The fury of the Patidar movement in Gujarat has broadly elicited two types of responses. One, that reservation in government jobs and educational institutes should be based on economic criteria, not caste. And two, that the caste-based reservation should stay but the extant system should be rethought and redesigned to not only make it a more effective tool of social justice, but also ensure that those outside the reservation pool don’t feel discriminated against.

The demand for reservation based exclusively on economic criteria arises from the popular confusion over its philosophy. Affirmative action, also known as positive discrimination, is not a tool for economic mobility, aiming to bump up individuals from a lower to higher class. Its goal is to create a level playing field, equipping individuals from disadvantaged groups to overcome their socially imposed disabilities to compete in a sharply unequal society.

These groups are disadvantaged not because they willingly shun, say, education, or are inherently less endowed to compete, or are plain foolish and lazy, precisely the arguments offered to justify the tirade against reservation. They are marginalised because they were located in the social system specifically designed to justify, and perpetuate, social inequality. They were pushed to the margins of society not out of their own volition, or failings, but under compulsion.

This social dynamic underlies racism, leading to the marginalisation of Blacks in the United States and South Africa. They were marginalised because the society imposed its discriminatory system on them.

The caste system

In India, the systemic discrimination against certain social groups was practised over centuries through the caste system, which was based on the idea of purity and pollution. Social groups were arranged in a hierarchy, dependent on their occupations measured, so to speak, on the scale of purity and pollution. Those at the top of the caste hierarchy were the Brahmins, deemed pure because they were allowed to read and interpret the scriptures and conduct religious rituals. At the bottom were the Shudras, or peasant castes.

Outside the four-fold Varna system (Kshatriyas and Vaishyas were the other two) were the ‘untouchables’, that is, those whose occupation was considered polluting, and who lived, quite literally, outside the village precinct. These occupations were hereditary, circumscribing for centuries both the choice and will of the individual born into a particular group. Social mobility was not of the individual, but of the group, achieved over decades, if not centuries.

Obviously, the impulse of modernity, industrialisation and urbanisation loosened the caste system considerably. Nevertheless, centuries of discrimination practised against social groups rendered their individuals incapable of competing on an equal footing with those who possessed what is called social, cultural and economic capital. The system also spawned a subculture which imbibed in the disadvantaged an acceptance of their fate, not the least because it was said to be divinely ordained.

In other words, the past inequalities arising from the caste system continued to replicate in the modern era, despite the Indian Constitution recognising the inherent equality of men and women. This is precisely why reservation is caste-based. It seeks to remove the backwardness arising from the discriminatory social system and to empower and instil confidence in them to compete in the open system.

This backwardness is of the group. It is not of the individual, arising from his or her economic position, which is subject to upward and downward mobility in their own lifespan or over two generations. The nature of this backwardness is social and educational, which may or may not have economic basis to it.

It is the twin features of social and educational backwardness which hobble individuals from competing in a modern, open society. To put it rather simplistically, an individual from an upper caste will have greater life chances than a lower caste person even though the two might be sharing the same economic position.

Reservation experience

Indeed, after nearly seven decades of reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and over two decades for Other Backward Classes, these three social groups in 2011 together comprised just 23.2% of Group A services, considered the most prestigious, powerful and lucrative of government employment. Imagine what the representation of these three groups must have been in 1947, despite their constituting over 75% of India’s population.

Reservation also seeks to make the middle class more socially heterogeneous, realising in real terms the idea of equality of all. Affirmative action is indeed bringing about this change in the Indian middle class, albeit gradually.

Thus, in 2013-2014, 46% of those who cleared the Union Public Service Commission examination and interview came through SC, ST and OBC reservations. Interestingly, out of the 2576 candidates who were recommended against reserved posts, 397 qualified in the general category as well – that is, their total marks were above the qualifying standard for those outside the reservation pool. Has reservation in educational institutes skilled the 397 to compete on an equal footing? Possibly.

Greater controversies

Nevertheless, reservation for the OBCs has triggered greater controversies than that for SCs and STs. One reason is that SCs and STs encountered discrimination that was far more severe in nature than what other groups were subjected to, and which, in many ways, persists even today.

Second, the OBCs, particularly those engaged in agriculture, did benefit from state policies such as the abolition of the zamindari system and Green Revolution, to dramatically improve their economic position.  Can they still be socially and culturally backward, critics ask. Third, some non-upper caste groups, such as the Jats, who gained enormously post-Independence, feel aggrieved at having been left out of the reservation pool and vociferously demand economic-based reservation.

The economic argument

Yet, it must be pointed out that for classifying socially and educationally backward classes, that came to be known as the OBCs, the Mandal Commission developed 11 indicators or criteria, of which four were economic. There were four indicators for social and three for educational backwardness. However, economic indicators were given a weightage of one point each, as against three points each for social and two points each for educational criteria.

Perhaps the Mandal Commission had foreseen the backlash that could transpire if it did not include economic criteria, for it noted:
“Economic, in addition to social and education indicators, were considered important as they directly flowed from social and education backwardness. They also helped to highlight the fact that socially and educationally backward classes were economically backward also.”

Take two of the four economic indicators the Mandal Commission developed. The Commission sought to identify “caste/classes where the average value of family assets is at least 25 per cent below the state average” and “where the number of families living in kuccha houses is at least 25 per cent above the state average.” Unless it is held the Commission’s survey was poorly conducted or biased, the Mandal list of the OBCs did have an element of economic criteria built into it.

In addition, the concept of creamy layer was introduced for OBC reservation to ensure the wealthier among them did not corner the benefits of affirmative action. In 1993, it was determined that children of parents having an annual income of Rs one lakh would not qualify for reservation benefits. The income-criterion of creamy layer was subsequently revised upwards over the years, and is now currently pegged at Rs six lakh a year.

From the perspective of poverty prevailing in India, Rs 6 lakh a year or Rs 50,000 a month might appear substantially high. But there is also the counter-argument that a very low income cut-off for defining creamy layer might lead to not enough OBC students having adequate education, given its rising cost, competing for government jobs and seats in educational institutes reserved for them. (The creamy layer doesn’t operate in SC and ST reservation, which has enabled, perhaps unjustifiably, for even children of second-generation government officials to enjoy its benefits).

Periodic surveys

The belief that the still-too-high creamy layer income enables the relatively rich to corner the benefits of reservation underscores the need for designing OBC reservation to fulfil better the goals of affirmative action. It should be noted that the Mandal Commission conducted its survey 35 years ago. It is possible that its data on socially and educationally backward classes may have become out-dated, with some of them no longer in need of affirmative action.

But therein lies the problem – reservation is looked upon as a benefit which, once granted, cannot be relinquished. The philosophy of affirmative action demands carrying out periodic socio-economic surveys to weed out social groups from OBC category, for ensuring the benefits of reservation percolate to the more depressed groups. Such periodic surveys will also enable policy-makers to gauge whether or not affirmative action has removed or diminished the discriminatory nature of social structures.

However, the reverse is happening – there is a veritable race to claim backwardness among social groups, regardless of their social advancement and relative economic prosperity. The demand for reservation by the Patels and Marathas is an apt example of this trend, as is the clamour among the Jats to be included in the Central OBC list.

Undoubtedly, their entry into the OBC reservation pool will be inimical to the interests of groups which require affirmative action more than them. But it is also true that one of the reasons for their disquiet, as also that of the upper castes, is their belief that reservation is bound to exist in perpetuity Some upper castes believe they are being victimised for the “sins” of their forefathers. No wonder, reservation continues to trigger social upheaval, particularly as job opportunities diminish, competition becomes stiffer, and aspirations of people soar.

This is precisely the reason why India needs a third Backward Commission – the Mandal Commission was second – not to remove caste-based reservation, but to exclude groups no longer backward and make the instrument of affirmative action sensitive to the larger social good. Some sense about the state of backwardness among social groups could also be had through the release of caste data generated by the 2013 socio-economic caste census. But to redesign reservation requires a sense of daring and sagacity, the two attributes not seen in the political class.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, published by HarperCollins, is available in bookstores.