Intermediary Caste unrest: Is the nation sitting on a powder keg?

The silent Maratha protests in Maharashtra demanding reservation and repeal of Scheduled Caste Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (SC/ST Act) is unprecedented because it has brought together the Maratha groups that were till now widely regarded as too heterogeneous & diverse to forge any unity of purpose. The underlying motive is not the repeal of SC/ST Act; the alleged incident of rape and then subsequent burning of the girl belonging to the Maratha community by some Dalit boys was just the trigger needed for ignition.

Politics, the cooperative societies and the sugar industry have been largely dominated by the community in the state and Dalit politics is hardly in a stage to offer strong challenge to it. When we talk of the SC/ST Act, it is worth keeping in mind that out of 45000 such cases in the previous year, the conviction rate was less than 10 percent. So, to say, SC/ST Act is being misused to a large extent, is simply exaggerated.

The root cause of the Maratha discontentment is no access to reservation in public jobs & educational institutions. Disconnect with higher education & global process and agrarian distress have led to worsening of their socio-economic clout. The fact that the Maratha protests have kept distance from OBCs and dalits makes it pretty clear that they nurse some grudge towards the groups that are beneficiaries of reservation.

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Let’s get out of Maharashtra and notice such mass uprisings & reservation demands in states like Haryana, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan recently. The Patels, Jats, Gujjars and Kapus have been relatively affluent and dominant communities in agricultural hinterlands; they have enjoyed political power. All of a sudden, why they want reservation? Like the Marathas, they lack connect with global forces & higher education. Agriculture has deteriorated leaving public employment as the only viable option for the youths. When they see erstwhile marginalized groups doing better than them economically, their frustration multiplies.

The implementation of Mandal Commission report has legitimised the claims of dominant agricultural communities to reservation. It has widened the claims since reservation is now no longer confined to specific communities that had suffered historical atrocities. Reservation has become less about deprivation and more about political resource. All the communities think they can get reservation benefits if they have electoral numbers and strong community leaders. Since there is a ceiling of 50 percent imposed by the apex judiciary, the state governments can’t provide benefits to the demanding communities without curtailing the benefits of reserved communities.

This offers a Hobson choice for them. They are caught between the devil and the deep sea. The nation stands on the cusp of caste wars and it is high time, reservation policy is reviewed taking into account the changing socio-economic ground realities. Jats, Kapus, Marathas and Patels are feeling the pinch because there is a wide intra community socio-economic gap also.

The same applies to OBCs and Dalits. Only a small percentage has benefitted from reservation and the majority is still deprived. The reservation benefits have not evenly dispersed and have created layers within the OBCs/Dalits. Reservation boundary should have been process enabling groups to move within and move out based on socio-economic indicators but has any government thought about it? The status quo continues. No one wants to bell the cat.

Often one gets the lame excuse for inaction that reservation benefits can only be provided to those classes who are socially and educationally backward and economic criteria is simply unconstitutional. But then, how class became caste? Reasons for backwardness may not be caste alone but others also. The backwardness may stem from lack of education, lack of economic opportunities, lack of awareness and gender discrimination. Handicapped persons, transgender and displaced rootless people may owe their backwardness to factors other than caste. OBC reservation has a creamy layer which does not fall within the ambit of reservation; this layer is based on income which is an economic criteria.

Moreover, Mandal Commission while preparing the OBC list took 11 criteria into account – 4 were social, 4 were economic and 3 were educational. Economic yardsticks were always there and it would be naive to resist their introduction. Rather land possession should also be factored in economic yardsticks to strengthen the cause. Economic liberty is the very foundation of human emancipation and empowerment. If you want to empower a community, increase its economic choices & independence, education & health will see improvement and so will be the social standing.

Will the nation move away from the caste centric orientation of reservation and adopt the economic criteria and deprivation index? I doubt this will happen anytime soon. The judiciary, the civil society and sections of media may be nudging the political class to reservation review but our leaders seem too reticent and apprehensive of bringing the reservation genie out from the corked bottle. Don’t forget most of them are community leaders and adherents to vote bank politics. Social justice is akin to community justice. But then, portends are ominous.

More than ending backwardness and deprivation, the OBC reservation has acted as a political resource for the OBCs and the intermediate castes are annoyed, feeling cheated. The poor sections of the upper castes are also feeling victimized. Reservation benefits to upper OBCs whose socio-economic conditions are at par or even better than upper castes/intermediate castes in several states have led to intense heart burning. The unwillingness of the better off among reserved classes to abdicate reservation benefits in favour of their own less fortunate brethren, leave alone other social groups, has further muddied the waters.

In the coming days, there may be some sort of realignment of social forces as the upper castes & intermediate castes may come together for their cause. The options before the policy makers have constricted. With 50 percent of the population below 25 years and dwindling employment avenues, disconnect of the majority from globalization & education required for private sector entry and revival of identity politics based on caste & culture, the reservation politics may lead to more fractures in an already fragile social structure.


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