Backward ho! – Higher castes demanding lower status make a mockery of positive discrimination
Feb 27th 2016 Economist
A City under siege can resist many things, but not thirst. On February 22nd both the national government and that of Haryana, a state that rings Delhi, the Indian capital, on three sides, crumpled after rioters sabotaged a canal that supplies nearly half the water to the sprawling metropolis. Some 28 people died as police backed by soldiers struggled to control arsonists and looters, as well as more peaceable protesters, who blocked roads and railways into Delhi. But with taps running dry it was easier to capitulate to the rioters’ main demand, which is to allow the Jats, a caste-like community that is powerful in Haryana, to gain “reservations”—that is, a share of state favours formally reserved for the supposedly poor and downtrodden.
It is not the first time that a relatively privileged group among India’s 3,000-odd castes has resorted to threats and blackmail to win inclusion in an official category known as “other backward classes”, or OBCs. Such protests have become alarmingly frequent. Last August in Gujarat a protest by the Patidars, a caste which, like the Jats, is traditionally composed of yeomen farmers but has increasingly joined the urban middle class, brought a crowd of perhaps 500,000 people on to the streets of Ahmedabad, the state’s main city. Ensuing riots left a dozen people dead. In late January the Kapus of Andhra Pradesh set railway carriages ablaze. The Gujjars of Rajasthan are another ethnic group, many of whose members, no longer wholly rural, are prospering. Accounting for 6-7% of the state’s people, they staged protests in 2008, 2010 and again last May.
At stake are the spoils from a policy of identity-based benefits, the equivalent of America’s “affirmative action” programmes. India’s elaborate system of positive discrimination stems from the constitution adopted in 1949. Its chief architect, B.R. Ambedkar, a brilliant jurist, was born a Dalit, that is, from one of the castes regarded as “untouchable” and kept wretched by untold generations of discrimination. He envisaged an active role for the new state in righting those wrongs. As the system evolved at state and federal levels, quotas for government jobs and places at universities were reserved for “scheduled castes”, meaning Dalits, along with a smaller portion for “scheduled tribes”, that is, members of poor, remote communities outside the caste system. The quotas have gone some way to relieving social stigmas and materially advancing India’s poorest groups.
But the constitution left open another, vaguer category. Article 15 mentions “socially and educationally backward classes” that might also become eligible for aid. First in state laws and later in national ones, Indian governments have recognised myriad groups as OBCs, deemed to suffer some disadvantage compared with the uppermost castes, and deserving of a helping hand.
In 1990 the federal government set national criteria for defining OBCs, fixing their quota at 27% and capping the overall reservations for all three groups at 50%. Further tinkering has created an increasingly elaborate structure of reservations. Some states certify hundreds of caste groupings as OBCs, while others have pushed their quota closer to 70%. Government commissions that vet applications for OBC status have grown increasingly imaginative, uncovering such subcategories as “backward-forward” castes, parts of a caste group that have fallen behind the rising status of other parts, or the so-called “creamy layer”, ie, members of an OBC who are denied benefit because their family income is above a defined maximum (about $10,000).
Increasingly castes are clamouring to be recognised as lowly in order to reap whatever benefits accrue from being counted in the bottom half. It has been a boon to a certain kind of politician. The rapid economic growth of recent years, accompanied by growing social mobility, has taken castes from the places or professions that first defined them. Yet caste persists as a source of identity and as a locus for various ill-defined grievances.
The Jats, who describe themselves as an ethnic group rather than a caste, take pride in a tradition of martial prowess. Spread across northern India and Pakistan, they make up nearly a third of Haryana’s people. With India’s urban economy offering more chances than rural life, those Jats left tilling the soil have suffered a reduction in their status. But they have used their voting strength to push for reservations. Before state elections in late 2014 the state and national governments, then both controlled by the Congress party, granted their wish. The promised inclusion would have reserved around 2,000 state jobs for Jats, who would otherwise have had to compete for them. But then Congress lost power to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). And Indian courts anyway blocked the move, arguing that Jats do not meet the criteria for backwardness.
What precisely triggered the latest rumpus in Haryana is not clear. Congress supporters point to statements from BJP leaders dismissing Jat demands. The BJP hints instead that Congress may have instigated the riots to embarrass it. Bad as such political wrangling is for India, it is not so bad as the precedent set by caving in to the Jats. Pressed by the government of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, to resolve the embarrassing issue, but wary of angering other OBCs, Haryana’s state government looks set to finesse the problem by granting Jats a special, extra quota of perks.
At Ambedkar’s insistence, the preamble to India’s constitution included a call for fraternity along with justice, liberty and equality. Its framers envisioned reservations primarily as a weapon to target social exclusion, and saw it as a temporary measure. Their long-term goal was to do away with the iniquity of caste barriers altogether. Instead, by appealing to one category or another for votes, India’s politicians have perpetuated and entrenched a system that fragments the country into jealous islands of class privilege.