How Anti-Mandal Protests Stoked ‘Caste Fires’ in Our Young Minds

Student protesters believed resultant de-recognition of merit due to added reservation was bad for the country.

5 min read
Hindi Female
Student protesters believed resultant de-recognition of merit due to added reservation was bad for the country.

(This article was first published on 5 August 2017. It is being reposted from The Quint’s archives on the anniversary of India’s acceptance of Mandal Commission's recommendations.)

It was 1990. We were young and idealistic. Pursuing Masters in a Delhi University college that was regarded as merely a ‘school’ because of not participating in DU teachers and students politics or election. Suddenly out of the blue, the then Prime Minister VP Singh’s announced the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report – reserving 27 percent seats for the Other Backward Castes. That made students of Delhi University erupt in protest. And it seemed to have struck a chord in students of St. Stephen’s College as well.

We boycotted classes and made others do so too. We protested at Kingsway camp, sat on dharnas at Mandal Chowk outside Ramjas College. But due to a lack of leadership, our protest was more emotive than organised. More of a nuisance value. Blocking roads. Hijacking DTC buses and forcing drivers to take rounds of the Ring road with us shouting slogans like “VP Singh hai hai”, and “Mandal Commission down down.”


Students During the Day, Protesters by Night

On extremely hot and humid mornings, we went from class to class asking students to boycott classes and join us in a protest at the Delhi Police Headquarter at ITO. By noon over two hundred students from different colleges had reached the spot. Police had blocked both sides of the busy road leading to its headquarter.

Students were trying hard to break barricades and enter the premises. The police force first tried a mild lathi-charge. That started a cat and mouse game. We would run back only to gather back on the same spot again. Then they tried shelling us with teargas, but to no avail. Suddenly someone from threw a stone inside the Police HQ. Quick came the reply, a hail of stones, from inside the PHQ.

The forces had protective gears to save themselves from our stones, we students had nothing. A pitched battle followed. Two of my juniors from college seemed to be right in the middle of the melee. I requested Barkha Dutt and Radhika Bordia, who later became professional colleagues in journalism, to try and find a safe place before things get out of control.

While this was on we got news that one Rajeev Goswami from Deshbandhu College has tried self-immolation in another protest against Mandal Commission near AIIMS. That news was enough to disperse students.

Rajeev survived his self-immolation attempt, but it started a spurt of self-immolation attempts around the country. We continued with our attempts to disrupt normal life in the University. But authorities were increasingly becoming more strict and so was the Police.

We would get a chit from our Principal Dr John H Hala every night asking us to report to his office at 10 in the morning. We would go and get a dressing down from him. He would threaten us that we would be thrown out of the residence. He would ask our parents to come and take us back home, etc etc. 

We would listen to him and promptly go back from class to class mobilising students to boycott studies and join us in our protest. Some teachers were would also encourage us to continue our fight.

In fact, so was Dr Hala. In the morning he would act like a Principal, and in the evening when he would meet us as a mentor, he would question the motives to such a move by the government of the day that divided our society right through the middle.


Mandal Commission Changed Indian Politics

In the evening, people from Kingsway camp, Maurice Nagar would walk down to Mandal Chowk and meet us with a word or two of encouragement. It was pretty heady.

Most believed resultant de-recognition of merit due to added reservation was bad for the country. And that VP Singh had gone ahead with his plan to rein in his deputy, Devi Lal, who was threatening to challenge the Prime Minister’s authority and power.

The spate of self immolation attempts forced VP Singh to order the Police to clamp down on the protest on in Delhi University. Nisheeth Sahay and I came under notice for trying to spearhead a movement in a college which had always kept itself aloof from any politics.

We were frequently told that the College did not close down even during the struggle for Independence, and here we were trying to force it to close down indefinitely. Fearing arrests we would not sleep in our rooms. Fortunately the Police never entered our or any college premises.

Having failed to convince students to give up their protests, the government tried to infiltrate agitating students with the help of Intelligence Bureau personnel. That also did not succeed.

However, what brought a quick end to the agitation was a Boat Club Rally called by farmers from Haryana in support of the students’ movement. The rally got violent. Police fired. Three people died. And that was the end of anti-Mandal protests in DU. But it did succeed in VP Singh losing credibility, and later on, the power and the prime ministership as well.

Mandal Commission Report later got implemented by an order of the Supreme Court, without any whimper or a protest. But VP Singh’s unsuccessful attempt to implement it in 1990 proved to be a watershed moment in Indian politics. The other backward castes became more aggressive throwing up leaders like Laloo Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar in Bihar and Mulayam Singh Yadav in UP. And politics in India was never the same again.


Did I Take the Right Call?

On a personal level, I had not joined the anti-mandal agitation because I felt that my job was in danger. I believed that pitting one caste against the other was morally and ethically wrong. Having lived in Madhya Pradesh and Bihar I had seen that the Other Backward Castes were well-off and had taken care of their interests.

Whereas the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes did need state’s protection to progress in life. VP Singh’s attempts to politicise the issue only resulted in deepening a social divide which was till then not seen in the more progressive Delhi University.

During college, there were reports of unwarranted and unwanted incidents towards lower caste students. Cases like SC, ST, and OBC students being asked to eat on separate University mess tables from their upper caste peers. Hearing them somehow made me uncomfortable.

A bigger change came when I became a journalist. My job took me to every nook and corner of India, providing me with an opportunity to study the country and learn about its people.

I saw the real India. The poor and the vulnerable, the exploited and the oppressed, the stark divide between the rich and the weak. And I became an ardent supporter of reservations for SCs, STs, and OBCs.

That’s one belief that I am proud to have changed. Having said that, I do have to admit that am also not embarrassed of my association with the anti-Mandal agitation while in College. We all make mistakes, that’s an integral part of growing up. Isn’t it?

(Sanjay Ahirwal is currently working with NDTV.)

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Topics:  Mandal Commission 

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