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One Diwali, Bihar Got a Novel Reservation Policy. Can India Think Beyond Mandal?

The Karpuri Thakur formula in Bihar gave new vim and vigour to the social justice slogan raised in 1960s and 70s.

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(This article has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark Diwali 2023. It was first published on 25 October 2022.)

It has to be the best Diwali story in a long time.

Standing in the crowd as a lanky youngster, Ramnath Thakur, now JD(U) MP in the Rajya Sabha, says he vividly remembers that Diwali afternoon forty-five years ago, on 26 November 1978 in Patna’s Gandhi Maidan, where he watched his father, the then Janata Party chief minister in Bihar—Karpuri Thakur, look askance as PM Morarji Desai on the stage railed against reservations.

“Jannayak (as Thakur was to be known later) duly escorted PM Desai back to the airport for Delhi, and drove back straight to Sachivalaya, issued a notification at 8.30 pm for reservation for backwards, 26% for socially and economically backward groups, 12% for Extremely backward classes and 3% for educated women and 3% for poor women.”

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How Reservation Model Became a Socialist Mantra

Karpuri Thakur's son told me...

This was three years before the BP Mandal Commission was to submit its report to the Indira Gandhi-led central government. The Karpuri Thakur ‘formula’, once implemented in Bihar, gave new vim and vigour to the slogan of social justice raised by the north Indian socialists in the 1960s and 70s.

It was about granting representation and a share in power, eventually upending the upper-caste hegemony that had ruled the roost so far. It is, still the baseline when it comes to how real empowerment can result from awareness of caste, class and deprivation in clear terms. Chances are that popular commentary on politics, will scarcely visit Thakur’s political legacy.
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The Forgotten Trails of Anti-Caste Leaders

The invisiblisation of prominent and tall leaders who have prominently and cogently made a case for empowerment, social justice, and the need to hit out at basic caste prejudice merits a close rethink of popular narratives in politics. Ram Manohar Lohia, more than 56 years ago spoke of picchde paanve sau mein saath (those backward should get a share in power based on their share in the population, 60%).

In Uttar Pradesh, once Azamgarh’s MP, Ram Naresh Yadav’s government in 1977 was the first non-Forward government in the state. He was the Janata Party’s choice as chief minister. Mulayam Singh first served as a minister for Cooperative affairs in his cabinet. But more than ever, Karpuri Thakur’s story, is now almost forgotten, or airbrushed.

Ram Naresh Yadav is said to have gone to the governor in Lucknow’s Raj Bhawan on a rickshaw to stake claim to form the government, and also left in a rickshaw, when he had to quit after the Jan Sangh’s ties soured with the Socialists in the Janata Party.

Consider Devaraj Urs, who assumed charge as chief minister of Karnataka in August 1972. LG Havanur, an advocate from the Beda (hunter) community, was the chairman of the Havanur Commission he set up. Its recommendations were implemented in 1977. Radical land reforms were carried through by Urs’ government.

He is regarded as a mentor by the Congress President-elect, Mallikarjun Kharge. But chances are that most youngsters are made to believe there is just Mandal, at most, which was the disruptor of the meritorious reign of the ‘general’ category. The rich history of struggles that prepared the ground for 1990s’ social justice, is rarely referred to.
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Appropriation of the ‘Caste’ Cause

The death of Mulayam Singh Yadav, thrice the chief minister of UP, who despite inconsistencies and somersaults, was one of the state’s tallest leaders and striking for the commentary around his achievements. The anxiety to minimise and shrink him to being just a ‘caste leader’ was palpable.

One TV channel went so far as to call him ‘King of caste’. It only underscored how India’s leaders, when championing a cause with power to upend the elite-favouring status-quo and not born in upper caste families, are immediately bracketed as ‘caste leaders.’

There are a few specific things that are hard to ignore when one considers the caste bias in the discourse around issues that deal with this elephant in the room.

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Caste Vocabulary Needs To Be Sensitised

There needs to be much more attention paid to the language deployed when discussing caste-related issues. The use of ‘merit’ and the ‘general’ category is illustrative of such. On ‘merit’, while speaking to some members of the Press, former PM VP Singh had said in the early nineties, should not merit mean giving “all land to the tillers”? They were the only ones who would display merit in operating on it?

He, of course, had a rough ride. From being the darling of the middle classes in 1989, he became persona non-grata for them after deciding to implement Mandal Commission’s recommendations.

The ‘general category’? Really? There has been no caste census in India since 1932, but using the numbers that the Mandal Commission used, of 52% for OBCs, adding the Dalits and tribals as per the 2011 Census, 16.6% and 8.6%, respectively, the remainder is 22.8%.

This 22.8% cannot be described as the ‘general’ category, by any stretch of the imagination. The narrowness of what is allowed to pass off as ‘general’ in recent days has received some airing during the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) matter being argued in the Supreme Court, where it has been clearly spelt out how dressed as EWS,10% is barred for ‘reserved categories’, that is effectively 77.2% of the population, and by keeping the ‘economically weak sections’ criteria strikingly high, at Rs 8 lakh per annum.
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How Caste Is Represented in Mainstream Narratives

The representation of ‘non-general’ castes in the profession that is responsible for interpreting society and setting the agenda, which is the media, is badly skewed. Experience of life, our own lense which colours what we cover, inevitably, is caste-tinged.

Two reports must be flagged here. Oxfam India-Newslaundry’s new Report ‘Who tells our stories matters: Representation of Marginalised Caste Groups in Indian Media’ reveals that around 90% of leadership positions in print, TV, and digital media are occupied by ‘General’ category caste groups with no Scheduled Caste (SC) or Scheduled Tribe (ST) heading mainstream media outlets.

Every 3 out of 5 articles in Hindi and English newspapers are written by General caste authors while marginalised castes (SC, ST or OBC) only contribute to around 1 out of 5 articles. Earlier, a study in 2012 had revealed that “over 93% of the Indian Corporate board members belong to the “upper-castes”.”

Most mainstream media is owned by corporate houses and there too, there is nothing to counter the dominance of forward castes among journalists. Owners and Writers, surely, the asymmetry must lead to more than the occasional flutter.
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Caste Has Its Own Irrefutable Legacy

The extent to which caste is sticky, is clear in how it carries onward even when conversions take place to Christianity and Islam, or amongst non-resident Indians, who despite living for generations in non-caste ridden societies, carry the cross. In 2018, a report released by the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF) acknowledged discrimination against Dalits and practice of caste being “rampant within the Church”.

The report was prepared based on a public hearing by an eight-member committee on the alleged atrocities, including untouchability, committed against Dalit Christians in the Sivaganga diocese. The Indian Census in 1901, for the first time, “officially recognised such stratification amongst Muslims”. It listed 133 groups, wholly or partially Muslims. The Census in 1911 listed 102 caste groups among UP Muslims, of whom, 97 of them came from the non-Ashraf category (or those deemed as higher-born).

Equality Labs found 25% of Dalits in the US reported they had felt discriminated against. Two of three Dalits surveyed reported being discriminated against at their workplace. Last year, Harvard University became the first Ivy League university to recognise caste-based discrimination despite intense lobbying by caste-deniers.
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To have a meaningful discussion on what ails India, we must spot the elephant of caste in the room, and then, when we spot it, to have the temerity to make it stand up straight. Those of us who are in the business of framing arguments, trying to lay bare the issues at the heart of India, must do our bit to illuminate the discourse.

Happy Diwali.

(Seema Chishti is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. Over her decades-long career, she’s been associated with organisations like BBC and The Indian Express. She tweets @seemay. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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