The Constitutional Amendment providing 10% reservation to the economically poor among those not covered by other reservations was approved by the Cabinet on January 7. But by January 8 it had been passed in the Lok Sabha where only three members of the Lok Sabha voted against the amendment, compared to 323 who voted for it.
On January 9, when the Bill came up for debate in the Rajya Sabha, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, a party known for its Other Backward Classes politics in Bihar, chose to field Manoj Jha, who happens to be its Brahmin face, to oppose what is being called an “upper caste quota”. Jha delivered a rousing speech, but the Bill was passed with the support of 165 legislators, with only seven votes against.
Since then Jha’s party leader Tejashwi Yadav, who also happens to be the leader of opposition in Bihar Legislative Assembly, has been touring the state demanding that 90% of government jobs should be reserved. Last week, in an interaction with a digital platform, former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav backed the idea of allocating jobs according to the population of different categories of social groups.
Should this demand for proportional representation fructify, Jha, a professor at the prestigious Delhi School of Social Work, will be jubilant. He explains why in this interview.
Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav has been touring Bihar demanding that reservations should be increased to 90%. For whom is the remaining 10% earmarked?
Tejashwi Yadav is saying this because the Bahujan [majority] population is close to 90%. The Bahujan includes the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the Other Backward Classes. That is why he wants 90% reservation. [Prime Minister] Narendra Modi granted 10% reservation to economically weaker sections…
When you say economically weaker sections, you obviously mean the upper castes.
They are those who are currently not in any of the reservation categories. They are popularly called caste Hindus.
To get back, since Modi has done away with the Supreme Court mandated cap of 50% on reservation [which, with the new 10% reservation, takes the total share of reservations up to 60%], without any evidence, without any survey, he should be generous enough to first address the concerns of the Bahujan society.
What is the population of the Other Backward Classes? In his report recommending 27% reservation, BP Mandal counted them as 52% of the country’s population.
Mandal computed the Other Backward Classes to be 52% on the basis of the last caste census that took place in 1931. In 2011, a socio-economic and caste census was carried out. But the data on caste was not released. We have a strong feeling that the Other Backward Classes in the data constitute nearly 68% of the country’s population.
Does this 68% also include those who are not included in the Other Backward Classes reservation pool, such as Patels, Jats and Marathas?
Yes, it also includes them. I have examined the affirmative action policy of just about every country. None of them introduced this policy without a survey or study. I have a very strong feeling that the Supreme Court will ask what we innocently did in Parliament: What is the evidence to grant 10% reservations to the economically weaker sections? Also, how did the government decide the criteria that those who earn Rs 8 lakh a year or have five acres of land can qualify for 10% reservation? That is why I say that 10% reservation is nothing less than a midnight robbery.
With 90% reservation, do you think it is good for liberal democracy to completely knock out the idea of open competition among individuals?
In an unequal society such as ours, if you continue to speak of equality and open competition without a rider, then it will only perpetuate inequality.
Obviously, reservation should not be abolished. But shouldn’t there be space for individual competition? Isn’t it a good balance to have 50% reservation and 50% open competition?
But that has not made a dent in the social topography. This is because the systems that have to incorporate hitherto excluded social groups are occupied by caste Hindus. They are very, very prejudiced [against subaltern groups]. Their prejudice has become their ideology. Even government data says that in many sectors nearly three-fourths of jobs in the reserved category have not been filled.
I will say that even before 90% reservation is provided, reverse the process we adopt for filling vacancies [in government jobs].
What do you mean by that?
Take the 13-point roster system that was introduced for appointments in university departments and colleges. It has been put on hold. Nevertheless, according to this system, if a vacancy were to arise, it was to be first assigned to the unreserved [or general] category, the second and third vacancies were to also go to the unreserved category, the fourth to the Other Backward Classes category, the fifth and sixth vacancies were to, once again, go to the unreserved category, the seventh to the Scheduled Caste category, the eighth to the Other Backward Class category, the ninth to the unreserved category, the tenth to the economically weaker section category, the eleventh to the unreserved category, and the twelfth to the Other Backward Class.
It was only then the chance of the Scheduled Tribe was to come. In any discipline, there are no more than 10 or 12 posts in universities. By this roster system, it would take 250 years for a Scheduled Tribe candidate to get his or her chance.
So you would want the first vacancy to be filled by a member of the Scheduled Tribe?
Vacancies should be first assigned to the reserved categories before being allocated to the unreserved category. We have been looking at reservation as charity. That is unfair. The Constitution guarantees reservation. It is a fundamental right, which cannot be granted to people through the discourse of charity. It is their right.
The churning in the Bahujan society has convinced them that it is they who should set the agenda. That is why Tejashwi Yadav is saying that 90% of reservation should come to us, the Bahujan.
What has been the response to Yadav’s demand?
In spite of the mainstream media blocking out his campaign, it is certainly gaining traction. For instance, when we in the Rashtriya Janata Dal took a position against the 10% reservation in the Rajya Sabha, parties friendly to us were surprised. But within 48 hours, they came to me and said that they now realise that reservation is a threat to the Constitution.
Why is the 10% reservation a threat to the Constitution?
The Constitution says reservation should be granted to the educationally and socially backward. It does not provide for those who are economically poor. They have done what is not legally tenable.
But supporters of 10% reservation argue that those poor are also educationally and social backward.
That is not correct. I am Manoj Jha and I could be poor. But my poverty does not arise from my being born in a particular caste. Reservation is not a solution for poverty. The solution to it can be scholarships and such other mechanisms.
You say Yadav is getting traction. Don’t you think the degree of Bahujan consolidation will be minimised because Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Modi, who have together formed an alliance in Bihar, also belong to backward castes?
Modi can invent anything at any point of time. When he was chief minister of Gujarat for 15 years, we did not know his caste. Suddenly, in the midst of the 2014 elections, we came to know he belongs to a caste that is supposedly in the Other Backward Class category. That is Modi’s style. He can become anything during an election.
When we took a position against the 10% reservation, we never cared for electoral gains or losses, a point Yadav harped upon several times. For instance, in Delhi’s Constitution Club, Yadav said that we may not get a single seat, but we will oppose the 10% reservation because it violates our reading of the Constitution, which does not provide for reservation on economic basis.
But Nitish Kumar is undeniably an Other Backward Classes leader?
Kumar is very confused. When the 10% reservation was announced, he was all gaga. Then when we took a position against it, he was rattled. He held a press conference and said that since the bar of 50% has been removed, jobs should be distributed among social groups according to their population. We have been talking about this [proportional representation in jobs] since 2011, which is when caste census was conducted. Why did it take Kumar so long to take the position he has now?
At the press conference, he also said that the next census should include caste enumeration. To this, in my press interactions, I asked: What happens to the caste data that was collected in 2011? Kumar is rattled because he knows we will popularise our narrative. Whatever little support he has among the backwards, he will lose it.
The backward-forward caste binary emerged when Bihar Chief Minister Karpoori Thakur introduced 26% reservation for the Other Backward Classes in March 1978. There were huge protests. What is your memory of it?
I was just 11 years old then. But I do remember there was tension. Bihar then had a very feudal society. The entrenched social groups thought they would lose everything they have, more by crook than by hook. Obviously, the situation today is different – they know that if there is any mischief regarding reservation, the Bahujan samaj will pay them back in the same coin.
Because of protests in Bihar in 1978, a compromise scheme was worked out, not least because of AB Vajpayee’s interventions. One of its provisions was a promise to grant reservation to the economically weaker sections. That promise the BJP government implemented through the 10% reservation this year. How do you look upon the persistence of this theme in BJP’s politics for over four decades?
This is because people have not understood what reservation is meant for. There are poor in the upper castes, but their poverty is not on account of being born in their castes. By contrast, there are those whose poverty is defined, described, prescribed and perpetuated because of being born in a particular caste. There are deaths in sewers just about every other day. Who dies in sewers? Dalits. To annihilate caste, reserve 100% jobs in sewer cleaning for the upper castes.
You are a Brahmin and yet you spoke out against the 10% reservation for caste Hindus. How did your caste brethren react to it?
I did not choose my surname, but I chose my politics. Many people do not know my family background. My uncle was a Praja Socialist Party MLA for five terms. He died when I was growing up. If I am attracted to subaltern ideas, it is because of his inspiration. He did many things in life that you may call radical. For instance, he never wore the jenau or sacred thread. I also do not wear it.
Unlike Rahul Gandhi?
That is his choice. A thread that divides people should be jettisoned.
To get back, what was your community’s response to your speech in the Rajya Sabha?
Many people called me. They abused me. One of them said, “You will die a dog’s death.” This organisation called Parashurama Sangharsh Samiti burnt my effigy in Patna. I was told that there were just nine people present there. I felt really bad – they should have at least done it before 100 or 200 people [laughs].
What about the influence of your parents?
My father was a university professor. My mother was also a university professor in Bihar. She writes regularly, in Maithili. She has been a very progressive influence on me.
Can you identify a precise incident that triggered the transformation in you?
Apart from my upbringing, my awakening was because of a chance reading of Topi Shukla, a novel of Rahi Masoom Raza. It was because of Raza’s novel I realised that you have to choose your politics, and that you have to take the side of victims. I was in Class 12 when I read Topi Shukla.
You were born in the Brahmin caste. How is it that they and other upper castes cannot see the poor representation of Other Backward Classes in government jobs? Is it the case that they are insensitive, or that they resent their share of the pie shrinking, or that their sense of superiority makes them feel that they have the capabilities to govern the nation?
I agree with all the three reasons you have cited. But what is as important is that the upper caste people meet only people of their own kind, read literature written largely by the upper castes, and believe in a worldview provided by the upper castes. I feel bad for them – they do not have an alternative reading of the world. How many of them have read BR Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste? Unless you read the narrative of oppression, you can never understand the structures that perpetuate oppression.
But when they read Ambedkar, they seem to only get angrier.
It is something akin to the white man’s privilege. Assume there are four whites who more or less have the same point of view on most issues. They read a text on the oppression of blacks. There can be two responses – they could either take a position against oppression or they will say the narrative of oppression has been exaggerated, largely because of their own fear of being unseated from power. Unfortunately, many, many upper castes tend to opt for the second response.
I know some Brahmins who say they are the Jews of India.
I know whom you are referring to – Manish Tewari. [The Congress leader made this remark when Twitter chief Jack Dorsey was photographed with a poster that said “Smash Brahminical patriarchy” during his visit to India in November.]
Not only him. Many Brahmins feel they are discriminated against.
They should understand what happened to Jews under Hitler, who capitalised on subterranean feelings that already existed against the Jews not only in Germany but elsewhere in Europe as well. They were persecuted even in the 19th century. Have Brahmins suffered the kind of disenfranchisement the Jews did?
All institutions in India are predominantly occupied by Brahmins. There is an overwhelming representation of Brahmins in Modi’s cabinet. A schizophrenic view of reality makes a Brahmin think he is India’s Jews.
You do not think Brahmins have a reason to feel aggrieved?
They feel aggrieved because they are being challenged. When you are in the habit of ruling all institutions and ordering knowledge, you tend to have a personalised interpretation of the wave [of opposition] rising against you.
Don’t families also tell stories and provide an interpretation of the world to a child that stays with them, and influences their responses in their adulthood? For instance, that the Taj Mahal was actually a temple or that…
Had the Mandal report not been implemented, a large number of backward castes would have been Hinduised. Certain castes were secularised overnight because of the Mandal report. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh worked on them. For instance, Brahmins planned riots but never came out in the forefront. They got other castes to execute their plan.
Do you think reservation also symbolises to Brahmins that their hegemony is under threat?
They feel their hegemony is unraveling. In my speech in the Rajya Sabha on the 10% reservation, I referred to stories that would start with, “There was once a poor Brahmin.” But have we heard of stories that there was once a poor Dalit or a poor Khushwaha? Brahmins have taken for granted the poverty among other castes. They think that is life, a natural state of order. Brahmins have fictionalised the Indian reality.
So do families tell stories that convey, for instance, that caste is good?
It did not happen in my family. But Brahmin families do convey that they are pure. Yet, in a public setting, they will say that they have this Dalit or that Muslim as a friend. It only reinforces the stereotype of the Brahmin’s sense of superiority.
There is a lot of bitterness among the upper castes regarding reservation. As a Brahmin, how do you think that bitterness can be removed? After all, bitterness among any social group is not good for society.
The upper castes need a proper, scientific education more than any other caste. Their entire approach is regressive. They need to approach history with a modern mindset. They should not perpetuate ignorance through knowledge.
There are other methods of breaking stereotypical thinking. I think a common school system would be a revolutionary step. I would request all Opposition parties to adopt this system.
Basically, the system should abolish the private sector in education, right?
Yes. Nordic countries have adopted this system. I think the private sector in education is only adding to discrimination. When you say low or subaltern castes, it is not just about birth and identity. It is also about access.
We also need to change the syllabus. How many textbooks tell us about Periyar [EV Ramasamy] or [Jyotirao] Phule? They are reduced to footnotes. Brahmins and upper castes should read what is called the literature of margin. In fact, the Bahujan literature should be the mainstream literature. The literature of caste Hindus should be the margin literature.