A move by the UP government to include 17 OBC groups among Scheduled Castes has drawn sharp criticism from BSP chief Mayawati. Efforts in that direction, in fact, have been made by previous regimes too, and have become the subject of litigation.
What is the UP government’s order, and why has it been issued now?
The June 24 letter from the UP Social Welfare Department, sent to all divisional commissioners and district magistrates, refers to an order of the Allahabad High Court (dated March 29, 2017) and directs district authorities to issue caste certificates as per that order after scrutiny of documents.
Copies of the June 24 letter have been sent to Additional Chief Secretary and Principal Secretaries of Appointment and Personnel, as well as the OBC Welfare Department, with a request to take necessary step for execution of the Allahabad High Court order regarding 17 OBC castes — Kahaar, Kashyap, Kevat, Mallah, Nishad, Kumhar, Prajapati, Dhivar, Bind, Bhar, Rajbhar, Dhimar, Batham, Turha, Godia, Maajhi and Machhua.
The High Court order read: “In the event, any caste certificates are issued pursuant to the order impugned, those certificates shall be subject to the outcome of the writ petition. It is open to the petitioner to add all such persons as party respondents, in whose favour caste certificates have been issued.” The writ petition mentioned was against a similar move by the previous Akhilesh Yadav government seeking to include 17 OBC groups among SCs.
The court order on March 29, 2017, came days after the formation of the Yogi Adityanath government, and the letter now comes 27 months later. The delay is explained by electoral concerns. If the state government had made such a move in 2017, demands could have been raised for similar moves in other states. Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, this could have meant various castes awaiting assent from the Centre, and the ruling party could also have risked alienating the existing SC groups.
Why is it politically significant?
According to an estimate by the UP Backward Classes Welfare Department, these 17 castes make up around 15% of the state’s population. A caste in the SC list gets more government benefits than one in the OBC list. Also, since the OBC population is large, there is close competition among OBC groups for reservation benefits. If these 17 castes are moved to the list of SCs, they will face less competition because the SC population is smaller.
Politically, the Samajwadi Party (SP) regimes of Mulayam Singh Yadav (2003-07) and Akhilesh Yadav (2012-17) had initiated the attempt. When these 17 groups are out of the OBC list, it opens up more opportunities for the SP’s core vote base, the Yadavs (around 10% of the state population), within the 27% OBC quota. While this can upset SCs, they are not seen as traditional SP voters.
The latest move comes with the risk of turning SC voters away from the ruling BJP and towards the BSP. On the other hand, the BJP can hope to make gains within the 17 newly notified SC groups. These 17 castes are socially most backward, and many survive on small occupations in rural areas. For example, Nishads earn from fishing and Kumhars from making earthen pots. The BJP banks on non-Yadav OBC votes. They are seen to have contributed hugely to the party’s strong performance in UP in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
What happened to the attempts by the previous SP regimes?
In 2005, the Mulayam government amended the Uttar Pradesh Public Services Act, 1994, to provide reservation for SC, ST and OBCs in public services and posts, and to include 17 OBC castes in the SC list. The Allahabad High Court quashed the amendment, terming it unconstitutional, since only Parliament has the power to make such an inclusion. Mulayam had also directed district authorities to issue SC certificates to these 17 OBC castes, after the move was cleared by his cabinet. The Centre, however, did not clear his proposal.
In 2013, the Akhilesh cabinet cleared the same proposal, but the Centre once again rejected it. The same year, the state Assembly too had passed a resolution asking the Centre to include these 17 castes in the SC list.
On December 22, 2016, the Akhilesh government made one more attempt, with the cabinet clearing the proposal, this time after consulting legal experts and getting a survey conducted through the SC-ST Research and Training Institute, an autonomous body. The government decided to send the fresh proposal to the Centre, with the argument that these castes are similar to those already listed as SCs. Although the proposal had been previously rejected, the state government claimed that legal experts had advised that these 17 castes can be given the benefits that are due to SCs by adding a clause to an existing notification of the Personnel Department.
The government issued orders to this effect on December 21 and 22, 2016. These were challenged in Allahabad High Court by an organisation called Dr B R Ambedkar Granthalaya Evam Jan Kalyan (this is the writ petition mentioned in the High Court order of March 29, 2017, which in turn is referred to in the government letter of June 24, 2019).
On January 24, 2017, the court directed the concerned officials at district level not to issue any caste certificate on the basis of the government orders dated December 21 and 22, 2016.
What is the distinction between an OBC and an SC?
The yardsticks for recognising specific castes as SC and OBC are distinct. While extreme social, educational and economic backwardness are common qualifications for both groups, SCs draw such backwardness from untouchability. For OBCs, apart from social, educational and economic backwardness, lack of adequate representation in government posts and services is a criterion. The positive rights guaranteed under the Constitution to SCs are to correct the historical wrongs of untouchability, and critics argue that addition of other castes in the group dilutes that guarantee.
So, what are the procedures for listing a caste as an SC?
Between 1950 and 1978, six Presidential Orders were issued recognising specific caste groups as SCs. The name ‘Scheduled Caste’ derives from the fact that this is annexed as a Schedule to the Constitution. Article 341(1) of the Constitution prescribes the procedure for regarding castes as “Scheduled Castes”. As per the procedure to make additions or deletions to the Schedule by amending the concerned Presidential Order for a state under Article 341(2), state governments first propose to modify the Schedule. Only proposals agreed by both the Registrar General of India and the National Commission for Scheduled Castes are introduced as a Bill in Parliament. This procedure was adopted by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in 1999 and was amended in 2002.
A similar provision exists for Scheduled Tribes under Article 342.