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Without quota, every caste would be a forward caste
M R Venkatesh
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Coverage: The Reservation Issue
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April 24, 2007

To rule India -- with her huge size and population -- the British hit upon a simple yet brilliant idea: divide and rule, with the State playing the crucial role of an arbitrator between various warring groups.

The government of Independent India is largely a remnant of the British Raj with one crucial addition: the ruling elite, comprising Marxists and pseudo-Marxists, largely understands the collective psyche of Indians far better than our colonial oppressors. After all, poverty of ideas invariably leads to politics of poverty.

Accordingly, subsequent governments in India have first ensured shortages, and then played Santa by rationing the insufficient. Quotas fall in this genre.

OBCs: No discussion, please

Having adopted this paradigm of governance, it was necessary for the Government of India to turn the majority against the minority, Muslims and Christians were to be pitched against Hindus, the 'higher' castes against 'lower' castes, the OBCs against the MBCs (Most Backward Classes), the BCs against the Dalits, the Hindi-speaking against the non-Hindi speaking and so on and so forth.

Else, a system that was predominantly modelled on the lines of the British style of governance -- highly centralised, with little accountability -- would be unworkable in India. And given this broad idea of dividing Indians, the caste system in India was an obvious candidate.

It may be noted that by the early twentieth century the British had already begun dividing the nation on these lines -- forwards and backwards. The governments in independent India merely carried the British agenda forward.

One of the popular assumptions built by the British and nurtured subsequently by Marxists about castes is that it is hierarchical and creates a rigid and vertical social structure. And that justified reservations, first for the Dalits (who are not the subject matter of this discussion) and subsequently extended to the backward castes -- OBCs.

The nature of competitive populism in contemporary politics makes it extremely difficult even for a cursory discussion on backward castes, their composition and genesis of their backwardness. On the contrary, every government aided and abetted by a pliable media, biased intellectuals and an indifferent public have repeatedly suppressed, distorted or de-legitimised scholarly studies about OBCs.

The truth needs to be told, facts debated and our assumptions re-calibrated.

Backward castes: What's that?

Whether caste is associated with vertical hierarchy or not has been the subject of great study by many historians, analysts and sociologists. 'Interrogating Castes,' a study of Dipankar Gupta, an eminent scholar and historian of great repute, shows that no caste considers itself to be lower in status, when compared with other castes.

In his essay, Gupta recalls an encounter with 'low caste' women who claimed that her caste was really Rajput -- a higher caste -- and was turned into a lower caste after a defeat in war.

Gupta further adds, "This encounter nearly twenty years ago led me to wonder how many low castes have elevated opinions about their caste origins. A new world was revealed to me as I read account after account of those who are customarily called low castes denying their lowly pedigree. Sometimes they said that were Brahmins of a certain kind, on many occasions they claimed Kshatriya status."

Stumped? Read on.

Arun Shourie, in his latest book -- Falling Over Backwards -- reveals something sensational. He quotes two Census Superintendents of the 1931 census who state, 'The feature of interest is that the claim is always for a more dignified title, for admission to a higher caste or exclusion from a caste which is considered low in the social scale.' Shourie further goes on enumerate repeatedly all through this book as to how Sainis and Malis wanted to be classified as Saini Rajputs, Gabits as Marathas, Bedas as Naiks, Blacksmiths as Panch Brahmans, Barias as Kshatriyas, Talpadas as Padhiar Rajputs, Devalis and Bhavins as Naik Marathas. . . the list seems endless, and Shourie's scholarly attempt is replete with such examples of the so-called lower castes seeking a higher caste appellation.

Surprised? Read on.

Lower castes or elite of the ruling class?

The late Gandhian, Dharampalji through a painstaking study spread over several decades in India, England and Germany established that before the British rule in India, over two-thirds -- yes, two-thirds! -- of the Indian rulers belonged to what is today known as the OBCs and conclusively proved that it was the British and not the upper castes who robbed the OBCs of their power, wealth and status.

Dharampalji also exploded the popularly held belief that most of those attending schools must have belonged to the upper castes and again with reference to the British records, proved that the truth was other way round. For instance, during 1822-25 the share of the Brahmin students in indigenous schools in Tamil-speaking areas accounted for 13 per cent in South Arcot to some 23 per cent in Madras, while the OBCs accounted for 70 per cent in Salem and Tirunelveli and 84 per cent in South Arcot.

Shocked? Another study by Christophe Jaffrelot, a French scholar -- India's silent revolution: the Rise of the Low Castes in North Indian Politics -- corroborates the findings of late Dharampalji.

While the subject of the book may be out of context to the discussion on hand, the matter of interest to the extant debate is the historical perspective provided on the status of OBCs in nineteenth and early twentieth century. Some of the important factors highlighted in the book with respect to OBCs are:

All available historical evidence shows that almost none of the OBCs considered themselves to be backward, in any sense of the term, at least till the beginning of the 20th century.

Most of the rulers, both at the local as well as larger regional levels in different regions of India during 16-18th centuries, seem to have come from these OBCs.

Further, most of the professions that sustained the vibrant economy of India, which was considered a great agricultural and industrial nation till early 19th century, were peopled and managed mostly by these communities.

The de-industrialisation of India by the British and the subsequent suspension of all local support systems led to widespread deprivation among all sections of Indian society, notably the OBCs.

Four scholars, perhaps with differing ideologies have arrived at similar conclusions. Yet, look at the specious arguments that have fashioned our debate on this issue.

Look what have we done to ourselves.

The net impact of the above is that we have turned OBCs -- the supplicants in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries -- into applicants for posts of clerks in government offices, thanks to the reservation policy.

This would be perhaps true of earlier historical periods also. And most of them -- from Lord Rama to Krishna, from Maharana Ranjit Singh to Chhatrapati Shivaji to Veerapandia Kattabomman -- would in the scheme of our government invariably fall in one of the two categories: OBCs or MBCs!

Due to a conspiracy of coincidences, OBCs seem to have forgotten their glorious past. What else would explain their behaviour of being on all fours before successive governments -- and to curry favours? Today they are so used to the standard arguments of being exploited by forward castes (FCs), leave alone OBCs, even the FCs are loathe to buy contrary arguments.

The net result is that OBCs on the one hand are overwhelmed with an inferiority complex and thus find psychological comfort only in reservations. On the other hand, the upper castes, tutored through tortured history, live constantly in a guilt complex of having wronged their OBC brethren.

In short, our population comprises people who live either on guilt or on an inferiority complex -- what a wonderful combination to challenge the world!

Significantly, this is a perfect setting for our politicians, especially the Marxists, to exploit.

If there were 1,000 IIMs, IITs and AIIMS. . .

All these are pointers to a crucial issue -- the manner in which we are governed and the sinister idea of dividing Indians to rule Indians continue in the same manner as the British did to us till Independence.

The Indian politician perfectly understands the system and the Indian psyche. Leveraging the power of the government, our politicians prefer rationing a few thousand seats by constricting demand rather than considering the grand idea of increasing its supply.

For sixty years since Independence, we have one AIIMS, seven IITs and six IIMs for a billion-plus population. Even that tiny speck in the Indian Ocean called Singapore would have more educational institutions for its 4 million population.

Obviously, the idea is to constrict supply and play on the pent up demand. And in the process if history has to be distorted, so be it.

It may be noted that the Marxists would be at hand to lend credibility to any such distortions of history -- our silence would be their next ally. Needless to emphasise, it is these distortions of history that rationalise reservations, not the 'historical backwardness' of any castes. But if supply were increased as suggested here, what would our politicians -- Marxists and pseudo Marxists -- do? They would simply be jobless, as it would mean end of their brand of politics!

And precisely for these reasons, the current policy of reservations and with it dividing people through castes would continue.

Moral of the story: Without the powerful incentive of reservation every caste in India would be a forward caste.

The author is a Chennai-based Chartered Accountant. He can be contacted at

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