14-20 March 2014 #698

Reversing reservation

Nepal must learn from India’s experience with the politics of identity and steer away from its pitfalls
Ajaz Ashraf
The Help: Members of the Jat community thank Congress President Sonia Gandhi for heeding to their demands and including them in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) list.
No political party, even in the world’s largest democracy, seems immune from the temptation to take cynical decisions to woo voters. India’s Congress-led government decided recently to include the powerful peasant caste of Jats in the category of Other Backward Classes (OBC) which is a list of socially and educationally disadvantaged groups and entitled for reservation in jobs and education.

In Punjab state, Hindu and Sikh Jats are a prosperous and powerful social group and not exactly disadvantaged. The Congress-led UPA had not included Jats in Central list, but then the Akali Dal-BJP government in Punjab decided to include them paving the way for their eventual inclusion as a disadvantaged group at the Centre.?

As in Nepal, where the second Constituent Assembly will have to grapple with the backlash of ‘higher’ caste Brahmins and Chhetris to declare themselves indigenous peoples, the decision threatens India’s affirmative action efforts. It mocks the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) which is responsible for including those excluded from the central reservation pool. The NCBC has persistently advised the government against including Jats in the Central OBC list, but the lame-duck UPA government did it anyway.

What is also worrying is the silence of other political parties at this brazen subversion of the reservation policy. There hasn’t been a squeak from the BJP, the Left, the regional parties, even the Aam Aadmi Party. But how could you have expected them to behave otherwise? India’s parliamentary elections are just a month away and nobody would want to anger the powerful Jats concentrated in contiguous pockets. Jats make up a quarter of the population of the northern Indian state of Haryana and drive its politics.

India’s mainstream media has largely preferred to ignore the story, demonstrating the bias of predominantly upper caste journalists, as their interests are not affected by the decision to extend reservation to Jats. Their children compete for jobs in the general pool, the Jats can only eat into the share of the more underprivileged classes.

Though the Jats have been agitating for an inordinately long period to be included in the Central OBC list, it can be argued that the UPA chose to override the advice of NCBC now only because of the political implications of the anti-Muslim Muzafarnagar riots.

The NCBC had earlier wanted to conduct a social survey to determine whether the Jats are indeed socially and educationally backward to be included in the Central OBC list. But the UPA cabinet decided: ‘NCBC be requested to reconsider its earlier decision of conducting a survey and tender its advice of inclusion of Jats in the Central list of OBCs based on the reports and material available.’

The Congress seems to have attributed its defeat in local assembly elections in December to the alienation of Jats and the Muzaffarnagar communal riots pushed the Jats towards the BJP. More significantly, the Congress’ suggestion to the NCBC to ‘tender advice’ on the ‘reports and material available’ was the government’s method of mounting pressure on the NCBC to fall in line.

Unfortunately for the Congress, the NCBC not only refused an OBC status for Jats, it issued a dire warning that if Jats are included they will corner all jobs and opportunities going to the excluded groups.

But this is precisely what the UPA government did last week, illustrating vividly how India’s reservation policy has become skewed. The very idea behind forming the NCBC was to conduct periodic social surveys to weed out from the reservation pool those castes which had been scientifically determined to have overcome backwardness. This was thought necessary in order to ensure the benefits of affirmative action accrue to the most backward classes. But India is going into reverse: including castes which are socially advanced. As Nepal charts out for itself a democratic future, it may as well look closely at India’s experience with the politics of identity and steer away from its pitfalls.


Read also:

Backward society, ASS

Divided we don’t rule, EDITORIAL

Caste aside, PRASHANT JHA

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