Mumbai: Sixty years ago, India began with 2,400 so-called backward classes. Now, there are 4,000 of them, and their numbers are still growing. While there are provisions to add and remove names from the list, names are only added, rarely deleted, noted S. Baviskar, sociology professor at the Institute of Social Sciences in New Delhi. “It’s an unpopular move to remove someone from the list. Not good politics.”
The result has been a nation that suddenly wants to become backward. And with the Supreme Court’s decision on Thursday to extend 27% of seats in public institutions to members of other backward classes (OBCs), observers wonder if more groups will be added to the “backwards” list.
Confusion, too, grows with the bloating list—some groups are backward in one state, but not in others. For instance, Lawa Patils are backward in Maharashtra, but not in Gujarat. Sometimes, a group features in two places: the state’s list of OBCs and scheduled tribes (STs).
For instance, the Mandal Commission lists STs of Urao, Kuki, Lushei, Koli and many others as OBCs in West Bengal, sometimes with a different spelling. At other places, synonyms or alternative spellings of the scheduled castes (SCs) and STs have been recorded as OBCs. Sometimes, the same OBC caste has been listed twice or thrice in the same state. For instance, in Bihar, the Kahar and Kewat groups are listed as OBCs. Actually, they are the same group.
Still, despite the special treatment it may mean for some people, some target groups who will be included as backward, such as the poorer Muslims, do not want to be part of the reservations debate.
Last June, when the Andhra Pradesh government wanted to divide its 6.84 million-strong Muslim population into various categories according to social and economic development, Islamic seminaries in the state protested. Hyderabad-based Islamic university—the 125-year-old Jamia Nizamia—issued a fatwa and said the effort to divide Muslims was against the Shariah and that all are equal.
“There is no distinction of caste, colour or race among them. Therefore, creating distinction among them for reservations is improper,” it said.
Observers fear that while the intention of extending reservations is sound, the beneficiaries will mostly be powerful groups as the Jats and the Marathas. “These people were rulers once. What do they need reservations for? And with these groups lobbying for IIT and IIM, do you think the carpenters, butchers and potters of this country can even stand at those gates?” asks Baviskar, referring to the elite Indian institutes of technology and management. Baviskar belongs to the “backward” gardener caste of Maharashtra.
Thirty years ago, L.K. Naik, the only Dalit member of the Mandal Commission, which identified members of backward classes, had refused to sign the committee’s recommendations, fearing only the powerful would be aided.
Nothing tangible has been done to resolve this problem in the meantime, said D.L. Seth, researcher at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. “What they need is to use this to level the playing field,” he said. “You have to create infrastructure that gives people opportunity to look out for themselves. This should not become a crutch that people use.... Why will so-meone want to be backward?”