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‘Backwardness’ a ‘status symbol’ in India

Introduction –There was a time when people thought it a stigma to be called Backward. Now at the threshold of 21st century, reversed trend is seen as the different groups vie with each other to be included, preferably in SC list, failing which in OBCs list.

Background – There was a time, when numerous caste groups clamored for higher caste status in Census operations of 1901, 1911, and 1921 and supported their claims with different factors. Earlier untouchables had clubbed their political activities with backward classes led by the Justice Party and South Indian Liberation Federation, which were already agitating against Brahmin’s dominance in modern callings. These parties together, now known as the depressed classes, succeeded in getting a few nominated seats for themselves through the Act of 1919. By the end of 1920 the principle of special attention was firmly established at provincial level. (Zelliot, Ibid, p. 166) Depressed classes representation increased and was extended to include a nominated member in the Central Legislative Council, following suggestions of the Middleman Committee in 1925. (Zelliot, Ibid., p 158).

What glamourized backwardness? – But the political acceptance of Reservation as a tool of social engineering has glamorized backwardness. The granting of an electorate for Muslims…Brought the idea of communal electorates…. to the forefront in the minds of all communities, which feared their submersion in the Government run by the dominant caste of Hindu community. Amongst them were the lower strata of Hindu community also. (Zelhot Eleanor, Dr. Ambedkar and the Mahar Movement, p 141.)

Unfair to stigmatize any group by official acknowledgement of their low status – Till 1931, the British Government at national level consistently refrained itself to giving any section of Indian Society any official classification on the grounds that it would be unfair to stigmatize any group by official acknowledgement of their low status. It considered it unfair because, Owing to social disabilities, to which members of the depressed classes are exposed, it would be in the highest degree undesirable that any official authorization might appear to extend to such qualification. The fluidity of social distinctions and the efforts of the classes, lowest in the scale, aided by social reformers, to improve their status, make it more desirable, that Government should abstain from doing anything, which would tend to give rigidity to these distinctions. (Indian Statutory Commission 1930 VI, p 341).

In 1931, the Census Commissioner J.H. Hutton had suggested Some importance must be attached to untouchables groups since, obviously, if the general public regards the persons of certain groups as so distasteful that the concerted actions resorted in order to keep them away, persons of these groups do suffer a serious disability. (Census of India, 1931, Vol.1, App 1, p 195).

 As advised by Hutton, the British Government opted for caste instead of individual as the primary basis for inclusion in the list, because the British intellectuals considered caste, and not individual, household, or village, to be the basis of identity in non-western countries. (Richard Smith an anthropologist, Societies). Caste appeared to them a social unit, which included more or less similar kind of individuals in attitude, behavior, literacy rate and socio-economic conditions. They found it easier to find out their rank in the socio-economic hierarchy on the basis of caste. The selection of castes had been done primarily on Huttons’ 1931 Census criteria i.e. on the basis of untouchability affecting adversely their economic, educational and occupational status and leading them to many other disabilities.

Division of Indian society – After Independence, for the purpose of reservation Indian society has been divided into –

  •        Scheduled Castes
  •            Scheduled Tribes
  •            Women and Children
  •            OBCs and
  •            Minority Communities.

Increased number of backward castes after independence – The percentage of enumerated OBC population in early 50s was 18.9% and their estimated population was 31.8%. (Galenter,ibid, p168.) Kaka Kalelkar Commission identified 2399 castes as backward in 1956 and Mandal 3748 castes in 1980. Still many more clamor for inclusion into either SCT lists or OBC list. The trend indicates that after fifty years of the Independence, India generated more backwards than before.

Incentive for calling itself backwards –  Reservations have created a vested interest in remaining or pretending to be backward. Inclusion or any change in SCT list involves a difficult process, therefore, it is very difficult to find a place there. However, OBC list is flexible enough to accommodate more and expand indefinitely. Any group, which could influence or pressurize local, state or central authorities, can succeed in getting OBC status easily. It is not very difficult to pressurize the authorities, in a set up of electoral politics, where only numerical strength counts. More the Government includes new groups in the OBC list, more the demand from left over.

Who are backwards? – Most of the castes included in OBC list are those, which had been a part of the traditional ‘Jajmani system’, not as a client, but as patrons. They have often been the ruling class and have enjoyed the access to the resources of the society. At present most of them own land and other resources. The data of land holdings, sale-purchase of land and leasing of land makes it evident that much earlier, during 60s and 70s, upper castes have been replaced by the intermediate castes in the rural power structure. They are neither dependent on nor exploited by upper castes. The extension of Reservation to them cannot be justified rationally.

Caste tensions in the past and now – Caste tensions had a self-limiting character earlier, because caste in terms of social structure was a very local institution. Varna model gave an abstract idea of social hierarchy. Therefore, the conflict based on caste ties or caste identification had a self-limiting quality. This rivalry was the result of British design, pursued to divide Indians.

Outcome – Job-Reservation for such communities has developed a vested interest in retaining the title of ‘backwardness’. It has created bad blood. It has been proved more to be a matter of partisan politicking rather than one of affirmative action to help underprivileged.

Backwards castes and Scheduled Castes do not have much in common among them, except for their hatred for the caste Hindus, especially Brahmins. Intermediate castes (Backward castes) have always aligned themselves with power. Earlier in the social sphere, they were the right hand of forward castes. Most of upper castes are non-militant and passive by nature. Instead of confrontation, they look for other avenues. They could not exert force on the lower strata. On behalf of them, it was always the intermediate castes, that exerted force on  lower castes.

Currently, to displace forward castes and to retain their Reservation benefits, backward castes have joined hands with untouchables, in whose favour the wind is blowing. While  are in conflict with OBCs at social level, but in politics, they have no option, but to support them to achieve their mission to change the power equation.

Polorized the Indian society along caste lines – To a great extent, Reservation Policy , its eligibility criteria being based on caste, is responsible for polarizing the people along caste-line. There is a sharp socio-political divide now.

Conclusion – Discrimination to some extent exists everywhere in one form or other – be it a social, political and economic system or institution, be it a big or small institution as small as that of a family. Vulnerable individuals or weaker sections of society have always become an easy prey for discrimination. Within a family, vulnerable family members like children, old or widowed parents, poor relatives or unemployed youth become an easy prey of discrimination. And in a society, poor, illiterate and ignorant people quite often become victims of exploitation. Fear of being discriminated or exploited springs from ignorance.

It is a humanitarian obligation to think about weak and plan for their uplift. But for removing social and economic imbalances, solution does not lie in adopting the policy of ‘reverse discrimination’. The Government has to pay equal attention to the other sections of society, as well. While uplifting the submerged section of society, the Government should not block the progress/advancement of advanced castes.


January 14, 2015 - Posted by | Reservation/Affirmative action program | , , , ,

1 Comment »

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