Tuesday, Jun 24, 2003
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By S. S. Gill
IT WAS in December 1980 that members of the Mandal Commission, and I as its Secretary, trooped into the office of Zail Singh, then Home Minister, and presented our report to him. As we came out of the secretariat, B. P. Mandal, our chairman, told me, " I know how much labour has gone into the writing of this report. But let me tell you that today we have performed its immersion (visarjan) ceremony". And truly, for the next 10 years, the report lay in the Home Ministry's dusty vaults.
Then all of a sudden, V. P. Singh, as Prime Minister, opened the lid in 1990, and the Mandal Commission report became the single-most heated topic of controversy and discussion. There was total confusion in the national political arena and Mr. Singh was accused of indulging in the worst form of opportunism. No major political party supported the move. In fact, the BJP saw it as a serious threat to its `upper' caste constituency, and L. K. Advani, now Deputy Prime Minister, marched towards Ayodhya in his chariot to uphold `dharma'.
Those were days of high tension and emotions. The polity was in turmoil. Old power equations were dissolving and new ones emerging. The logic of numbers suddenly brought OBC leaders into prominence and every political party turned a votary of Mandal. Never before had the Indian political scene undergone the sort of sea change it did during the decade following the implementation of the Mandal report.
On the face of it, the radical change in the political landscape of the country marks the setting right of ancient historical wrongs. Or does it? In fact, to some extent, the Mandal Commission report was `demandalised' during the very process of its implementation. Of the dozen or so recommendations, only one pertaining to reservation was picked up, as it had the highest visibility and attracted immediate attention. More far-reaching recommendations regarding structural changes in the land-tenurial system, and institutional reforms for the educational and economic uplift of the OBCs were not even noticed. The attention thus got focussed on the fruits rather than the roots and branches of the tree of affirmative action.
Whereas the objective of the Mandal Commission report was the creation of a more egalitarian society, this selective and populist approach introduced an element of inequality among the OBCs themselves. If equal attention had been paid to strengthening the roots and branches of the tree of social justice and the base of the deprived sections of the society strengthened by undertaking structural reforms, it would have resulted in fortifying them from within instead of perennially making them dependant on the crutch of reservation.
And who were the main beneficiaries of this provision? Only the better off among the OBCs the so-called creamy layer who already had access to good educational facilities and could outperform their lesser privileged peers at competitive examinations within the reserved quota. This deepened the divide among the OBCs, as those who were already at the top of their community cornered the plum jobs and those at the bottom were left further behind.
At a deeper level, mandalisation was supposed to empower the deprived by giving them access to political power. This has happened in a limited way, as evidenced by the the manner in which every political party is wooing the OBCs by promising them all sorts of concessions. But even this process of empowerment is seriously flawed. Most of the positions of power have been cornered only by a couple of backward castes, and the really deprived communities have been left high and dry. Moreover, instead of identifying themselves with their impoverished communities, the OBC leaders who have risen to the top have adopted the lifestyle and value system of the `upper' castes against whom they had agitated all along. One would have expected these leaders to introduce a new political culture of austerity and self-denial, and adopt a lifestyle which projects them as role-models for the deprived members of their own community. But just the reverse has happened. The dispossessed have the highest stake in democracy, as it is their only hope. But instead of strengthening the Panchayati Raj institutions at the grassroots, the OBC and Dalit leaders are propagating a feudal culture and exclusivist tendencies. Their entire crusade was against the divisive caste system, and they should have tried to build inter-community bridges to eliminate caste hierarchies. But they have created vested interests in narrow caste loyalties to serve personal ends.
It was also hoped that both the Dalits and the OBCs, being victims of the same caste system, would join hands and form a powerful alliance to secure political power and wield it to improve the lot of their historically disadvantaged castes. But the pursuit of narrower personal ends has produced just the opposite result. There exits a lot of antagonism and ill will between these two sections.
But the latest episode in the `demandalisation' drama is being enacted now with the farcical proposals to reserve seats for the economically weaker sections among the `upper' castes. Whereas the Rajasthan Chief Minister wants reservation for the poor among the forward castes, the BJP has upstaged him by not only proposing to constitute a national commission for this purpose, but also by promising to extend them to Muslims. This move not only goes against the basic concept of affirmative action, it also violates the spirit of the Constitution.
Reservation for the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the OBCs has been made under Article 15 (4) of the Constitution which empowers the state to make any "special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes". Now, social backwardness is a structural disability linked to one's caste, and does not vary from generation to generation. Even a rich Dalit suffers from social stigma. But economic backwardness within the same family may vary from time to time. There are any number of rags-to-riches and riches-to-rags stories. Unlike social and educational backwardness, there is no criterion to determine economic backwardness, which is, in any case, a relative term. More importantly, the Constitution does not provide for reservation of jobs for the economically backward. After all, billions of rupees under the Five Year Plans are spent every year for the eradication of poverty and the benefits accrue to all the poor people, including those among the `upper' castes. Of course, Article 16 (4) empowers the State to make job reservation for "any backward class citizens... not adequately represented in the services under the state". But is it anyone's case that the forward castes as a whole are not adequately represented in the services?
But such are the compulsions of blind pursuit of power sans principles that politicians pay scant attention to facts, law or the Constitution, or the social implications of their tactics, if it serves their immediate goal. Look at the latest Government ploy of adding new castes to the Central OBC lists of eight States. As the percentage of people living below poverty line has halved since the implementation of the Mandal report, it should have led to the progressive exclusion of the beneficiary castes from the OBC list. But, defying all logic, the Government has repeatedly enlarged this list, mostly on the eve of elections.
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