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Home > India > News > Columnists > Dipankar Gupta

The skimming of the creamy layer

April 14, 2008

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Coverage: The reservation issue

Now that the Supreme Court has skimmed the Other Backward Classes off its 'creamy layer', it has made it difficult for Mandal-fattened politicians to lick their chops.

No matter how brave a front OBC caste activists may affect, they have little option but retreat to their chaupals where they can safely let their worry lines show. The truth is that every time one thinks of a community as 'backward', the first thing that comes to mind is the economic criterion. When this is almost always accompanied by educational backwardness, then the reservation formula for the upward mobility of a named category of the population gets its justification. If one were to take away, or undermine, the economic factor, then 'backwardness' would have little meaning but a term of faint abuse.

But a majority of politicians are now claiming with a straight face that social backwardness is the most important criterion for determining OBC status. When asked to define social backwardness, they come up with criteria that are as easy to grip as a fish in water. This is best exemplified in Mandal's recommendations. From the start, Mandal's endeavour was designed to protect what later came to known as the creamy layer. He managed this by disproportionately allotting greater weight to social backwardness and the least to economic backwardness. This is hard to believe, but the manipulation was that blatant

In the strict Mandal scheme of things, if one scored high on the social backwardness criteria, then there was no need to go any further and bring in economic and educational considerations. Mandal had set aside 12 points for social backwardness whereas only 11 were needed to make the grade. On the other hand, if one were poorer than a church mouse, one could only score four points in all for economic backwardness. That is how absurd the Mandal system for determining backwardness is and it is precisely this recipe that OBC activists want to retain.

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Social backwardness, Mandal-style, included features such as what other castes think of a particular caste. It is common knowledge that no true caste patriot would ever think well of any other caste. This trait, incidentally, goes down the so-called caste hierarchy without exception. Mandal also gave three full points if a caste said it performed manual labour. Now every proud Jat, Gujar and Yadav, regardless of how much land their family might own, would gladly say that they work with their big hands and are proud of it. Interestingly, included in the same bunch of criteria for social backwardness Mandal also gives a full three points if a certain percentage of boys and girls of a particular caste get married before they have attained the legal age to do so. Full marks here for actually breaking the law!

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OBC leaders, and their supporters in practically every party, would like to retain Mandal's favouring of social backwardness in order to downgrade the significance of economic factors. If roles were reversed, and economic backwardness grabbed 12 points and social backwardness only four, then much of the motivations behind championing OBC reservations would be lost. This is why, the Supreme Court judgment of the day should not be seen as a closed chapter. There is a lot of constitutional wrangling waiting to happen so that the creamy layer can somehow be admitted into the OBC category.

Unfortunately, many left-leaning, city-bred academics and intellectuals have aligned with the creamy layer and are against the Supreme Court's ruling on this matter. It is possible that they have a guilt complex that leads them to incline in this fashion. This may also be seen as a species of over-compensation as their own ideology has failed to make a difference thus far in the lives of the poor.

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Additionally, most of these intellectuals also want to over-compensate for their ignorance of live village affairs and take the easy option of standing behind the loudest rural voice. They know little of the hardships that poor Dalits, and other economically depressed classes, face at the hands of the OBC 'creamy layer'.

There are two major factors that must be taken on board before we insist on stirring in the 'creamy layer' into the OBC pot. First, the greatest oppressors of the Scheduled Castes in the villages are members of the OBC 'creamy layer'.

This aspect has been documented time and again from the mouths and pens of Dalits. If one were to look back at caste atrocities that have taken place in India since Independence, it will be clear that the major offenders were the rich and landed members of the OBC community.

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It is, however, not just the Dalits who are being sidelined by the OBC 'creamy layer'. The poor Kurmis, Koeris and Yadavs lead lives no different from the poor Scheduled Castes on a number of fronts. They cannot dream of getting into IITs or IIMs as the OBC 'creamy layer' aspires to. For these poorer villagers getting to school is akin to mission impossible, so their sights are set much lower than those of their so-called representatives. It is interesting to notice that OBC leaders who are most upset about the 'creamy layer' restriction, have done little to improve the educational or economic standards of their own caste people, let alone those of Scheduled Castes. Quite clearly, they are a class apart and don't want mud from the village to be flung at their urban aspirations.

This is the reason why the founding figures of the Constitution made it clear that any enabling legislation that gives a leg-up to socially and economically 'backward classes' cannot proceed on the basis of caste alone. They would be horrified at the way leading politicians of the day have sneaked in "caste" as a major determinant of OBC status. Therefore, now one has the term 'Backward Castes' which nobody dare interrogate as it is so widely employed and has become part of our political vocabulary. This, however, does not make it constitutionally acceptable and the latest Supreme Court judgment reiterates this point. Adoption papers may well be in political circulation to legitimise the term 'Backward Castes' but its parentage will always be in question.

Dipankar Gupta is professor, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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