The quick-fix quota formula to uplift the have-nots has not worked. It has distorted our polity and led to endless demands from caste groups. But pure capitalist principles could offer a viable solution.
One does not know how far the Patidars’ demand for reservation will go. The group, officially classified as non-elite tillers called Kanbi or Kunbi, is associated with Patels in the minds of the people outside Gujarat. So Biharis and Telugu-speaking people are suddenly all at sea trying to figure out how their Kurmi leader Nitish Kumar and Kamma leader N. Chandrababu Naidu respectively have turned out to be kinsmen of the rabble rouser Hardik Patel (in photo above).
Do the Dhonojes, Ghatoles, Hindres, Jadhavs, Jhades, Khaires, Leva Patils, Lonaris and Tiroles of the Vidarbha region accept Hardik’s leadership? In remaining Maharashtra, agricultural castes that are not Marathas are supposed to be Kunbis. Have they risen to revolt, responding to Hardik’s call? How can the wannabes in Khairlanji district want to be categorised as OBCs on the one hand and also be identified as the perpetrators of anti-Dalit violence in 2006 on the other? What kind of backwardness makes a set of backward people maim and kill other backwards?
It is a tale of supreme irony that the Patidars, or owners of patis (plots of land), who once assumed the title Patel to claim a high rank in the social hierarchy (a notch lower than Kshatriyas), are now vying for government recognition of their “backwardness”. Citing D.F. Pocock’s work of 1972, Kanbi and Patidar: A Study of the Patidar Community of Gujarat, Pratyusha Basu writes in her book Villages, Women, and the Success of Dairy Cooperatives in India: Making Place for Rural Development, “The adoption of the name ‘Patidar’—a term designating landholders—for the entire caste indicates the extent to which the rise of the Kanbis was directly linked to agricultural landownership becoming part of their ‘social aspirations’. The adoption by the Patidar caste of the surname ‘Patel’, used to designate the village headman, is likely to have come from the association of status with administrative positions. At the same time, Patidars were also working toward establishing a new Hindu identity.”
Quoting from D. Hardiman’s 1978 title Baroda: The Structure of a “Progressive” State, Basu continues: “In addition, Patidars ‘retained many of the qualities of the old village brotherhood’, demonstrated in the appellation of bhai (brother), to names, instead of the more respectful honorifics ji or lal, and their preference for popular vernacular bhakti (devotional) songs, over Sanskrit verses more reminiscent of Brahmanical Hindusim.”
From wanting to be close to the Kshatriya race with mores of Brahminism to engineering an upheaval to be recognised as a trailing community, the group has traversed a full circle.
The semantics of the classification are only of academic import, though. The greater question is why a community that is today business-oriented in Gujarat—never mind what “Patidars” do in the rest of the country—would long for poorly-paid government jobs so anxiously that it would lead to an unprecedented assembly of people in response to an appeal by an upstart. So what if the reserved categories are managing to get into these jobs with a mere 45 per cent of marks in the qualifying examinations, as the agitating Patels alleged?
This is not the inception of the confounding question. Jats, whom Indians by and large associate with large tracts of land and the latest SUVs, have gone on strike demanding OBC status before—and they have snatched that status from the government. But tell a Patel or a Jat in a social congregation that they are backward classes, and all hell will break loose!
Indeed, caste-based reservations in institutions and offices have outlived their utility, and have begun looking funny, even if not all agree that the proposition was ignoble when the first government of free India launched the provision for an experimental period of a decade. The way quota politics has shaped up in the country, particularly since V.P. Singh’s era of Mandal politics, is to blame for these agitations. Unlike historically maltreated Dalits, whose status as Scheduled Castes apply across India, the identification of Other Backward Classes varies from one state to another. These are the people whom Bindheshwari Prasad Mandal found lagging in economic progress despite their not being Shudras in the Hindu chaturvarna order.
While well-being not necessarily being related to castes is a reality, and so this consideration by Mandal was worth appreciation, the data on which the former Bihar chief minister based his report were antiquated. There had been no caste census in India since 1931 whereas the Morarji Desai government had instituted this commission in 1979. If the First Backward Classes Commission under chairman Kaka Kalelkar established by a presidential order in 1953 made a wild recommendation of reserving 70 per cent of seats in technical and professional institutions for the backward classes, the Mandal Commission outrageously asked for separate hostels for OBCs, which would only widen the caste gulf in the already discriminating Indian society. Even in the latest caste census of 2011 studied in 2015, 8,19,58,314 entries have been found to be erroneous, out of which 1,45,77,195 corrections are yet to be made.
The Mandal recommendations were not only confusing, but also deeply divisive. They provoked several castes in different states into dissention, with the underlying belief that the new parameter of backwardness gave them a chance to have a shot at reservations. This is no hypothesis. The number of castes that has been identified as OBCs increased from 3,743 in 1979-80 to 5,013 in 2006. This number will only rise further with emergence of Hardik Patels on the activism scene—as though the Mayawatis, Mulayam Singh Yadavs and Lalu Prasads were not enough to queer the pitch of cynical vote-banking by the Congress.
The aspirants of sarkari naukri among the “general category” candidates reckon they would either land up with the status of OBC that they are demanding, or this entire drama could end in an anti-climax. Hypothetically, there would come a time when no caste would keep itself aloof from the demand for quota in education and employment. And since it would not be feasible to offer quotas to all castes, it would mean an end of quota raj—some optimists in the so-called upper castes have begun believing.
The calculation is not far-fetched. Jats are a minority in both Rajasthan and Haryana. But they could force the government in the former state to give them OBC status. In the second, they had a fait accompli-like claim to the office of chief minister until Narendra Modi put his foot down and made a bold exception by favouring Manohar Lal Khattar for the post after the BJP won its last Assembly election. The percentage of Patels in Gujarat is much larger; hence they have greater bargaining power.
Imagine what will happen to Telangana and the Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh and a substantial part of Karnataka if Reddys were to get inspired by Hardik Patel! Will the Kammas, classified as “upper Shudra” by the British, “general category” by today’s central government and “OBC” by the states they are dominant in, not feel the pinch and hold the coastal districts of Krishna, Guntur and Prakasham to ransom?
Brahmins, supporting whose cause is considered to be politically incorrect, constitute 12 per cent of the Uttar Pradesh population. After the bahujan samaj (euphemism for Scheduled Castes), this was the caste Mayawati set out to woo. The BSP had initially coined the bellicose slogan, “tilak, tarazu aur talwar, inko maaro jutey chaar” [Forehead mark, weighing scale and sword (symbols of Brahmins, Vaishyas and Kshatriyas respectively)—hit them with shoes]. When the Dalits alone did not prove to be assurance enough for winning elections, the party mellowed the catchphrase down to “tilak lagaao haathi par, baki sab baisaakhi par” [apply tilak on the elephant (BSP symbol); let the rest (other castes) walk on crutches] and “brahman shankh bajayega, haathi badhta jaayega” [Brahmins will blow conch shells; the elephant will march ahead (implying, Brahmins will welcome the progress of Dalits)].
Then the Samajwadi Party successfully drew a chunk of their votes in 2012. A lost Congress tried to draw them back to its fold by eulogising the contributions of the late Kamlapati Tripathi to the party.
Even today in the hinterland, tell a villager you are a postgraduate, and he will assume you are a Brahmin! On my last Varanasi trip, I was surprised to note that whoever was anybody in the holy city turned out to be a Mishra! Overlook the exaggeration in the stereotype, and visualise what would happen to the Hindi belt if those occupying seats of power call for a mass strike encouraged by the Gujarat insurrection.
And one can name several other castes, dominating other states, which can get ideas of going berserk from the Patel experiment.
The proponents of this counter-narrative have apparently not factored in the Supreme Court-ordered cap of 50 per cent on maximum reservation. But did the apex court offer a foolproof solution? In its 2007 order, it conceded the fact that basing recommendations of reservations on the 1931 data was a bad idea, but the very next year it upheld the government decision to reserve 27 per cent of seats in education and employment destinations for the OBCs! And then it defined the creamy layer as families that earned a minimum of Rs 2,50,000 a year. Since this “cream” emanated from reservations, it would have been logical if beneficiaries of the policy were not allowed to be concentrated in families that have already benefited from it in the past—in a calibrated manner. That is, the court could have said that a given family could avail the quota for a Class I officer once, for a Class II official twice, a Class III staffer thrice and a Class IV worker four times—the number could be multiples of these—in the same or different generations.
Had such a formula been proposed, Dalits and OBCs would themselves object when they would be deprived of the opportunity while some families of the same castes avail it member after member, generation after generation. Linking it to money makes it look as if the upper castes cannot stand the newfound affluence of the hitherto downtrodden people—which is not true.
I recall a debate between veteran journalist and BJP’s Rajya Sabha member Chandan Mitra and sociologist Dipankar Gupta on NDTV’s “We the People”, broadcast many seasons ago. When Mitra spoke of the “creamy layer” to debunk the argument in favour of continuation of the quotas, Gupta opined that the very fact that a creamy layer had emerged from among the backwards was a certificate of the government programme’s success.
However, “Dalit intellectual” Chandra Bhan Prasad’s polemics in this regard does not wash. He had tweeted to me that 3,500 years of discrimination against his class of people couldn’t be evened out by the emergence of some relatively affluent people from Scheduled Castes and Tribes in the last six decades or so. Playing the devil’s advocate, I had forwarded this theory in a policy meet of the Aam Aadmi Party. National Executive member Mayank Gandhi said that, while the stories of discrimination were true, the few families today who have been enjoying reservations for generations are not the only ones whose ancestors were at the receiving end of such social prejudice. So how could they monopolise quota, he asked. “Social scientist” Yogendra Yadav—then a prominent ideologue of AAP—agreed, and so did the rest of the thinkers in the group meeting at one of the innumerable bungalows of “socialist” Prashant Bhushan, who seemed to nod grudgingly.
The irony of quota politics, where it turns into a political tool, has seen non-caste manifestations too. Practitioners of identity politics demand it every election season for the backwards among Muslims, whereas cynics object to the proposal by arguing that these former Dalits should not have converted to Islam, which had promised them a classless society. Muslim scholars among clerics realize that this demand would never be met.
Deobandi Maulana Junaid Ahmed of Gyanvapi Mosque believes this is the Indian State’s administrative strategy; “not offering quotas to Muslims is a disincentive for conversion,” he says. Some Muslim members of the Congress told me under the condition of anonymity that they would never demand reservations for Muslims vociferously because it would drive a wedge in the Muslim-Dalit-OBC unity—a vote-bank that is vital to defeating their archrival BJP, whom they belittle as a party of or for Brahmins and Banias, in election campaigns.
If the subsidy for pilgrimage is counted among various types of quota, the late Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy brazened it out by offering it to Christians of undivided Andhra Pradesh for trips to Bethlehem, though no such journey is mandated by the Testaments, unlike Hajj, which a Muslim must undergo as per Islam’s holy diktats.
Most universities across the country deduct anywhere between 5 per cent and 20 per cent of the marks obtained by migrating students at their intermediate level examinations. This is a form of quota as well—a regional one at that.
Another such instance was the zone-wise selection of players by the Board of Cricket Control in India, which had deprived several meritorious cricketers from the berth they deserved in Team India.
Finally, even leaving seats for members of the “weaker sex” in modes of public transport is not acceptable to some men and boys!
Ergo, if the Indian distortion of the idea of affirmative action does not apply to jobs, it will apply elsewhere.
But make no mistake. No government of any party will ever announce an end to reservations. It is politically suicidal. Hence, all campaigns to terminate the quota regime are futile, the validity of arguments of those opposed to reservations notwithstanding. Tell those who holler for a quota for any caste that even 100 per cent reservations for them in employment cannot accommodate their entire job-seeking population for the simple reason that there aren’t enough jobs available with the Union and state governments. They simply wouldn’t listen, and government obviously wouldn’t force them to see reason.
Therefore, try something that will work. Make reservations irrelevant.
The most effective step in that direction was taken by the P.V. Narasimha Rao regime—that ironically balanced it by ensuring entry of the Mandal Commission recommendations through the back door, which V.P. Singh couldn’t let in from the front—when the floodgates of the economy were opened up, unleashing numerous well-paid jobs in the private sector, reducing the demand for public sector jobs. In fact, for a considerable stretch of time, government jobs had virtually reduced to being undesirable, especially for the urban youth.
The second generation of reforms must be unleashed by Narendra Modi & Co in the form of business opportunities, loans, sops and incentives. We, gentry of the middle class, tend to believe that a majority of the population comprises job seekers. False! If the poor are the majority, the poor are also mostly self-employed or daily-waged labourers. They make up much of India’s enormous unorganised sector. And they are largely Dalits and OBCs who do things as varied as serving in the fields of the landed class, working in the factories of the rich and running their own little trades and services in villages, small towns and cities.
On 8 September, the Prime Minister, accompanied by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, RBI governor Raghuram Rajan, Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramanian, NITI Aayog Vice Chairman Arvind Panagariya and an assortment of secretaries met with the top honchos of Indian industry, and urged them to invest more in the country to make the maximum out of the slowdown in China and to beat the effect of the imminent raising of interest rates by the US Federal Reserve (The Fed has in fact not raised the rates till now, as was expected widely, but could raise them in December).
This class of movers of the economy have been ensured time and again that their ease of doing business would be enhanced. How about meeting with members of the unorganised sector to know how and why exactly they are struggling? The prime minister had said in a speech addressed to representatives of medium and small scale enterprises that they produced jobs in far greater numbers than their large scale counterparts. This is true. Now Modi has to climb a step lower to cater to job generators of an even larger scale.
According to Rapaka Satya Raju’s seminal work, Urban Unorganised Sector in India, this unorganised sector is marked by “ease of entry, smaller scale of operation, local ownership, uncertain legal status, labour-intensive and operating using lower technology-based methods, flexible pricing, less sophisticated packing, absence of a brand name, unavailability of good storage facilities and an effective distribution network, inadequate access to government schemes, finance and government aid, lower entry barriers for employees, a higher proportion of migrants with a lower rate of compensation”. The challenge in this sector is that, while it is easy to enter the market, these trades are not good income generators. Neither are the workers happy with the conditions under which they have to function here.
Being largely uneducated, many of them do not even know something like reservations exists. And those who do cannot even qualify to avail of the opportunity. The son of the domestic help who serves at your home couldn’t apply for a medical entrance test, could he? The SC boy, in all likelihood, dropped out at the middle school stage. No job quota can help him. He needs support in his small business of, say, trading in bicycle spare parts. My Muslim friends who hail from the shanties of Wazirpur and Jamia Nagar in Delhi have never dreamt of a government job. They repair computers and mobile phones and want relief from daily harassment from beat constables of Delhi Police. Abdul Lateef and all his boys hailing from West Bengal’s Murshidabad district, who built my modest house in Kolkata, can give any qualified architect a run for his money in the field of affordable housing. These boys want protection and security from labour laws of the kind factory workers are entitled to.
It is when this sector booms and assures its workers of a secured life that the clamour for reserved seats in State-run colleges and offices will subside and finally breathe its last.
I have critiqued Chandra Bhan Prasad, but I am a big fan of Dalit capitalism, which is a joint initiative of his and his friend Milind Kamble’s. Ultimately, it will be money that will decide a person’s class; when it is created at the bottom of the pyramid, the erstwhile feudal lords will bow to their former subjects.
“Social engineers” with vested interests will always say capitalism never works. Ignore them. On the sidelines of some seminar where Prasad and I meet, we will laugh at the bungalows the Bhushans own across the country over a cup of coffee.