The Supreme Court’s decision to cancel the inclusion of Jats in the central OBC (Other Backward Classes) list in nine states underscores the need to understand affirmative action as an instrument to address social backwardness in a broader framework of deprivation, and not merely in terms of historical injustice determined only by caste. This intervention is timely since the reservation policy has increasingly become hostage to electoral politics, with numerically — and politically — influential middle castes insisting on climbing down the caste hierarchy to claim social backwardness and corner benefits provided under the OBC quota.
In the case of the Jat reservation, the advice of the National Commission for Backward Classes, the body meant to approve the claim for backwardness, was overruled by the Manmohan Singh government with the justification that the move was in the public interest. But the timing was unfortunate, leaving the government open to the charge of caving in to the demands of the Jat community in order to reap electoral benefits in the Lok Sabha polls. As the SC points out, “self-proclaimed” social backwardness can’t be a basis for government policy: accurate and current data must be provided to substantiate the claim. The apex court’s observations also frame social backwardness as a fluid and evolving category, with caste as one of the markers of discrimination. Gender, culture, purchasing power and so on could also influence capabilities, and any one of these, or a combination of these, could be the cause of deprivation and social backwardness. Moreover, the notion of social backwardness itself could change as the political economy transforms from a caste-mediated, closed system to a more open-ended, globally integrated and market-determined matrix marked by high mobility and urbanisation. This transformation is already unfolding in many parts of India, and the impact is visible in the economic, social and political empowerment of many castes earlier deemed to be backward and oppressed.
However, it must be remembered that addressing historical injustice has been the cornerstone of affirmative action, and caste has been the pre-eminent source of historical discrimination in the Indian context. Empirical and anecdotal evidence suggests that it remains the most prevalent, pervasive factor holding up the development of an inclusive society. It is a social identity ascribed at birth, and a marker of hierarchy that continues to forcefully influence the public imagination. Public policy cannot ignore this essential reality of the Indian condition, even as it embraces a broader and evolving meaning of social backwardness and inclusiveness.