The scandalous invasion of the upper castes in the OBC lists did not happen overnight. It probably started with the VP Singh government’s implementation of the Mandal Commission’s recommendation to reserve 27% of public sector jobs for CBOs.
Called then, Called now
In the state OBC list for reservation in Karnataka, for example, there are several economically backward castes among the Brahmins, including the Goud Saraswat Brahmins. My late mother used to describe the Brahmins of Saraswat, of which the Goud Saraswat are a part, as so high in the hierarchy that they themselves were worthy of worship. Other well-ranked categories include Saurashtra Brahmins in the state OBC lists in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
The caste system granted the Brahmins the privileges of a relatively easy life. Their occupation was mainly to read religious texts and perform religious services. In return, they received food, clothing, gifts, and shelter to live in or near the temple. Why, how and when they became socially and educationally backward, the Mandal Commission’s criterion for CBOs, is really a puzzle.
In the state, the OBC lists are Rajputs (Lodhi Rajputs in Uttarakhand, Kashyap Rajputs in Punjab). ‘Rajput’ means son of the king. As a caste, the Rajputs have ruled various parts of India for centuries. In the caste hierarchy, as warriors and rulers, they have always held the highest position. How can a ruling caste be called “backward”?
The proud descendants of Chhatrapati Shivaji, the valiant Marathas, are waiting to return to the OBC list of Maharashtra. In the state OBC lists, we find the dominant landowner castes of Patels (Rajasthan) and Jats (Rajasthan, Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi-NCR, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand). Once upon a time when the zamindari flourished, many landowner casts could be considered “backward”. But land reforms have turned them into the dominant landowner castes across India, which cannot be called “backward”. They are almost feudal rulers in rural areas.
The irony is greater for the lower castes – not just the Marathas but even the Dalits – who overcame the historical backwardness by becoming warriors, and therefore even kings and emperors like the Scindias and Gaekwads. Who dared to categorize those castes that occupied the creamy layer of the warrior class as OBCs? In the past, these proud warriors cut off the heads of those who even dreamed of crossing their path without bowing to show respect.
Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and land castes are the reason so many caste groups were backward in the first place. It is the social order and practices that these upper castes established and dictated that wrested opportunities from genuine CBOs and relegated them to a life trapped in their humble occupations. They were forbidden to cross the social, economic, professional and even spatial borders determined by the high castes.
Being born into a lower caste was once a stigma that a few even tried to overcome by adopting upper caste surnames. But, in modern India, many are asking to be called “backward” in order to benefit from reservation quotas. They continue to enjoy the privileges of the upper castes in the social sphere and enjoy the advantages of the reserve in the economic sphere.
Now you get my Gotra
On August 10, both houses of parliament unanimously passed the 127th amendment to the bill which restored to states the right to determine their CBO list for reservation benefits. This will open the proverbial box of high caste worms scrambling to enter the OBC list. Politicians will oblige in exchange for votes.
There is a case for state-level lists because a caste backward in one state may not be backward in another. But we need independent state institutions, not those under the influence of politicians to determine these lists. Also, as the Supreme Court ruled, creamy layers should be ruled out.
As such, the enumeration of castes has become extremely complicated. The 1901 census indicated that there were 1,646 castes in India. In the 1931 census, the number increased 2.5 times to 4,147 castes. If that sounds like an incredible increase in the number of castes, be prepared for the 1,000-fold increase since 1931.
The last, and the first since independence, the Caste Survey – Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) – was conducted in 2011. The census received 4.6 million categories of castes, sub-castes, different surnames, gotras in caste and clan names. . Ten years have passed since the census. Yet all we know is that there were some 82 million errors in caste detail reported in the census. State governments have corrected 67 million mistakes, but 15 million remain. We do not know how government officials classified certain caste peculiarities as “errors” and how they were “rectified”.
Also on August 10, finally, the Center qualified the 2011 census as incorrect and out of date. The opposition, including Congress, whose government conducted the 2011 census, is dismayed. For example, the current government has promised to carry out another caste census once the decennial census is completed. The GoI must in fact ask itself: why do we need a caste census? Surely, not to collect millions of names of castes, sub-castes, gotras and clans. And, if we need a caste census, can it be conducted without errors or reporting bias, and how?