Let us make the space we share better and bring the change we desire. Author is Indian Muslim, a Public Figure, Social Activist, Blogger and Media Personality. On mission to build a givers world rather than takers.
On the morning of India’s 69th Independence Day, Yogendra Yadav was busy discussing the merits of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech with a group of farmers in Dhunela, a village 30 kilometres from Gurgaon in Haryana.
It has been 25 years since the implementation of Mandal Commission’s recommendations was announced, reservations put in place and violent protests broke out throughout India.
The landmark event changed the face of the nation’s politics: Several leaders, including Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar and Mulayam Singh Yadav, owe their careers to the issue.
A lot has changed since 1990, when former PM VP Singh tried implementing the recommendations. Today, caste maths are unavoidable in elections and candidates from the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backwards classes are a must for all political parties in India.
Yadav, who recently came close to active politics and is now heading a movement called Jan Kisan Andolan, talks to Catch about 25 years of Mandal, looking back at its inception, VP Singh and discusses its legacy.
The extraordinary success is in changing the grammar of politics. Before the ’90s you didn’t talk about OBCs (other backward classes). After the ’90s you cannot but talk about OBCs. Before ’90s, OBC leaders at top national and state leadership were exceptions, but after the ’90s, some OBC presence is a must of every political party.
Even among top leaders, at least at the state level, it is no longer an oddity to find a Lalu Prasad Yadav, or a Nitish Kumar, or a Mulayam Singh Yadav. Even Mayawati, though she is not an OBC.
Even parties like the BJP have rushed to capture the OBC space, our Prime Minister himself technically being an OBC.
In a sense, the last two decades present us with a historical paradox. It triggered a decisive, almost irreversible, shift in the locus of political power, without substantially altering what the political power was supposed to attain in the first place.
SM: You say our PM is ‘technically an OBC’. Don’t you think that having an OBC Prime Minister is significant? Or through the caveat do you impute he’s not genuinely an OBC? Not one who’s suffered the humiliation and distress that people from disadvantaged backgrounds have felt in the country for thousands of years?
For instance biologically you can be a woman or you can be a product of women’s movement – two very different political trajectories in life. His politics is not backward-caste social justice politics.
He comes from a movement which has been widely perceived to be against the interests of social justice. Let us say his OBChood has more symbol than substance.
SM: Did Mandal Commission achieve all that it was supposed to or are there areas where it has failed? If yes, where all has it failed?
Take government jobs for instance. Despite central government offering jobs for OBCs for the last 20 years, the proportion of OBCs in central government jobs is far from what the quota would indicate. It is, in fact, substantially lower.
Besides, as was very well known, the government job reservation was not an adequate instrument for addressing social inequalities and injustices.
It was offered at the end of the process of social exclusion and discrimination, which had already excluded a very large number of people from disadvantaged background in the educational system.
So this (government job) was a reward offered only to those who by their own means, by some luck, had crossed schooling and got higher education. This was hardly the right instrument for correcting the accumulated historical injustice for the backward communities.
It was garnered more by people from South India than by those from the north and some dominant agrarian communities such as the Kurmis, the Yadavs, the Maratha, the Mukalikas. But most of the artisan and service OBCs were largely excluded.
To my mind, the last 20 years might have been years of further marginalisation of the lower end of OBCs. And the period has done nothing to change that picture.
SM: The Mandal Commission has been more successful at some places than others. Who do you think is at fault here: the Centre or state governments?
There has been an unholy alliance between both the supporters and enemies of social justice in India, which is to limit the question of social justice to that of caste-based reservations. This reduction serves both interests.
‘Narendra Modi comes from a movement widely perceived as against social justice. Let’s say his OBChood is more symbol than substance’
And it is not so much about central or state governments, but a nexus more powerful at the central government level. There, the clout of the upper caste is astonishingly powerful.
If you want one example, consider the parliamentary resolution on caste census that was defeated and has almost been set aside by the bureaucracy at the Centre.
SM: Do you think caste census data could be a political time bomb?
He and his home secretary effectively sabotaged the whole idea and turned it into something that would never see the light of the day, something that would never be worth putting out in the public domain. They managed to turn a possible caste census into a policy-oriented socio-economic survey.
SM: Now that private companies have replaced the governments as big employers, what responsibility do you think does the private sector has in ensuring social justice? Should private companies be asked to reserve seats for backward castes?
It is not to say that they should all be forced to reserve seats in their workforce for disadvantaged groups. But social justice must extend to the entire domain. Other mechanisms have to be found.
SM: How relevant do you think caste-based reservation is today, and how long into the future do you think this mode of ensuring social justice will continue to be effective? Are there alternatives to reservation?
As I said, we have to look for other mechanisms. One of those can be a suggestion Satish Deshpande and I made some years ago – for an index of disadvantage. The index would be computed for each individual.
It would look at the nature of multiple disadvantages, such as the mode of schooling – rural or urban, English- or other-medium, private or public. It would look at parental education and occupation, at gender. It would also look at the caste and community of an individual.
It would look at the entire complex matrix through which an individual’s chances are determined, and would assign scores to each handicap an individual start with, accordingly adjusting their merit scores. Which [merit] truly is the distance that you cover from the starting point to the end point.
Our entire system is about capturing you at the end point of the race. But unless you look at the beginning of the race, you don’t’ get to see what was bad in it. This can be a powerful mechanism to look at it.
The second instrument can be a powerful, well-endowed fellowship scheme. In our country, fellowships for the disadvantaged are the most disadvantaged fellowships. So, the poor get the least amount of fellowship and the rich get hefty amounts.
Can you pick some students in Class eight or nine and say till they do PHDs, their entire education will be taken care of? Giving them a hundred or five hundred rupees a month is a joke. Much of this SC/ST post-matric scholarship scheme is a joke of the Indian state.
But if you can actually tell a 15-year-old that you don’t have to worry about resources for the next 10 years, just go ahead and achieve whatever you can – that would immediately transform lives of people and most of them will come from disadvantaged backgrounds. And it should be given to people from disadvantaged backgrounds only.
SM: Do you think caste-based politics has intensified? Also, now that we have leaders like Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar – who’ve created political institutions with a fair representation from disadvantaged communities, do you think that Mandal is past its sell-by date?
The problem in the world always is that when the dominant group dominates, it is nice and invisible. When someone protests, it suddenly looks ugly as it becomes visible.
This is true of gender relations: As long as women are docile, everything looks harmonious; when they stand up and say they won’t take it anymore, it looks as if gender relations have become acrimonious.
Same with caste. If you look at the literature of the ’90s, caste rivalries, caste conspiracies are very much the stuff of a village’s political life. That hasn’t undergone any change. What has happened is that in places like UP and Bihar, the unspoken and taken-for-granted dominance of the upper caste in the villages has been shattered, has been questioned.
I laugh when people say caste politics is the norm nowadays. Because it was always there: When only the Thakurs and the Brahmins would win everywhere, it was not a coincidence. It happened by careful design.
‘The problem in the world always is that when the dominant group dominates, it is nice and invisible’
Then there’s your question: whether reservations remain relevant, because they have more representatives today?
Even today, even in a place like Bihar, which is more Mandalised than any other place, where caste equations are more visible, the proportion of OBCs among legislators is less than the share of OBCs in the population.
So, there virtually is no state in the country, maybe except Tamil Nadu, where upper castes have less numeric presence than their share in population.
The real mission of Mandal remains not just unfinished, it remains stranded at its starting point. The mission remains to be taken up.
SM: Do you think VP Singh, the person who gave Mandal to India, has not been recognised still, even among OBCs or any disadvantaged group. Would it be wrong to say that the youth reaping advantages of the brave step he took, have sadly forgotten him. Is he an unsung hero of modern India?
VP Singh comes out as an especially tragic figure when we look back. There is a deep irony inscribed in his life’s trajectory. He may have done all this, we are told, to gather OBC votes.
What happened was, as happens with many such transforming figures, the potential beneficiaries of OBC reservation did not get the news in time and, even if they got the news, they did not see VP Singh as the benefactor. But the potential losers in the game got to know it first and never forgave him. So he got it from both ends.
That, in a sense, ended his political career. Sadly, it was the career of someone who was among the more gifted politicians we have known in Indian politics.
So it was curtains for him because of this strange irony of history. But it is too soon for us to know how he’d be remembered by history. We know he was not remembered very kindly in the short term. How he’d be remembered in the long run will be determined by what kind of OBC politics we see in the future.
If it continues of be narrow-minded, petty and short-sighted as currently is the case, then in all likelihood VP Singh would be forgotten because he was, after all, not an OBC himself. But if we see a new kind of OBC politics, he could well come back as the unsung hero. So let’s not settle the case yet.