As the proverbial aam aadmi knows only too well, a government proposal for setting up a new official body can mean many different things — or nothing at all. In normal times, therefore, the Union cabinet’s recent decision to replace the existing National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) with a new body, tentatively named the National Commission for the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (NCSEBC), would only have merited a “wait and see” response. But we do not live in normal times.
This is the time of Donald Trump’s post-truth and Narendra Modi’s money bills, a time when it is very likely that the NCSEBC will actually be set up, and set up swiftly. However, this still leaves open the question of what this government hopes to achieve with the NCSEBC that it could not with the NCBC.
The answer to this question depends on the precise differences that will distinguish the proposed body from the existing one. While there is (as yet) no authoritative statement on this issue, reports in the print media suggest that the NCSEBC will be a constitutional body (like the commissions for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes) rather than a statutory body (like the NCBC). This legal distinction is not very consequential in terms of the practical functioning of the proposed commission, but it could have important political implications. The possible impact of the change will depend on whether the Modi regime’s future agenda on this issue is modest or ambitious.
A modest agenda will limit itself to placing the NCSEBC on par with the National Commission for the Scheduled Castes (NCSC) and the National Commission for the Scheduled Tribes (NCST). Legally, this would require amendments to the Constitution, introducing additional Articles comparable to the existing Articles 338 and 338A (which establish the NCSC and NCST respectively), and 341 and 342 (which lay down the procedure for initially notifying and subsequently amending the list of castes, tribes or social groups identified in specific states and Union territories as belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes respectively).
Politically, this effects two major changes: First, it shifts responsibility for amending the list of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) from the government to Parliament; second, it effectively takes away the power that the states currently have to determine their own OBC lists.
Most reports suggest that this is what the government intends to do. The obvious political benefit of this move is that it denies opponents a free ride on the aspirational demands of electorally significant castes like the Jats, Marathas, Patidars or Kapus. Since it is Parliament that would have to decide whether to grant OBC status, it would no longer be possible for opposition parties to stoke agitations without bearing responsibility for the consequences. Moreover, the burden of handling the inevitable conflicts arising from a zero sum situation — where the entry of new castes necessarily implies a decline in the share of castes already included — could also be shifted from the ruling party to Parliament.
This is a modest agenda because it does not alter the basic rules of the game, namely the definition of the category “socially and educationally backward classes”, and the existing limit of 50 per cent on the total share of various reservation quotas imposed by the Supreme Court. In fact, this agenda could arguably be considered a positive step, especially if it includes much-needed provisions for sub-dividing quotas to ensure more equitable sharing across the sub-groups of recognised categories.
The danger, of course, is in the possibility of a much more ambitious agenda. At least one press report has indicated that the government also intends to amend Article 366 of the Constitution (which contains basic definitions of important terms) by inserting a definition of “backward classes”. Currently, Clauses 24 and 25 of this Article provide a conservative definition of the SCs and STs as simply the entities included in the Schedules created by the constitutional method specified in Articles 341 and 342. While constitutional experts would have the final say, is it premature to speculate on the possibility of a substantive change in the definition of OBCs that goes beyond its current confinement to social and educational criteria?
Such a recklessly adventurist agenda could include the extension of reservation to not only dominant castes like Jats, Marathas or Patidars, but also “economically backward” upper castes. This would entail introducing legislation to lift the ceiling on quotas beyond the 50 per cent level, and formalising economic criteria, both of which have been strongly resisted by the judiciary. The electoral gains are clearly substantial, apart from the long-term benefit for the ruling party of retaining its upper and dominant caste constituencies without alienating the new adherents it may have acquired within the backward castes. This course of action is so unwise that optimists would be forced to believe that it is unlikely. But given that the Pradhan Sevak’s charisma seems to rely on the application of an Obama-like slogan — “Yes we can!” — to a Trump-like agenda, we cannot confidently rule it out.
In sum, the modest agenda would protect reservations as a tiny and increasingly irrelevant island in the neoliberal ocean of jobless growth, while the ambitious agenda would reduce reservations to absurdity in ways that will inevitably impact the SCs and STs. But both courses of action are framed by the larger contradiction in the Indian state’s attitude towards caste — the wilful misrecognition and truncation of exclusion and discrimination as merely deprivation and disadvantage.
By treating reservation as a welfare programme and covering up social divisions with the language of backwardness, we have deceived ourselves so thoroughly that we are no longer capable of naming things for what they are. When it comes to social discrimination and inequality, it would be dishonest to blame the current regime alone. For example, a rational and objective application of the current social and educational criteria would show that Muslims (specially urban Muslims) are unquestionably a group deserving state support today. And yet, our past and present governments have conspired to produce a present where it is not only unthinkable that Muslims will get reservation, but quite conceivable that gau rakshaks may get it.