How VP Singh Stirred a Hornet’s Nest With the Mandal Commission
27 years ago, he gambled big on the report, but its hasty implementation changed India forever.
On this day, 27 years ago – 7 August 1990 – the VP Singh government accepted the Mandal Commission's recommendations and announced that it would implement the reservation scheme – under which 27 percent jobs would be given to members of Other Backward Classes.
Let’s take a look at the Mandalisation of Indian politics that followed, and how the move served only to widen the existing caste divide further.
‘Can of Worms’
On 1 January 1979, the President of India signed an official order to constitute the Mandal Commission. The panel had been entrusted by the Morarji Desai-led Janata Party government, under pressure from its Socialist section, to "identify the socially and educationally backward classes" of India.
Using 11 indicators – social, educational and economic – the commission identified 3,743 different castes and communities as members of Other Backward Classes. The OBC Category, it estimated, comprised 52 percent of the total population.
Among its key recommendations were a 27 percent reservation in government jobs, schools and colleges – a quota also applicable to promotions at all levels. Meanwhile, the reserved quota that remained vacant was to be carried forward for a period of three years and de-reserved thereafter.
Many of the OBCs mentioned in the list were the ‘occupation’ castes – Dhobi, Lohar, Teli, etc. The OBC status also varied from region to region. While the Banias were on the OBC list in Bihar, they were left off the list in other states; Similarly, Jats were marked OBC only in Rajasthan.
However, the report was too politically contentious and remained in cold storage for 10 years while Indira and Rajiv Gandhi were Prime Ministers. Rajiv Gandhi also reportedly went on to say that the report “is a can of worms, and I am not going to open it”.
VP Singh Takes a Political Gamble
Cut to 1990 and VP Singh had become the head of a minority government under the National Front. His government hung in between the Left parties on one hand and an increasingly ambitious BJP – which was formed by Atal Behari Vajpayee and LK Advani 10 years ago.
Under pressure from both ends of the political spectrum, and confronted by an aggressive Deputy in Devi Lal, VP Singh dusted off the Mandal Commission report and announced its implementation during his Independence Day address.
One of the biggest criticisms of the Mandal Commission report was that it was based on a 1931 census – which was carried out when India was still under British rule. The report was also criticised for failing to take into account the socio-political transformation that had taken place among many of these communities. For instance, the Yadavs of UP and Bihar, even though OBC, had become a politically powerful community.
VP Singh was accused of indulging in opportunism and was criticised for picking only reservation – the most populist of all measures in the Mandal commission report – over other important recommendations, like the one aimed at altering the land-tenurial system, among other economic and educational reforms.
Clearly, it was a move to cleave the rapidly rising BJP's Hindu vote bank along caste lines.
The hastily implemented decision by VP Singh created deep socio-political divisions along the lines of caste in the North of India.
For about a month, students, bureaucrats and teachers participated in protests all over the country – from Orissa to Bihar to Delhi. Public property was destroyed, roads were blocked. The protests took a shocking turn on 19 September 1990.
With his self-immolation bid, Rajeev Goswami became the face of the anti-Mandal protests. Although he survived, he developed various health issues and died in 2004 at the age of 33. Rajeev wasn’t the only one. There were 63 more self immolation cases – from Hissar and Ambala to Lucknow, Gwalior, and Ghaziabad. More than 159 people attempted suicide.
A reported 100 people were killed in police firings and riots that accompanied the protests.
BJP Pushes for Ram Mandir
Mindful of the electoral strength of the OBC community, both the Congress and BJP had been quiet initially about their stand on the Mandal report. But as the protests grew violent, the BJP could no longer be seen as supporting a government that was implementing the Mandal commission report.
Meanwhile, in a bid to consolidate its Hindu base, the BJP organised a rath yatra led by LK Advani to push for the Ram Mandir to be built in place of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The yatra served a dual purpose – it also helped steer the conversation from the issue of reservations to an issue it assumed would unite its Hindu votebank. And even though the rath yatra resulted in violent clashes, Advani dared VP Singh to arrest him.
Lalu Prasad Yadav did what VP Singh couldn’t do – Advani was arrested in Samastipur on 23 October 1990.
As the VP Singh government fell after only 11 months, Chandra Shekhar – Singh’s longterm rival – took over as prime minister.
Mandal Challenged In Supreme Court
The Mandal Commission report also battled several legal cases. The Court, in its judgment in the case of Indira Sawhney vs Union of India, delivered on 16 November 1992, upheld the 27 percent reservation for OBCs subject to the exclusion of socially-advanced persons/sections (creamy layer) from amongst the OBCs and directed the government to evolve a criteria for the identification of this creamy layer. A committee was appointed to address the issue.
The recommendations were accepted and circulated among all ministries/departments of the Central and state governments in September 1993, bringing reservations for the OBC community into force.
Graphics Courtesy: Harsh Sahani and Susnata Paul
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