The intersection of the months of August and September this year marks thirty years of the rollout of Mandal Commission recommendations. Eleven point criteria for Other Backward Classes (OBCs), four hundred and twenty-six page report and more than two hundred self-immolations later, the imprint of the actions of the V.P Singh government was to stay on the nation for years to come. Bindeshwari Prasad Mandal, a former Member of Parliament belonging to the Yadav community of Bihar, led the Second Backward Classes Commission, formed by the Morarji Desai government, to “identify the socially or educationally backward classes” which recommended twenty-seven percent reservations in jobs under central government and public sector undertakings. Widespread protests began across the country, predominantly in northern India, led by students who immolated themselves and the Supreme Court stayed the implementation of the reservations. Even as the court allowed its implementation in the 1992 Indira Sawhney v/s Union of India case, the OBC politics and consolidation had just started.

Commission and its calculations

The commission submitted its report in December, 1980 and the report caused a lot of furore. Interestingly, four out of the five members of the commission belonged to the OBC category with only one L.R Naik from the Scheduled Castes (SC) category. Unlike the First Backward Classes Commission, this commission was not very representative in terms of caste and class demographics. Did the composition lead to the fallacies in the Commission’s recommendations is an open ended question with which many people might have their own ‘reservations’. To evaluate the backwardness, the commission divided eleven parameters into social, educational and economic and gave them three, two and one point each, respectively. Out of 22 points, any caste which had more than 11 points were classified as socially and educationally backward. The result being that three thousand seven hundred and thirteen castes being classified as backward and the commission declared that 52% of the country’s population belonged to the OBCs. The commission came to this 52% figure rather simplistically, no robust technique was used. All the commission did was to subtract Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Upper Caste population from the total Hindu population, that too, from the 1931 census. The National Family Health Statistics survey of 1998 puts the figure of non-Muslim OBCs at 29.8% and the National Sample Survey at 32%, this questions the very the ground that the Mandal Commission recommended reservations on.

Troubled waters

In their wisdom, both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi decided to shelve the Mandal report
indefinitely. This was primarily done to avoid contention in the aftermath of its implementation.
Ostensibly, Rajiv Gandhi said that the report “is a can of worms, and I am not going to open it”.

However, in August 1990, V.P Singh, in his wisdom, decided to implement the recommendations. V.P Singh gave the rationale of uplifting the masses out of hundreds of years of backwardness. A case was filed in the Supreme Court by Indira Sawhney and that led to a stay on the implementation. Large Scale agitations rocked the nation, primarily the Hindi heartland. As Ramachandra Guha writes in his book India After Gandhi, more than 50 people lost their lives in police firing during the demonstrations. Starting in University of Delhi’s Deshbandhu College with Rajiv Goswami, more than 200 students self-immolated themselves in protest.

Arguably, these were the first ‘anti-reservations’ protests in the country. The petition filed by Indira Sawhney was three-pronged: the reservations violated the principle of equality of opportunity, the efficiency of the Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) was under threat and that caste was not the reliable factor to ascertain backwardness. V.P Singh unscrupulously implemented selective recommendations and not all the ones given the commission. Soon after, the V.P Singh government fell after the Bharatiya Janata Party, under Lal Krishna Advani, withdrew support. In sum, the country stood divided on caste lines with negligible clarity on the status of implementation.

Quota and quarrels

The Supreme Court upheld the reservations with a few observations and riders. For example, the creamy layer was established to prevent the wealthier households from unduly snatching benefits. However, given how proficient Indians are at hiding income, the provision has hardly been successful. The reservations were here to stay and the quota was seen as a means to have OBCs in the ‘corridors of power’ so that they can support their community. Apart from the upper castes, there was some resentment in the SCs and STs. This was exemplified during the submission when the only Dalit member of the commission, L.R Naik, had refused to the sign the report. The argument was that the OBCs were nowhere close to Dalits in terms of oppression and were supposedly well-off and exercised considerable power, contributing to the oppressive structure. Even as the Supreme Court was yet to give its verdict, a new form of power struggle took shape. On the one hand were the BJP and L.K Advani, trying to unite what caste had divided. On the other hand were the likes of Lalu and Mulayam Yadav who, in Mandal, saw an opportunity to divide based on caste what religion had united. Jatis like Yadavs, Kurmis, Meos Gurjars have benefited disproportionately at the cost of other jatis, reinforcing inequality and, sometimes, poverty. Yadavs, in particular, have benefited electorally as well. A lot of netas like Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav owe their electoral success to this phenomenon. At different points in India’s electoral history, the Yadav vote-bank was the king-maker and this led to sharp divisions within the OBCs. This also resulted in counter mobilisation by jatis like Kurmis who rallied behind the leaders like Nitish Kumar.

In corridors but not of power

In implementing Mandal recommendations, V.P Singh took a gamble. This gamble cost Vishwanath Pratap Singh his government and the country its peace. But did it pay the OBCs off, at least? Initially, there was a bump in OBC representatives which reached its peak in 2004 General Elections. However, only a select few jatis benefited, most of whom were already well-off and dominant. This also marked the end of perks that Yadav politicians could offer as the reservations were capped, as Professor Christophe Jaffrelot of Sciences Po has pointed out. He also points out that while OBCs gained employment almost proportionate to 27% in PSUs, the net jobs that PSUs have to offer have constantly shrunk and will continue to shrink further. The picture is gloomier when evaluating the Central government services. As per the Handbook on Social Welfare Statistics, OBCs make the highest number of officers in Group C services at 18.24%. By percentage, OBCs form a larger part of the safai karamcharis than they do of Group A services. Even though many states made provisions for the most backward of the OBCs, the most vulnerable remain largely backward. The commission to look into and complete the task of sub-categorisation of OBCs has been constituted under the chairmanship of Justice (Retd.) G Rohini to address this problem. The only silver lining has been the reservations in educational institutions implemented in 2006 which have significantly increased the enrollment and retention of OBCs in these institutions.
During the 1990s, Lalu Prasad Yadav had coined a quirky slogan which went like “Jab tak rahega samose me aloo, tab tak rahega Bihar me Lalu” indicating that his Yadav consolidation was here to stay. While most of us can still vouch for aloo being a part of samosa, the Yadav consolidation has taken a noticeable hit since the BJP started to unite with religion what caste had divided, under the tag of Hindutva. However, this does not imply the end of OBC politics which might soon get rekindled as the Rohini Commission will submit its report next year. From its calculations to its implementation, and its aftermath, the Mandal Episode has been one of the most defining moments in the history of the Indian polity and society. An unmitigated disaster, it has failed those it sought to provide justice to. Social justice, after all, is an unfinished cause.

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