OBC Reservations

Protect Unity With Social Justice

Prakash Karat

A decade after its submission, a part of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission report has been implemented by the announcement of 27 per cent reservation for the Other Backward Classes in jobs in Central Services and public sector undertakings. While there were periodic agitations for and against implementation of the Mandal report after 1981, now the decision of the National Front Government has sparked off widespread student protests against it in different States. They have the backing of a considerable section of the intelligentsia and practically the entire media controlled by big business.


The vociferous protest against reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and the growing unease about reservations for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes reflects the sharp conflicts which are erupting in Indian society over the distribution of a limited number of Government jobs and educational resources. It should be noted that the vocal opposition to the reservations for OBCs goes hand in hand with a more disguised resentment against reservation for the scheduled castes and tribes. One has only to recall to the Gujarat anti-reservation movement of 1981 and the recent December, 1989 U.P. agitation against the Parliament extending the reservation of seats in legislatures for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes for another ten years.

The movement against reservations in the present Indian context is definitely retrograde and objectively serves the interests of those who seek to preserve the dominance of the upper castes. The plea against reservations is advanced on the basis of equality of opportunity and merit. In an unequal society like India, where scheduled castes, tribes and shudras (the bulk of whom are the OBCs) have been discriminated against in choice of occupation, social mobility and control over the means of production, all talk of equality, without taking into account this reality, reduces equality to the concept of formal equality.

As for merit, it is perfectly possible in India to discriminate in recruitment and promotions, on the basis of caste prejudices or preferences, militating against merit. Further, merit, as the Mandal Commission and a host of other commissions and Supreme Court judgements have pointed out, must be seen in the context of achieving real equality of opportunities, social environment and compensatory discrimination to ensure social justice.


The CPI(M) has viewed reservations for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes as the minimum relief extended by the Indian State to those sections of society who have historically and socially suffered the worst oppression over the centuries. While supporting this reservation (totalling 22.5 per cent at the Centre and varying in States according to the proportion of population of SCs and STs), the CPI(M) has also held that this is limited concession which does not tackle the roots of the problem necessary for their social and economic emancipation. The history of four decades of reservations for SCs and STs amply confirms this fact. Only a thin stratum (not more than five to ten per cent) of the SC population has benefitted from the reservations. Even in education, they are unable to fully utilise the quotas allotted to them.

The untouchables are still not "touchable" despite the four decades of constitutional sanction against this evil practice. They are subject to lynchings, rape of women and arson when they seek to stand up for their rights. Altogether 28,736 cases of atrocities against scheduled castes were reported in 1987 and 1988.

The reason for this is the lack of change in the material conditions of the vast mass of the scheduled castes people living in the rural areas. Land, the main means of production, is outside their control. The failure of the Indian bourgeoisie to complete the democratic tasks of the first stage of our revolution due to their compromise with landlordism, has led to the landless scheduled castes and tribals remaining not only at the bottom of the social ladder but also at the bottom of the economic ladder. That is why the CPI(M), while firmly supporting reservations in jobs and education for the SCs and STs as offering some openings, consistently demands radical land reforms and building of the unity of agricultural labourers and poor peasants of all sections to provide the basis for a powerful agrarian movement to achieve the same.

The Mandal Commission report itself recognises this basic truth and notes: "unless these production relations are radically altered through structural changes and progressive land reforms implemented rigorously all over the country, OBCs will never become truly independent. In view of this, highest priority should be given to radical land reforms by all the States.


Reservation for the OBCs has existed in many States for a long time. In the four southern States there has been some form of reservations from the pre-independence period. The other States where reservations exist in varying degrees are: Gujarat, Maharashtra, Bihar, U.P., Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. In West Bengal, Orissa, Assam and most of the north-eastern States, such reservations do not exist due to the nature of the historical evolution of the caste pattern, and in West Bengal due to the major socio-economic changes which were brought about through prolonged struggles.

It is a fact that the bulk of those who are categorised as OBCs in the States belong to the rural poor. They are sharecroppers, small tenants or poor peasants with small holdings. Further, in the rural areas the OBCs are in occupations which are still based on the traditional caste hierarchy such as dhobis, barbers, cattlerearers and artisans. Their lowly caste status prevents their entry into education and new occupations. These are the facts confirmed by detailed studies conducted by the Havanur Commission in Karnataka (1975); the Backward Classes Commission in Tamil Nadu (1971); the Backward Classes Reservation Commission in Kerala (1971); the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Commission in Gujarat (1976) and the Backward Classes Commission in Andhra Pradesh (1970); that within OBCs there are many sub-castes which are educationally and economically backward judged by a number of socio-economic indicators.


Therefore, where the caste status contributes to the backwardness of communities under the OBC category, and where anti-caste movements have not been able to cut across caste barriers and build powerful class-based mass organisations, there is a justification for providing reservations to such communities. This is the basis on which the CPI(M) supported the implementation of the Mandal Commission report since 1981-82 and earlier in States where due to prolonged movements the OBCs were accorded reservations.


The CPI(M) has, however, qualified this support on two counts. Firstly, it has argued for an economic criterion within the reservation for OBCs. This is a demand distinct from the blanket reservation for the SCs and STs for whom no economic criterion is necessary. Four decades of socio-economic developments and growth of capitalism have led to class differentiation within the caste structure. In the case of OBCs, it is well known that there are a few castes in different States which contain influential strata who own land and other means of production. They are well represented in the political power structure also. The complexity of the OBC problem lies, thus, in the fact that within some communities of the OBCs there is a great economic (inter-caste) differentiation and also there is inter-caste differentiation, i.e., compared to a few better-off communities there are a number of more backward communities.

In order to see that the landless as compared to the richer landed, the poor as compared to the affluent, the more backward as distinct from the strata of the developed -- i.e. the majority of the poor and deprived of these communities -- benefit from reservation, the CPI(M) wants an economic criterion. This criterion need not necessarily be just an income ceiling, but can be a package in which income tax assessments, extent of landholding, professional status of parents, etc., can be taken into consideration.


The concept of an economic criterion is not a new proposal. As early as 1958, the Administrative Reforms Committee in Kerala headed by E.M.S. Namboodiripad, Chief Minister, suggested such a criterion for backward classes reservation. The Nettoor Damodaran Commission report of 1971 also made a similar suggestion. The Justice Chinnappa Reddy Commission report, the most recent in Karnataka, has recommended that from the OBC reservations those whose parents are income tax or sales tax assesses, hold land upto eight acres or are Class I officers can be excluded. In Kerala reservation in admissions to medical colleges is governed by an income criterion. Only those whose parents draw less than Rs, 20,000 per year are entitled to benefit from OBC reservation. In some other States like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, there are two or three categories of backward classes, with the more backward either getting more fee concessions and other facilities or getting a greater quantum of reservations. The difficulty is that wherever OBC reservations already exist, the introduction of an economic criterion meets with strong resistance. Only when a broad consensus is reached can it be implemented. In Kerala, it has not been implemented so far as there is no such agreement. In the case of Bihar, when OBC reservations were being introduced for the first time in 1978, it was possible, after a destructive anti-reservation movement, to arrive at a formula which has been working since then. The 26 per cent reservation consists of 12 per cent of the most backward category listed in Annexure 1; eight per cent for other backward classes listed in Annexure II with an income ceiling of Rs 12,000 per annum; three per cent for women and three per cent for the poor of the forward castes. The National Front Government at the Centre should consider the Bihar Experience which brought about some stability in the tense caste situation. In this connection, the proposal of the Prime Minister for additional reservation of five to ten per cent for those economically backward can be accepted provided that this is allotted to those who do not fall within the reserved categories. This may help in alleviating the fears of those economically deprived amongst the forward castes.


There is a second qualification with respect to OBC reservations. While the CPI(M) has been supporting the demand for the implementation of the Mandal Commission report, it has also been asking for a consensus to be evolved on the sensitive question. Only by taking care to see that substantial sections are convinced on the justification and reasonableness of the scope of reservations can be divisive anti-reservation movement be avoided or limited. That is why the Party criticised the sudden announcement without proper consultations. That an all-party meeting has now been proposed to held on September 3, shows how such an exercise earlier could have been helpful.

Anyway, after the rich and varied experience of OBC reservations in the States, it is clear that there has to be periodic reviews of the status of those on the reserved lists and for identification of those who continue to remain backward. Here a good example is the Chinnappa Reddy Commission (the third in Karnataka in the space of 15 years( which has further defined the identification of backward status apart from keeping in mind the caste factor and computing other criteria along with it such as access to education, economic status, occupation and employment pattern.


But reservations for the OBCs have come to stay. Unlike the superficial portrayal which depicts V.P. Singh as the villain who has suddenly opened the Pandora's box of reservation for the OBCs, the social and political implications of the aspirations of those downtrodden in Indian society, has been with us before independence and during the past four decades. These facts of history are deliberately suppressed by the likes of Arun Shourie who have railed against reservations. He is only being consistent in his Hindu upper-casteist outlook. Advocating the "shifting" of Babri Masjid from its site in Ayodhya and pouring scorn over the aspirations of the lower castes, are both of one piece.

An aspect of the prolonged struggle against upper-caste domination was the non-Brahmin movements in the south and in Maharashtra for well over a century. In the north, the anti-caste social reform movements had a belated start. Bihar saw this phenomenon earlier than in other north-Indian States. In the pre-independence period, these anti-caste movements spearheaded the fight against the upper caste domination. Their main weakness lay in their alienation from the anti-imperialist movement a feature due also to the approach of the Congress party. It sought to fight caste-domination not by advocating a thorough-going agrarian revolution which could have altered the relations of production in agriculture, but by an upper-caste approach of reformism which was exemplified by Gandhism, both before and after independence, with its reliance on preaching against untouchability by inter-caste dining, inter-caste marriages, and of course reservations.


The Marxist analysis of contemporary reality holds that the anti-caste movement, if it is to be successful in eliminating caste domination, requires linking the anti-caste movements with the movement for agrarian revolution, for building the unity of the working people, and advancing the democratic movement. Where this task remain unaccomplished, or where this impulse is weak, the consciousness of the oppressed mass within the lower caste considers reservations as the only safeguard for their advancement. The working class party, therefore, while supporting reservations, seeks to strengthen its links with the rural mass which will be a main force of the agrarian revolution. At the same time, it also considers the building of unity of the toiling people of all castes to be the crucial question.

Unfortunately, some sections of the intelligentsia with democratic inclinations are opposing reservations for the OBCs on the plea that it perpetuates casteism and fragments society. This is to ignore the fact that it is the casteism of the upper-castes attendant with the monopoly of the means of production, which has perpetuated backwardness. If with capitalist development, class and caste alignments are getting redefined and divergent, the end to casteism and building class-based movements requires a dual approach.

The CPI(M) recognises that a big section of the working people come from castes and communities who, though not belonging to the SCs or OBCs, are economically exploited and suffer from social deprivation. They constitute an important and advanced section of the democratic movement. The modern working class and the organised movement of the working people can advance only the basis of the unity of both sections of the working people -- the advanced sections of the urban working people and rural mass who suffer from both caste and economic oppression.

Those who advocate reservations without any restrain and recklessly compete to hike up quotas for the backward classes and scheduled castes are not mindful of the vital need for unity. Their stand mirrors the approach of those upper caste sections who seek to oppose any increase in reservations as a threat to their interests. Both the pro-reservationist and the anti-reservationist leaders work within the bourgeois mould and foster the illusion that the distribution of the limited number of jobs at stake is a life and death question for the advancement of their communities. Both these approaches have to be countered and the working people of both sections mobilised on a common platform. let it be emphasised that reservations alone cannot solve any of the basic problems facing the socially and economically oppressed.


The CPI(M) attitude to OBC reservation stems from its class standpoint. It seeks the unity of the toiling people, of all castes, both urban and rural, against the main exploiters who perpetuate a social system which is retrogressive. This unity is necessary to fight monopoly capital and concentration of wealth which should unite both the forwards and backwards who comprise the working class. It is necessary to fight landlordism, for which the entire rural poor has to be mobilised breaking caste oppression and divisions. The democratic sections amongst the toilers not covered by reservations, both working class and peasantry, have to accept the necessity for reservations, so that overall unity can be cemented.


Unlike the past, the CPI(M) cannot see the anti-caste struggles as only a sphere for social reform. The Left has to channelise this anti-feudal current into its agrarian movement. The Thirteenth Congress of the CPI(M), in its Political Resolution, addressed itself to the situation of the masses belonging to these downtrodden castes and state:

"Large sections from these masses often stand alienated from the democratic and working class movement, and are swayed by sectional leadership which diverts their discontent and anger into narrow channels. The period since our last Congress has witnessed a new militant awakening among these sections -- the adivasis, harijans and backward classes. It is necessary to make all efforts to draw this new awakening to the common struggle developing a correct attitude and tactics towards their organisation".

The resolution proceeds to point out that the successive Congress Governments have attempted to rally these sections, tempting them with the promise of reservation of jobs in Government service. "This was also a device to bypass the question of land reforms and redistribution of land". Since reservations cater only to a small minority amongst them, "the growing misery of the uneducated mass is bursting forth in militant protest and action. These protests against social discrimination, caste tyranny, police repression, are at present carried out under the leadership of their caste leaders. They represent the anti-feudal, anti-landlord discontent of these agrarian masses."

The resolution exhorts: "The Party, the democratic movement and class organisations should led support to their struggle against caste tyranny and repression, and enable them and their organisations to join the common struggle." This applies to the SC and ST, toiling sections as well to the oppressed in the OBCs.


The RSS has come out openly against the declared reservations for the OBCs. Denouncing V.P. Singh, the Organiser stated: "He wants to undo the great task of uniting Hindu society from the days of Vivekananda, Dayanand Saraswati, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Hedgewar." The RSS view, not surprisingly, is governed by its Hindu chauvinist upper-caste bias. Notwithstanding the official position of the BJP leadership, that reservation should be there with an economic criterion, its ranks are active in the student agitation. One of its M.P.s, Dr. J.K. Jain, went on a hunger strike against the announcement.

Both the BJP and Congress(I) activists are actively competing to lead the anti-reservation agitation. Their representatives in the executive of the Delhi University Teachers Association have ganged up to try and pass a resolution condemning the implementation of the OBC reservations. From these activities it seems that for these parties, (unlike the CPI(M), the demand for an economic criterion is not meant to improve the scheme of reservations, it is a ploy to try and scuttle its implementation.


One has to condemn the manoeuvrings of bourgeois political leaders who seek to make reservation a device for consolidating their influence and thereby fan caste divisions and divide the people. This is a cynical manipulation of the aspirations of the most oppressed sections in the downtrodden castes. At the same time, the advanced democratic movement, the fighting organisations of the different sections of the people have a heavy responsibility before them:

1. To oppose movements against reservations.

2. At the same time, explain to the democratic sections not entitled to reservations, the necessity to accept this limited concession to those deprived of the capacity for equal competition due to historical-social conditions.

3. Counter caste-exclusive movements which stress only reservations and seek to keep the SC or reserved categories of employees and workers away from the common movement. This requires championing their special demands and problems.


All efforts must be made to see that people do not get divided on the reservation question. For this, it is essential that the struggle to change the present direction of policies is stepped up. The National Front Government has promised the right to work in the Constitution; it is yet to be implemented. The struggle to expand employment and ensure the right to work can be the basis of the broadest unity encompassing the crores of the unemployed. In the sphere of land reforms, the fight to distribute land already identified as surplus (63 million acres) but not taken over the distributed by the Government (58.5 million acres), provides the basis for uniting the rural poor. The right to education and expansion of education facilities to make them accessible to all is vital in view of the continuing trend to restrict higher education and neglect the primary school sector. If increased reservations in educational institutions are there, it must go hand in hand with compensatory increases in seats in higher education, so that no one deserving is deprived of higher education.

The National Front Government has been unable to make a radical break with the old economic policies of the Congress. It has no plan to revive the over two lakh sick units which are closed in the industrial sector; its industrial policy pronouncements with a bias to foreign capital and privatisation will restrict the scope of employment. It has not withdrawn the ban on recruitment in Government services and public sector undertakings. Many State Governments do not want to proceed of land reforms on the specious plea that its implementation is completed. All these policies have to be reversed, and this requires the broadest unity of all sections of the people.

The stand taken by the CPI(M) Politbureau and Central Committee on the OBC reservations, in practice, is the way the unity of the people, the toiling sections can be maintained and strengthened to see that the main struggle against the bourgeois-landlord system further advances.