Satish Deshpande teaches at the Delhi School of Sociology and is among the foremost authorities on caste and class inequalities. He has written extensively on reservation and the state policy regarding it. interviewed Deshpande on the philosophy of reservation, whether it should be extended to Muslims, and the Modi government’s possible plan behind its decision to float a new National Commission for Backward Classes, grant it Constitutional status, and vest Parliament with the power to amend the list of castes entitled to reservation. Excerpts from a 75-minute interview:

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been quoted saying at the Bharatiya Janata Party national executive meeting in Bhubaneswar that the new constitutional body for socially and educationally backward would benefit backward classes among all communities, including Muslims. Isn’t this rhetoric meaningless? After all, castes among Muslims are even today included in Other Backward Classes reservation, as are such castes in other communities as well.
It is a little difficult to respond to this kind of question. When it comes to Muslims today, we have, for the first time post-Independence, a leader who has won a national majority and now in the largest state in India on the explicit plank of, in effect, saying to Muslims that their votes are not needed. Now that he knows he can win electorally without Muslims, we are at a turning point.

Turning point?
That something had to settle in those ranks.

The Sangh’s ranks?
Broadly Hindu Right-wing ranks, which has a wide variety. Within those ranks, something has to crystallise. Given the way they talk, it is coming to the conclusion as to what can be done with Muslims today. But that something is yet to take shape.

Yes, but why say all backward groups in all communities, including Muslims, will benefit…
That’s a formula. As prime minister it is hard to get into a problem saying that. I see this more as floaters or trial balloons to see how different factions of his supporters react.

But isn’t it like taking liberty with truth, given that some Muslim castes do get reservation?
Yes, of course, Muslims do get reservation in a wide variety of ways, ranging from Karnataka where practically all Muslims come in one or another category of the Other Backward Classes for reservation, to states where select caste groups among Muslims benefit.

But what has to be in principle argued [is] that this question of the state helping communities, which are discriminated against, ought to be independent of their [religious] identities. In principle this should be so. But in practice, because it is part of politics, it is hard to implement such a neutral policy. That is why I think it is not very germane to invoke the Constitution here.

(Photo credit: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters).

Yes, you recently wrote, “…A rational and objective application of the current social and educational criteria would show that Muslims (specially urban Muslims) are unquestionably a group deserving state support today.” Isn’t it a violation of the Constitution to treat the entire Muslim community as backward and not some castes among them?
Muslims undoubtedly qualify for reservation both on the grounds of backwardness and discrimination. It is a form of discrimination we find even hard to acknowledge. This is because as a Hindu majority society, which has become more and more strident about its Hindu-ness in recent years, it is seen as a form of discrimination even if you recognise discrimination [against Muslims].

Yes, but why do you say that it does not help to invoke the Constitution as far as reservation for Muslims go?
What I mean is that it is a very important benchmark in our civic life, in our life as a Republic, to dispassionately recognise the need for state intervention wherever the need exists. This is an ideal we will never be able to achieve, but how as a collectivity we strive for it, how close we get to it, matters a lot.

In that sense, there is a preemptory discourse on Muslims. There is a political preemption on any discussion on Muslims as an objective category.

What do you mean by objective category?
For example, poverty among urban Muslims by the government’s own statistics it is very high and, in certain contexts, it is the highest.

Yes, it has been shown to be even higher than Dalits.
Yes. The rate of self-employment is by far the highest among Muslims. That can be seen as a proxy for discrimination. The kind of self-employment that there is among Muslims, it will be called, from the perspective of political economy, self-exploitation – that is, you are engaged in occupations where you exploit yourself.

Exploit yourself?
Basically, you are engaged in self-employment where you are cheap labour. This cannot be the most preferred option of any community. They are opting for it because they do not have hope of getting anything else. The flight of Muslims from education is also an index of that. Though it is called the Muslim Mind, these are in fact objective criteria that this community, in material sense, is hurting.

In the current global context, where Muslim-ness is a charged category both ways – people are willing to die for it in spectacular ways and people are willing to kill in its name – then even from a security perspective, the Indian state should be really worried about what is happening to young urban Muslim males.

Why are you excluding Muslim females?
Oh, here I am thinking like a security person – it is the urban Muslim male who poses the highest security risk. They are the logical recruits for all kinds of extremism. It is a real career possibility. When you corner a group to the point where its members think they have nothing to lose, you are creating a very, very dangerous situation. Once a sizeable group thinks it has nothing to lose, then everybody is at risk. Therefore, purely from the point of view of self-interest, the Indian state as a representative of a Hindu majority should be worried about what is happening to Muslims.

(Photo credit: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP).

But isn’t the Bharatiya Janata Party sending confusing signals. While Modi said backwards among Muslims would benefit from the new backward class commission, his party bitterly opposed the Telangana government’s decision to grant 12% reservation for Muslims. It is hard to tell where they stand.
My feeling is that even they don’t know where they stand. They are in the process of figuring it out.

So you will have different people marking positions.
Don’t forget a lot of these are trial balloons to see how their supporters react. We are in the early days of post-victory consolidation that is taking place.

You just said, “Muslims undoubtedly qualify for reservation both on the grounds of backwardness and discrimination.” What is the difference between the two?

You have to talk of reservation at two levels. The problem is that we don’t. One level is that reservation was a precondition for nationhood. Why? Because a vast segment of our society was excluded not by practice but by law. The idea of the modern nation-state is a 19th century phenomenon. This presupposed the backing of a nation. In other words, the state was reinventing or re-legitimising itself through the idea of nation, which derived its moral and political energies from the assumption of horizontality. That meant, in principle, all of us are same, equal.

This is not exactly true of caste society, where we are not all same and where we are explicitly, by law, unequal.

In fact, it was considered a virtue to be unequal.
Right. Such a society could not blindly sail along and say it too will be a nation-state. This is what the Poona Pact [of 1932] was. [It is also known as the Gandhi-Ambedkar Pact by which Dalits accepted a joint electorate in return for having reserved seats from where only they could stand.]

The Poona Pact was a necessary precondition for the moral claim to nationhood. It might sound abstract, but it was a form of sharing sovereignty. Nations are odd things as they are about sovereignty. There is no going beyond sovereignty. Why is India India? Why does the territory that we claim belong to us? Because it does. Sovereignty is, in that sense, the final destination. You cannot then ask: Where does this thing sovereignty come from?

So when we asked the British to leave, it was on the basis of sovereignty.

We argued that it is with people that sovereignty rests?
Yes, sovereignty rests with India in an ascriptive sense. You are Indian if you are born in India. Since the British were not born in India, it was argued that they must leave. It is a categorical argument, because of which everybody in the nation has to be part of it. All major groups in the nation share in that sovereignty.

There is, therefore, also the contradiction – sovereignty is categorical, but it is also shared. This contradiction is worked out through arrangements such as reservation and so on. At this level, it is an unconditional thing.

As sovereignty is unconditional, so is reservation. And this is because it recognises equality in a society where by law its people were unequal.
Yes. If it was simply a matter of practice, we would have been like any other country – there are poor, oppressed people everywhere. But here there were laws saying that it was good to oppress, or what we call oppression is not oppression but is, is…

Yes, that this oppression is sanctioned. Because of this we needed this special thing [reservation].

And that is symbolised by the Poona Pact.
Yes. What happened thereafter that in the run-up to becoming a nation, and as we came closer and closer to Independence and [wielding] power, the dominant group in the Constituent Assembly – the upper caste Hindus who were leading the national movement – became very, very allergic to the language of difference. Though to their credit, it must be said that they were not always conscious of it.

Last year, in Tamil Nadu, Dalit student V Sankar was hacked to death on a busy street in broad daylight. Eight months earlier, he had married a girl from a higher caste despite her family’s objections.

What do you mean by the language of difference?
This means anyone saying such and such community is fundamentally different from others. The way around this was the language of backwardness.

The language of backwardness says that we are all one, but some of us got left behind. It is a temporal difference – that some people are today where others were yesterday and, therefore, have to be brought on par.

The language of backwardness, therefore, fudged the fact that Hindus and Muslims, for example, cannot mix or that Dalits and non-Dalits cannot mix. It is not a question of all being the same and a few being a little bit behind. They are fundamentally different because of social divisions.

Because of the deployment of the language of backwardness, there was room for – and it was very enthusiastically done – for conflating discrimination and disadvantage.

Give me an example to distinguish discrimination from disadvantage.
Yes, disadvantage is that there is no fundamental difference between you and me. But because I live in a backward area or that I do not own land or my parents were not educated, my life chances are worse than yours. But there is no fundamental difference between us. You and I differ because of backwardness, because of disadvantages.

By contrast, a social division is that however high up I climb in the class hierarchy, if I am socially inferior to you, and you are the lowest in class terms, there will still remain a difference between us. I will never be like you. Thus, the richest Dalit will not have the same status as the poorest Brahmin. In more and more contexts, yes, money will matter. Yet a rich Dalit among rich people will still remain a Dalit.

The state’s attempt to deal with these two different problems took the same form – reservation – and that has been a mistake.

It is a mistake because the state has allowed the confusion between backwardness/disadvantage and social discrimination/exclusion to persist.
Yes, social discrimination and exclusion require an unconditional and forceful measure – redressal must match the problem. To put it crudely, exclusion is forced exclusion, so therefore reservation – which is forced inclusion. It, therefore, matches.

When you come to disadvantage, there is a variety of options available.

Basically, the state should have policies addressing the problems of all those who are, say, below poverty line.
Yes. [By contrast] the problem of exclusion can’t be solved by making you richer. Reservation has turned out to be one of the best government policies. Remember Rajiv Gandhi’s statement that only 17 paise of every rupee spent on development actually went to whom it was meant for. With reserved jobs, there is very little possibility of leakage. From the beneficiary’s point of view, reservation is a very robust programme. It is very hard for me to steal your reservation.

But what is the idea behind forming a new National Commission for Backward Classes, giving it a Constitutional status, and vesting in Parliament, instead of the Union government, the power to amend the list of castes that are entitled to reservation?
The way this government functions nothing can be ruled out. So we are on bad ground for speculating what the idea is. Two broad options are there. One, it could be a politically less expensive route to say no to influential groups demanding reservation.

Last year, Marathas held a series of large rallies in Maharashtra to press for their demand for reservations in government employment and state-run higher educational institutions, as well as the repeal of the Atrocities Act, which penalises people who abuse Dalits and Adivasis. (Photo credit: Mridula Chari).

Patels, Jats, Marathas and Kapus?
Yes. Currently, the power to add to the list [of castes qualifying for reservation] rests with the Central government. By shifting the onus [of adding castes to the reservation list] on Parliament the costs of rejecting a claim can be distributed, so that Opposition parties cannot claim to be blameless. They cannot therefore keep saying, ‘Look, look, these people are not giving you reservation.’ It is plausible that it is a way of saying no in a politically less costly manner.

But it could also go the other way – if the government brings a bill giving reservation to Jats or Patels or Kapus or Marathas, those castes already in the Other Backward Classes list will most likely protest as their share in reservation will shrink. After all, the four groups demanding reservation are relatively prosperous and educated. So the parties representing castes in the Other Backward Classes list will likely oppose it.
So that is why I am saying it could be a way of saying no.

Yes, but in the scenario I have just depicted, it becomes yes by the BJP and no by others.
But given the Bharatiya Janata Party’s increasing dominance over Parliament, this strategy of deflecting blame will become less and less effective, especially by the time they get a majority in the Rajya Sabha. They can’t then say, ‘We are saying yes, but others are saying no.’ It could therefore be a way of saying no before 2019 [At its current rate of electoral success the Bharatiya Janata Party is calculated to get a majority in the Rajya Sabha by late 2019 or 2020].

What is the other option?
The other is an expansionist idea. This divides into two. It could be a cynical attempt to deliberately reduce reservation to absurdity.

By giving reservation to almost everybody. The maximal version of the expansionist project would be to add economic criterion for reservation.

That could be done by redefining the word “backward”.
Yes, by giving reservation to anyone below a certain economic level – the obverse of creamy layer, so to speak. But it would make every caste eligible. So the discrimination/exclusion part of the argument for reservation is gone. As such, we have forgotten the discrimination/exclusion and it might now be buried even in law.

The courts have been very vigilant in maintaining this distinction between backwardness and exclusion. It has held that socially and educationally backward classes do not mean economically backward classes. It has been very clear that the specificity of caste discrimination is what reservation has been designed to address. And, therefore, economic criterion cannot be taken into account.

But legislations can now be brought to overcome the judicial pronouncements in this regard.
The Constitution can be amended. We are now shading into conspiracy theories. But Article 15(4) and Article 16(4) – the clauses to protect reservation – are somewhat different. Article 16(4) is about employment in state institutions. It talks about backward class of citizens [who are not represented in the services] and, therefore, there is room for reinterpretation. This is specific to employment, while Article 15(4) is about equality before law. Here Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and socially and educationally backward classes are explicitly mentioned.

So one option could be is that you devise a strategy exclusively for [Article] 16(4). You can expand the definition to include economic criterion and thus give reservation to upper castes as well. But the larger frame within which reservation is placed is the absence of jobs. Because job creation is so abysmal in the private sector, the pressure on government job is much more. In the long run, this is going to reduce reservation to absurdity.

It would completely erode the discrimination/exclusion part of the reservation argument. It will also begin to put pressure on the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe reservation as well. For instance, it would trigger a demand to introduce the concept of creamy layer in that category as well.

Seven members of a Dalit family were assaulted by a group of cow vigilantes in Una, Gujarat, last July.

Indeed, people will say, “Why not?”
Then we would be fully in the realm of backwardness. This will mean that the only difference between a Dalit and non-Dalit is poverty. This is not true. It would be a very retrogressive step.

What about introducing economic criterion in reservation meant for Other Backward Class?
The criterion for Other Backward Classes reservation is very much close to economic criterion. That is because there we are already in the realm of backwardness. For the Other Backward Classes reservation, the language is not that of exclusion. It is of backwardness.

But, in the larger sense, Other Backward Classes reservation is justified on the ground that groups in it are poorly represented in the government arena or urban middle class.
Yes, but this is what we have to address. The Other Backward Classes category shares some elements of Dalits and some of those of the privileged classes.

So will you go in for a splitting of this category?
Yes, this category very badly needs to be split.

For instance, create a subcategory of Most Backwards?
But you could also do it on the basis of social dominance. So what could be the criteria for it? One would be the proportion of population.

Political representation and proximity to power?
Yes. As evidence it would work in social science, whether it would work in law, I can’t tell – for example, you look at the examples of perpetrators in honour killings. It is an index of dominance. This is because these are public murders.

Or atrocities committed against certain castes?
Yes, and finding out which are the castes committing them. So we need to split this category. Split implies dividing it into two. What I mean is to disaggregate this group.

Divide it into three or four subcategories?
Yes, but it needs extensive work. The problem is that the Other Backward Classes category has become so politicised and the benefits from it are so real that it will be an impossible battle to win. For instance, you won’t be able to shift out castes like Yadavs who have both access to state and wealth and land. At the state level, there is already a subdivision. It cries out for it. I think it is a progressive step.

But my greater concern is that the dimension of exclusion will be lost by shifting to economic criterion. Those in the Other Backward Classes category who are closer to Dalits will get shortchanged, as they already are.

Suppose Jats, Patels, Marathas and Kapus are included in the Other Backward Classes list at a future date, don’t you think that too would be a watering down of reservation?
Including Jats, Patels, Marathas and Kapus in the Other Backward Classes would be reducing reservation to absurdity. When you think of caste, it is fundamentally relational.

That is to say my caste status depends on your caste status. I am higher only if someone is lower than me. Because it is relational, we get into absurdities. Since reservation is being used both for Other Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the Indian state today is providing the perpetrators of worst forms of exclusion and oppression against Dalits with the same kind of state protection as it is providing to victims. This is a contradiction. We have to face this contradiction. That is why I feel reservation as a flagship programme for dealing with backwardness and disadvantage is a wrong policy.

According to you, reservation should be confined to those excluded and discriminated against.
Yes, it matches with the nature of what it is trying to cure. For backwardness, the state should have other policies.

Thus, the problems of, say, Jats are linked to agrarian distress, which reservation cannot alleviate.
Yes. But why do they demand reservation? It is because it is the most beneficial policy. A job, after all, cannot be taken away from you. It is for life.

I think it has also a lot do with dominant groups declining economically and finding other social groups are catching up with them because of reservation.
Yes. The Patidars of Gujarat have said explicitly that if reservation is not granted to them, then it should be abolished altogether. It is that someone else is being given benefit that you are not being given. If he is not given that benefit, then you are happy.

In other words, it is paranoia about the reduction in social gap.
There is tolerance for social distance. When social distance begins to shrink, then groups which don’t see a possibility of social mobility for themselves react badly. These are rural dominant caste groups, which are, in the current climate, unsure about making it in the urban, globalised world. The more unsure they are of that, the more their self-identity depends on maintaining social distance and the more strongly they will react to the perceived shrinking of social distance.

This is where government jobs come in. These enhance your esteem psychologically.
Yes, in some circles these can be seen as a way leading to abolition of all reservation. This they attempt to do by stoking its progress to absurdity. This is what in part the Patidars are saying and doing. The dominant caste’s concern is about the relative social gap.

Members of the Patel community at a 2015 protest rally in Ahmedabad to demand reservations for their community. (Photo credit: Amit Dave/Reuters).

But you do think reservation has to be continued, don’t you?
I am always asked this question, as anyone who speaks on reservation always is. I offer this challenge to people: Let just one month pass with no incident of caste atrocity being reported, we should then start dismantling reservation.

Should reservation for the Other Backward Classes be continued?
The Other Backward Classes reservation is the product of a lot of confusion and bad faith on the part of the state and upper castes. They have performed a very, very important function. The emergence of the Other Backward Classes for the first made it public, explicit and undeniable what was otherwise known but a suppressed thing – namely, that upper castes are a small minority. Until then, it was Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and Others. The Other category was a boon for the upper castes because it hid massive disparities. The assertion of the Other Backward Classes, therefore, made caste visible.

You mean they gave substance to the battle for equality.
Yes, and it showed that privilege has been cornered by the upper caste, which is a minority. This is obverse of the common Indian’s way of understanding Muslims in today’s India – that they are a minority and, therefore, they should be grateful that they are even alive today, grateful for whatever they get.

But think of it – upper castes are almost the same number [as Muslims]. Yet they have such a feeling of entitlement that they think they own the country. Thus, the Other Backward Classes made caste clear in a way it could not be denied.

Second, it also made the federal arrangement of India very clear.

The third thing that the Other Backward Classes have done is to bring inter-sectionality, which goes in both directions. That is to say, What if you are upper caste but lower class? What if you are lower caste but upper class? It challenges us to ask whether we are talking of poverty or social status – and in what degree each is important.

But should reservation be denied to the Other Backward Classes?
My answer is that the Other Backward Classes is a critical category to think caste. But politically, they are a very hard category to handle. They are politically indispensable. On the other hand, they are themselves an aggregation. The Other Backward Classes point to what is the fundamental problem of Indian politics today – that is, the process of constant aggregation and disaggregation.

Therefore, to generate political energy you go to a large group and say to a subset of it that you are different from them and you are being shafted. It releases political energies, which you use to move up. As your ambition rises from local to national level, you have to re-aggregate.

For instance, there was the Lalu [Yadav] model in place. Then someone like Nitish Kumar comes along and says to others that they are not getting any benefits that have been appropriated by Yadavs. He then appeals to them to come with him.

But now, the category of the Other Backward Classes is less and less useful politically. So at the next stage we should expect disaggregation to have its effect felt at the policy level.

Which is to divide the Other Backward Classes?
To divide and subdivide.

But are you, principally, for the continuation for the Other Backward Classes reservation?
This is the challenge – at one end of the Other Backward Classes spectrum are the oppressor castes, which do not need reservation at all. This is where the danger of conflating backwardness and discrimination are the greatest. It is true that Jats are laughed at and are excluded in the way, for instance, Brahmins treat them. There is discrimination at a certain level. But, at the same time, they are powerful enough to, to…

Discriminate against others?
Right. And, therefore, to aid and abet that would be very dangerous.

But I think this is what the new Commission will do. It will divide the Other Backward Classes category, club castes like Yadavs and Kurmis in one section, into which will be brought Jats, Patels, Marathas and so on. This will anger castes like Yadav and Kurmis, but the rest will be happy because they will think they stand to get a larger share. It could be as cynical a manoeuvre as that.
Indeed, with time, we will be facing more and more sophisticated reiteration of the same problem. Ultimately, it leads to the question: How does social and class statuses interact to produce political outcomes? One way of thinking that will appeal to theorists is that what we are going through is an inevitable process of differentiation, through which various caste clusters have used political leverage of the labels attached to them. But now the inclusive label and inequalities under that label are becoming hard to handle. There are centrifugal forces that are throwing them off. From one perspective, this should see a renewed visibility of shared interests on class lines across social lines.

For example, objectively speaking today, in urban India the Dalits and Muslims are very close together. On the ground, however, they are far apart. What will happen to this is a critical question – whether experience and objective conditions could come together to overcome divisions based on social category.

How do you look upon Modi as an Other Backward Class prime minister?
I think Modi’s Other Backward Class identity is an afterthought for him.

It looks like as if he has never genuinely thought of himself as an Other Backward Class person.

To say anything meaningful on that, we need to know about the operation of caste in the Sangh Parivar. I am sure there must have been a high degree of resentment among upper castes against the coming up of lower castes. I am talking here to the happenings within the Sangh, not outside it. Did Modi feel the pinch of caste? Did the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh make Modi feel like an Other Backward Class [or caste] man?

We don’t know the answer to that question, and much depends on that answer. The Sangh has been such a Brahmin-dominated organisation and it is possible Modi felt slighted or hurt in some ways. But this is something we have no way of knowing. How he perceives himself – that is to say whether he considers himself as an Other Backward Caste [or Class] – will begin to matter more and more because it is he who is in power.

Last year, property worth crores was damaged when protesters demanding reservation for the Jat community went on the rampage in Haryana. (Photo credit: PTI).