The unease within the BJP-led NDA over its humiliating defeat in Bihar has not died down. Blame game continues to haunt the outfit with HAM (Hindustan Awami Morcha) leader Jitenram Manjhi and BJP parliamentarians Hukumdev Narayan Yadav and Bhola Singh raising accusatory fingers on RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat for the debacle. They say Bhagwat’s remark on the reservation issue harmed the NDA’s poll prospects in the State where it has proved “beyond doubt” that caste matters in winning an election. In an interview with his organisation’s mouthpiece, Organiser and Panchjanya, Bhagwat had said, “We believe, form a committee of people genuinely concerned in the interest of the whole nation and committed for social equality, including some representatives from the society, they should decide which categories require reservation and for how long.” Finer lines of such a statement suggested that the RSS chief wanted a review of the reservation policy and also its continuation in the country that has been on since soon after independence. But in that process the RSS chief failed to realise that reservation policy is like an elephant in the living room as nobody wants to talk about it, forget daring to tweak it.
Launched as a tool to push marginalised sections of society into mainstream, reservation has, over the years, become an instrument of vote bank politics too. And it took a sharp turn right from the implementation of the Mandal Commission report envisaging 27 percent reservation for other backward castes (OBCs) in Government jobs and educational institutions. However, twenty-two years after the implementation of the report, the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) states that “the more advanced among OBCs are availing most of the benefits available to the OBCs to the detriment of the interest of the really depressed and downtrodden among the OBCs”
As on January 1, 2011, as per information from various ministries and departments of the Central government, OBCs held a total 56.6 percent jobs (Group A-6.9 percent, Group B-7.3 percent, Group C-15.3 percent and Group D-17 percent) in various Government services. In contrast, Scheduled Tribes held 25.3 percent jobs (Group A-4.8 percent, Group B-6 percent, Group C-7.7 percent and Group D-6.8 percent) in various Government services. For STs, reservation was introduced in 1950. While SCs who have a sizeable presence in various jobs than OBCs and STs, reservation came as a tool to corner lion’s share in Government jobs. Enjoying the fruits of reservation from 1947, SCs hold a total 65.81 percent jobs (Group A-11.5 percent, Group B-14.9 percent, Group C-16.4 percent and Group D-23 percent) in Central Government services.
Narratives of victimhood and discrimination have been dominant theme while facilitating the benefits of reservation to OBC, SCs and STs in the country. Yet, majority of these groups live in pathetic conditions or at the mercy of others as only upper echelons of them are enjoying the provisions of reservations. While pronouncing judgement in the much talked about Indra Sawhney vs Union of India case on reservation, the Supreme Court had in 1992 emphasized that when a member of a backward class reached an advanced social level or status he or she would no longer belong to the backward class and have to be excluded from the reservation list. Years after this landmark verdict, the apex court, while hearing a petition on Jat reservation on March 17 this year, broke new ground in terms of the legal and constitutional framework of the country when it spoke about laying down yardsticks for determining and defining social backwardness in changing India. “Backwardness is a manifestation caused by the presence of several independent circumstances which may be social, cultural, economic, educational or even political. New practices, methods and yardsticks have to be continuously evolved, moving away from caste-centric definition of backwardness. This line can enable recognition of newly emerging groups in society which would require palliative action,” observed Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Rohinton F Nariman of the Supreme Court. The apex court had also maintained that any exercise to determine backwardness required “contemporary” data and not the “outdated statistics.”
Months have elapsed since this observation was made by the apex court, any exercise in this regard is yet to begin. Expert bodies like Indian Council of Social Sciences Research (ICSSR) and others are grappling with challenges over the methodology to be adopted while determining 'backwardness'. There is a range of criteria, from economic to educational to social, for determining the 'backwardness' of certain castes. But due either to a lack of political will or fear of losing its votes, every Government seems hesitant to fix a yardstick for the determination of 'backwardness'. Given this, it is expected that the March 17 verdict of the Supreme Court may meet a similar fate that several of apex court’s judgements have so far met over identification of the creamy layer in backward class. Amid this, a glaring anomaly exists on the issue of creamy layer. While the apex court insists on finding creamy layer among OBCs, it has no such ruling in the case of SCs or STs.
Interestingly, the NCBC, a statutory body established on 14 August 1993, recently asked the Central Government to raise the creamy layer criteria for OBCs from the present annual income of Rs 6 lakh to Rs 10.50 lakh. By doing this, it aimed at bringing more OBC aspirants for central jobs and educational institutions in the reservation net. Though the Narendra Modi Government has not so far accepted the NCBC’s recommendation, possibly because of its potential to annoy those outside the reservation brackets, a section of OBC Ministers and leaders are said to be in favour of relaxing the income bar fixed for the OBCs.
On the other hand, even forward caste groups want to be included in the OBC list. The Hardik Patel-led agitation in Gujarat or previous ones by Jats or Marathas to demand reservations under OBC category indicates that a huge fault line exists on the reservation front. Formulated with an aim to prevent caste discrimination and provide the backward and scheduled castes an opportunity to live with dignity in society, reservation seems to have also become an instrument of personal rise and aggrandisement for a select few among SCs, STs and OBCs. Thus, the need for affirmative action is subsumed by the current reservation policy to a large extent, denying many who are truly deprived and marginalised in the society the chance to progress.