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Political consensus

The general reaction of political parties to the verdict has been laudatory,
and it is realpolitik that seems to shape responses.

Sitaram Yechury (CPI-M), K.V. Thangkabalu (Congress), Swami Agnivesh, D.

Raja (CPI) and S. Ramadoss (PMK) at a rally organised by the Pattali Makkal
Katchi in New Delhi on November 12, 2007, in protest against the
inadequate representation given to OBCs in Central government jobs.

FOR over two decades and a half, the politics around reservation for Other Backward
Classes (OBC) has developed essentially with two dimensions. At the primary level, it
has been characterised by clashes between social and political forces that support
and oppose reservation for OBCs in education and employment. The forces
supporting the concept perceive reservation-based affirmative action as an
instrument to uplift sections that have been oppressed for centuries, while those who
are opposed to the idea subscribe, directly or indirectly, to the doctrine of upper-
caste hegemony. At the secondary level, the politics around OBC reservation has
developed on the lines of realpolitik, and this has entailed competition for popular
support among pro-reservation groups.

This has been the trend right from December 1980 when the legendary B.P. Mandal
submitted the Mandal Commission recommendations to the government. The clash
between pro- and anti-reservation politics rose to its most intense levels in the early
1990s after Vishwanath Pratap Singh’s National Front (N.F.) government decided to
implement the Mandal Commission recommendations. In later years, such clashes
have again captured significant space in the national political arena.

Yet, there is a growing sense of realisation among social and political forces that the
policy of reservation for OBCs based on affirmative action cannot be summarily
reversed. Even organisations of the Hindu right, such as the Sangh Parivar led by the
Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), which practically brought down V.P. Singh’s
government in 1990 with its opposition to the move to implement the Mandal
Commission’s recommendations, seem to realise this. This realisation has, in turn,
fed the political impulse to use affirmative action for popular support.

The United Progressive Alliance government’s announcement, in April 2006, of the

proposed move to implement 27 per cent reservation in Central institutions of higher
education met with virulent opposition. Not only were there protests on the streets
but the government was also challenged in court.

No significant protests, however, have greeted the April 10 ruling of the Supreme
Court upholding 27 per cent reservation for OBCs. Youth for Equality (YFE), a
students’ organisation that spearheaded the anti-reservation agitation in 2006, has
announced plans to advance its campaign with a fresh perspective, but there have
not been many voices opposing the ruling. Kaushal Kant Mishra, a founder member
of the YFE and a doctor at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), said
the organisation would try to stress a new definition of the term “reservation”. Since
reservation is meant for “socially, educationally and economically backward classes of
society”, Mishra said, an OBC graduate cannot avail himself of the benefits of
reservation. Going by this logic, nobody applying for postgraduate and other higher
studies is entitled for reservation. The YFE plans to appeal against the verdict and
this, apparently, is going to be its line.

Most mainstream political forces, however, find this position ludicrous. The general
reaction of the political class to the verdict has been laudatory. Various political
parties have come up with their own nuanced interpretations of the judgment and its
socio-political background. According to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), all
questions related to OBC reservation in institutions of higher education could have
been handled smoothly had it not been for the “unwarranted aggressive approach of
HRD [Human Resource Development] Minister Arjun Singh”.


B.P. MANDAL submitting his report to Home Minister Zail Singh in December

Party spokesperson Prakash Javadekar said that Arjun Singh and his Ministry should
not claim undue credit and insisted that the judicial verdict was everyone’s victory.
Javadekar added that the BJP had always favoured social justice measures and that
the political force to benefit most out of the implementation of the quota would be
the BJP since it had the largest number of OBC members in Parliament.

This self-congratulatory tone has been adopted by parties both in the opposition and
in the government. But, almost all of them, barring the Left parties, have uniformly
expressed their misgivings about the “creamy layer” exclusion parameters suggested
by the court. The court said that extending benefits to the creamy layer went against
the basic structure of the Constitution. The ruling also contained the suggestion that
children of legislators should be considered as belonging to the creamy layer.

The Left parties have consistently advocated 27 per cent reservation for OBCs
excluding the affluent sections, arguing that the truly deserving should get the
benefits of reservation. However, a number of politicians of the UPA and the National
Democratic Alliance have expressed opposition to the points raised by the Supreme
Court in relation to the exclusion of the creamy layer.

Railway Minister and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Lalu Prasad raised the issue
in the Cabinet. He said that the implementation of the Supreme Court’s suggestions
could defeat the very purpose of OBC reservation. According to Janata Dal (United)
leader Sharad Yadav, excluding the so-called creamy layer was unwarranted because
reservation was meant to address social and educational backwardness, not
economic backwardness. Other leaders, including Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister
Mayawati, have expressed similar opinions. Mayawati asked for a redefinition of the
“creamy layer”, saying that inflation had eaten into incomes and the value of
possessions. Responding to queries from Frontline, Arjun Singh said that the
government had taken note of these opinions and would try to evolve a consensus
(see interview).

Within the Congress, there has been wrangling over the credit for the verdict. Many
Congress politicians, including a large section considered close to the Prime Minister,
are reluctant to see the verdict as a victory for Arjun Singh and his Ministry. The
verdict was not unexpected, they say, especially since the Mandal Commission had
recommended reservation for OBCs in jobs and education. “This could have been
termed a real victory if Arjun Singh and his department had succeeded in getting the
government’s current position on the creamy layer endorsed by the Supreme Court.
In the absence of that, there is no need to present this as a major victory,” said a
Congress leader from Madhya Pradesh who has been consistently opposed to Arjun

Arjun Singh’s own comment, made after the verdict, projecting Rahul Gandhi as the
“future Prime Minister” has been seen as further reflection of the wrangling in the
Congress. Large sections in the Congress leadership saw the comment as a blatant
attempt to build on the political advantage that the verdict brought for Arjun Singh.

MANDAL report proposals were implemented 10 years later, in 1990, by the

National Front government led by V.P. Singh.

By all indications, Congress president Sonia Gandhi herself shared this perception.
The terse, formal reaction from party spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan, saying there
was “no vacancy for the post of Prime Minister” and that “Sonia Gandhi and Rahul
have kept away from any environment of sycophancy”, gave a clear indication of this.

Even the proposal for extending OBC reservation to the private sector seems to be
turning into an instrument for political gamesmanship. Oversights Committee
chairperson M. Veerappa Moily’s response to the verdict was to suggest extension of
reservation to the private sector. Arjun Singh’s response to that was to remark that
there was a lot of difference between talking and implementation and that nobody
was making a “discovery” if they said that the private sector should also be covered
by the reservation policy.

In the midst of all this, the government has initiated procedures to implement the
Supreme Court verdict. The process began way back in 2006, when Arjun Singh first
proposed the idea but was suspended when the issue was taken to court. Now that
the process has started again, officials in the Ministries of Human Resource
Development and Social Welfare insist that the concerns of students in the “general”
category would not be overlooked.

Government departments are working on a plan to increase the number of seats, so

that seats in the general category do not dwindle, and to improve infrastructure in
Central educational institutions. The Oversight Committee had recommended a 54
per cent increase in the number of seats, over three years.

Finance Minister P. Chidambaram had set aside Rs.26.98 billion in the 2007-08
Budget for Central educational institutions under the Human Resource Development
Ministry. Part of this money was meant for increasing the number of seats as
suggested by the Oversights Committee. Budget 2008-09 has allotted about Rs.25
billion for Central universities and institutions such as IITs and IIMs.
As the Ministry works out how best to implement 27 per cent reservation for OBCs in
Central institutions, realpolitik will surely be the crucial factor in shaping political
reactions. There seems to be, however, little possibility of any virulent opposition to
reservation surfacing again.•


• To maintain the structure of equality within the backward classes, that is, between
OBCs on one hand and SCs and STs on the other, the concept of creamy layer, which is
a qualitative exclusion, has to be retained as constitutional requirement.

• The concept of creamy layer is based on the means test to strike a balance with the
secular notion."

• The current creamy layer includes children of Constitutional functionaries like

President, Vice President, Judges of SC and HCs, Chairman and members of UPSC and
state PSCs, CEC and CAG.

• It also includes children of Class I and Class II officers in Central and State PSUs,
Colonel and above in Army and equivalent posts in Navy, Air Force and Paramilitary.

• The third category comprises children of doctors, lawyers, CAs, financial or

management consultant, engineers, dental surgeon, computer specialists, film
professionals and film artists, authors, playwrights, media professionals and property
owners beyond a certain limit.

• Those with an income of Rs 2.5 lakh per annum are included in the creamy layer.

You are a thinking and sensitive Indian. You read English, live in a city and belong to an
‘upper caste’. Not that you cared for it, or thought it made any difference, till Mandal II rudely
reminded you of the accident of your birth. You don’t like the caste system and its
inequalities. In fact you are not in favour of any kind of inequalities. But you are hurt when
being an upper caste is made to sound like an allegation. You were shocked by how cynical
politicians could play their petty games and announce a divisive scheme to promote their
vote banks. You felt for the protesting students and wished them success. You were
outraged by the government’s decision. You look up to the courts and worry about the future
of our country.

If some of this description fits you, do read on. Here are some of your questions. The
answers may not suit your own interest. As a sensitive Indian, you are not into promoting
your self-interest. You want a fair and just society. The answers may not be to your liking. As
a thinking Indian you do not want affirmation of whatever you may have believed. You are
open to new facts and perspectives.

Why do we need to discuss something as clear as this? Isn’t it obvious that OBC
reservation is all about vote bank politics?
Of course it is. The motives of the politicians in this game have been consistently unholy and
motivated by a calculus of votes. But to blame politicians for it is like blaming a shopkeeper
for wanting to make profit. This is the logic of market/electoral democracy: the fear of losing
customers/voters makes a shopkeeper/politician serve the customers/citizens.

The politicians who led the abolition of slavery or the end of Apartheid or the Indian
nationalist struggle were not always motivated by lofty ideals. Like in market, in politics too,
individual venality can contribute to collective good. In any case, whether something is right
or wrong should be evaluated independent of who said it and why.

Okay, let us evaluate it independently. The Scheduled Castes may have suffered from
caste oppression and untouchability. What could possibly justify reservations for the

Sure, the OBCs did not face untouchability and most of them did not suffer from the worst
oppression of the caste system. But they have suffered from systematic disadvantage in
accessing education and middle-class jobs. Look at its effect today: according to the National
Sample Survey, out of 1,000 upper-caste Hindus in urban India, 253 were graduates. Among
the Hindu OBCs, this figure was only 86 per 1,000. The picture gets worse if we look at post-
graduate and professional degrees. Caste-wise break up from another study shows that
access to higher education still reflects the traditional caste hierarchy: the rate of highly
educated is 78 per 1,000 among the Hindu Brahmins, around 50 or plus for other ‘twice born’
caste Hindus, Christians and Sikhs (with the exception of Rajputs who now include many
upwardly mobile non-dwijas), but only 18 for the OBC and even less for SC and ST. The
inequalities in the level of educational attainment of different caste groups are still
unacceptably large. This situation is not an outcome of any natural differences in IQ of
different caste groups or uneven desire to pursue higher education. These differences are
principally an outcome of unequal opportunities. That is why the government needs to step
into this. Before we get into this, tell me who are these OBCs? Who decides who is an
OBC and who is not?

OBC or Other Backward Classes are backward communities other than the Scheduled
Castes and Scheduled Tribes. These are mostly ‘shudras’ in the traditional varna hierarchy:
below the ‘dwija’ or the twice born but above the ‘untouchable’ communities. But not all
‘shudras’ are recognised as OBCs by the government. The Mandal Commission used a
survey to shortlist those ‘shudra’ communities that were ‘backward’ in economic and
educational terms. Since then the National Commission for Backward Classes, a statutory
body set up on the orders of the Supreme Court, takes the decision about which caste or
community and in which state (or sometimes region within a state) should by given the legal
status of an OBC. The system is not perfect—the NCBC has been too lenient about including
new castes in the OBC list and reluctant to exclude any—but it is not arbitrary. The
government can start with this ready-made list

And why do they get 27 per cent reservation? What is their share in population? Isn’t
that a disputed figure?

The Mandal Commission claimed that the OBCs were 52 per cent of India’s population. This
figure was based on back-of-the-envelope calculation by remainder method and has not
been backed by any social scientific evidence.

The NSS has put the figure at 36 per cent, but this is based on ‘self-reporting’ and likely to
underestimate the OBC population. The most robust estimate is anywhere between 40 to 44
per cent. We can’t have more precise information because the Census does not collect
information about the OBC population.

But this entire debate about their population size is irrelevant to the current reservation
scheme. The figure of 27 per cent has nothing to do with their population estimate. This
figure is dictated by the Supreme Court judgment that prohibited more than 50 per cent
reservations. Since the SC and ST reservation already accounted for 22.5 per cent, the
maximum permissible for any additional group was 27 per cent. As long as everyone agrees,
which they do, that the OBCs are more than 27 per cent of the population, the dispute about
their share of population has no relevance for their reservation quota.

Doesn’t this quota deprive the upper caste of their legitimate share?

All the upper castes (all those from any religion who do not qualify currently for SC, ST or
OBC quota) are about 33 per cent of population. Even after the OBC reservation is
introduced, at least 50 per cent of the seats in higher education will still be open to them. So,
strictly in the narrow caste-share calculations, it is not clear how the upper caste are being
deprived of ‘their’ due. The problem is not that of their share of the cake; the real problem is
that of the very small size of the cake. The number of seats available

in higher education is just too small compared to the pool of eligible and deserving

Let us get back. That the OBCs are disadvantaged does not mean that they should get
reservations. Does it?

You are right. This only means that something needs to be done. Whether that something
should be reservations is not self-evident. We need to ask two basic questions here: what
kind of instrument of affirmative action is most suited in this situation? And what should be
the criterion for identifying the beneficiaries?

Yes, that is the whole point. Why should caste be used as the only criterion of
Caste is a very useful criterion for several reasons. One, the original discrimination in access
to education took place on the basis of caste; the same criterion needs to used for reversing
that discrimination. Two, caste is still a very good proxy for various kinds of social and
educational disadvantages and the single best predictor of educational opportunities. Three,
caste and economic hierarchy tend to fuse at the upper and the lower end: the poor are likely
to be ‘lower’ caste and the upper caste likely to be well-to-do. And finally, caste certificates
tend to be more reliable than other proofs of disadvantage, especially the notoriously
unreliable certificates of income.

et all these are not good reasons to treat caste as the only criterion. Sociological evidence
shows that we have multi-dimensional inequalities that cannot be reduced to a single factor.
Any good scheme to create level playing field in higher education must take into count
gender, regional backwardness, urban-rural divide and economic resources, besides caste.

And why do we need ‘reservation’ or mandatory numeric quotas for the OBCs?

Actually, we don’t. Reservation should be used as a mechanism of last resort, when every
other mechanism fails to deliver desired results. While there is good reason to use
reservations for the SC and ST (anything else will be sabotaged and be ineffective), this is
not so in the case of the OBCs. The government could have used a system of
‘disadvantaged points’ based on group and individual handicaps faced during education.
These points could be added to the ‘merit points’ for the purpose of admission to educational
institutions. Professor Satish Deshpande and I had suggested an alternative along these

So, the government’s decision is a disaster, isn’t it?

Not quite. It is obvious that the government’s decision is not the best possible decision, that
the government could have taken a more fine-tuned approach. But the government’s
decision to introduce a simple caste-bloc based quota is better than nothing. It is better than
the existing situation that did not provide for any special opportunity for groups other than SC
and ST in higher education. If some safeguards are introduced, then even this imperfect
scheme can reduce the inequalities in access to higher education.

How can the existing scheme be improved?

One, the government should exclude the ‘creamy layer’ within the OBCs from the benefits of
the new reservation. The exclusion of ‘creamy layer’ is already in operation for job
reservations and the government has to simply apply it to the present scheme. Two, the 27
per cent quota should be sub-divided among ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ OBCs. Such sub-divisions
already exist in many states and the government can request the National Commission for
Backward Classes to prepare the lists of upper and lower OBC for each state. Third, the
government can make some special provision to ensure that women have a special
opportunity to access the OBC quota.

How can the existing scheme be improved?

One, the government should exclude the ‘creamy layer’ within the OBCs from the benefits of
the new reservation. The exclusion of ‘creamy layer’ is already in operation for job
reservations and the government has to simply apply it to the present scheme. Two, the 27
per cent quota should be sub-divided among ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ OBCs. Such sub-divisions
already exist in many states and the government can request the National Commission for
Backward Classes to prepare the lists of upper and lower OBC for each state. Third, the
government can make some special provision to ensure that women have a special
opportunity to access the OBC quota.

If all this is accepted, will this solve the educational disadvantages of the OBCs?

No, obviously not. The principal problem of the OBCs and other disadvantaged groups is that
of lack of access to quality school education. Reservation in jobs or higher education tackled
the problem at the higher end. It needs to be supplemented by measures to improve the
quality of teaching in government schools. This is where the real focus of government policy
should be.
The government should make a national level survey immediately and list out all the
caste groups including that of the forward castes, and their socio-economic and
educational status. The survey should take note of all the technical errors found in
the various criteria adopted by Mandal and formulate more rational criteria and
scientific approach towards identifying the really deserving people within the castes
and communities of each stratum of our society.
The survey should not mix the socially,educationally and economically backward
castes (SEBCt) with the other backward classes of non-Hindu religions, i e, the
religious minorities (OBCl). After finalising the list of SEBCtand OBCl, we should
find out the proportion of SEBCt and OBCl employees in government services. The
quantum of reservation should be finalised only after undertaking this exercise
and understanding the magnitude of the problem of each caste and communities.
For those who are economically well-off but educationally backward, there should
be reservation for education. For those who are educationally advanced but
economically backward there should be reservation for employment. And for those
who are both educationally and economically backward there should be reservation
for both education and employment. Pointing out the various technical errors and
limitations of the recommendations of .Mandal Commission, as we have discussed so
far, is not an effort to oppose the move directed towards uplifting the OBC, instead
it is an attempt to make such efforts more rational, just and logical which in turn
could avoid all possible criticism against such a move in future.
Whatever be the criticism advanced against the recommendations of Mandal
Commission, none can question its objective of uplifting those sections which are
really backward—backward in terms of their educational and economic
achievements. It is difficult obviously to accept the logic of giving admission in
educational institutions and jobs in government services ‘to students/candidates who
are relatively less qualified in terms of required marks/experience, and not doing the
same to students/candidates who are relatively more qualified. To understand the
meaning of this logic, we should go beyond merely looking at the marks, experience of
the concerned students or candidates. We should not ask a sweeper’s son to compete
with a professor’s son to judge the competence of these two students. “There is equality
only among equals. To equate unequals is to perpetuate inequality”