permanent OBC commission set up by the Government of Gujarat. Knowing well they stand no chance to prove themselves as ‘an educationally and socially backward caste’ before the OBC commission, Patidars have chosen a path of popular show of muscles to bend the Gujarat Government headed by the first woman chief minister and a Patidar herself to agree to their demand. Patidars have also threatened the BJP Government of Gujarat as well as Narendra Modi, the OBC Prime Minister of India that they may fall if their demands are not met. Patidars claim that without their critical support both the rise of BJP government of Gujarat and Modi as the Prime Minister of India was not possible. 

The prominent personalities and organizations that have chosen to be silent on the issue thus far even when the agitation is entering into crisis situation threatening law and order include the Prime Minister, the national BJP, the RSS and the VHP. The Prime Minister and the national president of BJP are both from Gujarat.

The chief minister of Gujarat finds herself isolated, unofficially though, not sure which side half-a-dozen of her Patidar ministers, president of the state BJP and 37 Patidar MLAs will fall. The Government of Gujarat has not-so-new arguments to offer to the agitating deaf ears of the Patidars such as the ceiling of 50% reservation set up by the the Supreme Court striking down the special reservations granted to ‘Jats’, ‘Marathas’ and ‘Muslims’ in other states. The Patidars have decided to ignore and humiliate the appeal of the Chief Minister. For the Chief Minister the obvious puzzle is the timing of the agitation. Theoretically, Patidars were in a dominant position to raise their demand for reservation when Modi was seeking elevation to the national scene. Was it promised to them during the recent Parliamentary elections?

The Patidars know that they cannot claim either the ‘Scheduled Caste’ or ‘Scheduled Tribe’ status, the only groups who are granted proportional-to-their-population reservation by the Indian Constitution. Their (SC and ST) combined numerical strength is far above the Patidar Population in Gujarat. Important to note, the demand for reservation of Patidars is based on their ‘caste’.

Patidars also know that even if the Government of Gujarat agreed to grant them Reservation as a special category, they will never be able to stand the legal scrutiny. Hence they have made a politically smart move, the demand for OBC status. Their arguments are simple, transparent and honest in its face: All Patels are not rich; some of the Patels, the Anjana in particular, has been awarded the OBC status, so why not the Patels of other sub-castes be given reservation?; The poor Patel students suffer due to their caste though they are meritorious; and Patel representation in state offices is declining etc. One of the eye catching arguments going viral without any authentic base is that Patidars repent for not listening to their ‘icon’, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who favoured reservation for Patidars.

Surprisingly, the Government of Gujarat has not come out clearly on its position. The question before the Gujarat Government would be whether it is willing to grant reservation to the Patidar had it not been for the Supreme Court guideline limiting reservation to 50%. Without going into the merits of the guiding verdict of the Apex Court, the verdict itself falls short of a check to ensure that the representation of the castes who are not beneficiaries of the reservation system do at no point of time cross the 50% mark.

About 112 year ago, social revolutionary King Chhatrapati Sahu Maharaj – who fought Brahmin supremacy sanctioned by the religious heads, including the local Sankaracharya and orthodox leader Lokmanya Tilak to impose on him the ‘Sudra’ status leading to deprivation of Vedic ritual performance – had introduced 50% reservation in the jobs of his Kolhapur State on July 26, 1902 for the non-Brahmin castes. His order was specific; ban on the employment on Brahmins until the representation of non-Brahmins in the state jobs are secured to 50%.

As of today about 75% of Indian population SC-16.5 %, ST 7.5% and OBC 51% (in Gujarat SC are 7%, ST are 14.5% and OBC are estimated to be 42%) have reservation of 49%, and hence 25% of the Indian population in reality enjoys the reservation under the garb of ‘General Category’ of about 51% (great care is taken by the authorities to ensure that SC, ST or OBC do not eat into the unreserved quota of general category).

There is no guarantee; rather there is all probability as it has happened in the case of SC, ST and OBC reservations too that the beneficiaries within those groups often have been the rich and influential. The caste and Class in Indian context has learnt to coexist and survive. Corruption can buy you caste certificates. The argument therefore that the Patidar agitation is to seek the rights of the ‘poor Patels’ is flawed.Once the Patidars are enlisted in the OBC it is probable that with their economic and political power they are will usurp majority benefits within the OBC quota. This is well understood and apprehended by the OBC and hence they have taken the initiative to register their protest and organize public protest programs against possible inclusion of the Patidars in the OBC category.

True, there are Patels who are poor as individuals but they are not poor and vulnerable as a caste. This may be the case with other forward castes as well. This is the reflection of the reality that our national boasting about ‘development’ is a hollow story. Unfortunately the subject such as reservation that is emotive enough to gulp the majority attention of the common people at the cost of ignoring issues that involve anti-poor policies such as alienation of land in favor of the rich and industrialists, more expenditure on defense than education, quality of education in the country, non-implementation of land reforms, non-universalization of minimum wages across the country, commercialization of education, prevalence of manual scavenging, tax holidays for the industries, food security for the majority of citizens, harvesting communal divide for short term political gains etc.

So, to which logical end the Patidar agitation is driving itself? Surprisingly, they have never asked for the revision of the Supreme Court judgment limiting reservation to 50%. It is a fact, without doubt, that the current ‘agitation’ of Patidars for inclusion in the OBC category to benefit of the ‘Reservation’ system is a well-designed attempt. It is amply clear that the agitation is politically motivated. It is aiming at abolition of the reservation although it appears to be pro-reservation agitation.

Reservation based on economic criterion, different than the present creamy layer concept enforced on the basis of Supreme Court verdict, is talked about as the alternative for the Indian nation to the present caste based reservation system. It is conveniently forgotten that the reservation even for SC and ST is based on economic criteria.

A look in the past history will tell us that the need for reservation was not rooted in the poverty which was the dominant character both of the pre and post independent India. Rather Reservation as a legal remedy was planned on the basis of vulnerability, deprivation and exclusion for masses of population based on caste and religion in some cases.

The present socio-economic studies, both independent as well as the Government, tells us that the most poor in India continue to be the ST and SC as compared to the other castes. Poverty therefore is not solely the product of non- ownership of means of production or non-payment of statutory minimum wages but it is critically determined by ones caste status and the discriminatory practices that are inherently associated with the caste status.

Contrary to the caste based reservation system the proposed or thought about reservation system based on economic criteria alone, does not recognize the existence of caste in all its manifestations in Indian society. Moreover, the latter advocates an individualistic system, across caste to be the basis of reservation. We do not have less examples of the outcome of such a system although on a smaller scale perhaps. Can we say that the system of introducing BPL cards have worked to its logical end meant for the benefit of poor?

The major difference between the two systems is, whereas in the case of caste, it is not changeable as an identity while in the case of deciding the economic status of an individual it can be determined by the culture of bureaucratic functions and corruptions. The caste factor on the contrary will be more at play where those who are the forward castes will use everything at their hand from political power to economic power to tilt the balance in their favor.

Let us answer one question to understand the unfair power play in Gujarat. What is the representation of Muslims and Christians in both the Gujarat Assembly and the Parliamentary segments in comparison to their population? The same question can be asked about the representation of the Patidars in the State Assembly and the ministry.

The biggest argument against caste-based reservation is that it is not desirous on the ground that India has changed and so has the caste system. What evidence do we have to justify our perception? All the evidence that we have, such as the study conducted by Navsarjan “Understanding Untouchability”, 2010; by Indian Institute of Dalit Studies “Dalits in India: Search for a Common Destiny”, by Sukhadeo Thorat, 2009; and “Untouchability in Rural India” by Prof Ghanshyam Shah, 2006  and many more prove beyond reasonable doubt that untouchability and discrimination based on caste has persisted and co-existed with seven long decade of national independence.

Many panelists who appear on TV shows as experts, too, make the mistake of observing that caste-based reservations have continued, though originally they were planned only for 10 years. This limit in fact related only to political reservations and not educational and public service employment.

Reservation is perceived as ‘Bad’, ‘Evil’ and ‘Discriminatory’. Of course it is bad and evil for those who are hurt by it. They are hurt not because deprivation of rights but their ‘Privileges’. Why in the first place there was need for reservation based on caste if there was no caste system in the form of ‘chaturvarna’ as the rule of Indian society? Caste-based reservations is without doubt discriminatory but it is important to note it is a form of  ‘positive discrimination’. The global experience has been before us. In any sovereign government structure and rule based society social equilibrium cannot be achieved unless there is law sanctioned public programme of positive discrimination.

We have reached a stage in the life of the nation that requires a deeper debate on this critical issue. In the debate of reservation and its cost analysis we forget that the introduction of reservation in private sector that was promised to the nation has been shelved under the carpet. What is the status of affirmative action program that the Indian industry had proposed to counter the move of Parliament to introduce legislation for reservation in private sector?  This is important because the private sector so far as employment is concerned has become dominant force as compared to public sector. The promotion of private sector as a State policy has been at the cost of public resources including land, capital, tax holidays and elimination of labor laws.

It is unfortunate that, during seven decades of our national independence, we have failed to measure social reforms that have been ailing this nation for centuries especially on account of caste disabilities. Populist measures such as the ‘Prevention of Atrocities on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act’, though important by themselves, are far from being adequate to secure economic and political rights of the masses suffering from the caste practices.

It appears that the reservation for SC and ST have been important to strengthen their economic security. However, in the case of the OBC, reservations have further worked to strengthen their political power as a group. The latter development has perhaps not gone well down the throat of the Patidars who have walked many miles to be the dominant political force in Gujarat. Patidar agitation much against their expectation, have ended up in strengthening the theory of the KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim) after more than three decades.

The political class both the ruling as well as the opposition will be happy with such conflicts at regular intervals in society. For the ruling party these emotive tensions are good enough to divert the attention of the nation from their own failures.

It is the need of the hour before the nation is engulfed into social, caste and communal conflict over reservation and be pushed several decades back in the progress that the Nation must call for a special session of Parliament and all State assemblies to prepare a white paper on the status of caste in India after seven decades of Independence.

*Foremost Dalit rights activist; founder, Navsarjan Trust, Ahmedabad

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