Religious Hues to OBC Category: Parties Misinterpret Mandal Panel 

The issue of reservation for minorities has been settled by the Constitution and Mandal Commission long time back.

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In the aftermath of the Rajya Sabha debate on the Constitution (123rd Amendment) Bill, 2017 – which seeks to grant constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) – OBC leaders of the BJP, (party’s general secretary, Bhupender Yadav, senior MPs Hukmdev Narayan Yadav and Ganesh Singh) accused Congress for playing “minority vote bank politics” over the welfare of OBCs. In a statement they argued:

There is a separate minority commission to address their concerns. The OBC Commission is meant only to address the concerns of people from this class. It is religion-neutral and by raising the issue of minority (representation) in it, the Congress has shown that it has preferred minority politics over the welfare of 15,000 castes and communities in the OBC category.
Joint statement by BJP leaders on 1 August 2017

This sharp observation is not unusual. Socially excluded communities (such as OBCs) often claim that they have not been treated well by dominant groups in the past, therefore, there is a need for some kind of reservation.

Also Read: BJP Woos Backward Muslims With Quota, but Will They Take the Bait?


Religious basis of identifying OBCs:

  • Congress stalls bill on according constitutional status to NCBC on the grounds that separate quota needed for minority community.
  • BJP leaders argue that there are Muslim communities within OBC, hence creating quota within quota is not justifiable.
  • Constitution makers had identified socio-economic and educational backwardness as the only criterion to determine marginalisation.
  • Proper formula for reservation was devised, including exit policy once the beneficiary groups attain certain level of progress.
  • The Mandal Commission had devised a criteria for identifying non-Hindu OBCs that would avail the benefits of reservation.

Is OBC a Religion-Neutral Category?

But the statement issued by BJP leaders is not simply about the backwardness of certain communities recognised as the OBC.

They make two claims:

(a) OBC is a religion-neutral category. By introducing the ‘minority’ question, the Congress is trying to destroy the secular character of the affirmative action.

(b) The empowering of NCBC as a Constitutional body makes it comparable to the National Commission for Minorities (NCM), which according to them addresses the concerns of minority communities.

Interestingly, in order to justify these claims about minority vote bank politics, the BJP leaders argue that there are Muslim communities in the OBC, hence creating a quota within quota is not justifiable.

This statement raises a number of questions: What is the meaning of OBC and how can it be considered secular? Does the presence of Muslims in OBC category affect its secular character? Are Muslims given the OBC status only on the basis of religion? And, does the term ‘minority’ stands only for Muslims?

Also Read: Govt’s Mandal 2.0 With Socially, Educationally Backward Classes


Is Affirmative Action Secular?

The Constitution of India envisages a secular form of affirmative action. It means that socio-economic and educational backwardness are the only criterion to determine the marginalisation of a social group for the purpose of affirmative action in general, and reservation, in particular.

The Constitution, thus, proposes four administrative categories: Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), Religious and Linguistic Minorities, and Other Backward Classes (OBC).

There is no direct relationship between these administrative categories and castes and religions. Instead, there is a well-defined mechanism to deal with the question of exclusion. It has following aspects.

  1. A proper formula is worked out to identify backward communities;
  2. Reservation is given to an individual not a community;
  3. There is provision for a periodical assessment of the impact of reservation;
  4. There is an exit policy, meaning, the social and educational status of beneficiary groups is evaluated and those groups which have achieved certain level of collective progress are de-scheduled so as to make room for other backward communities.

Broadly speaking, thus, the untouchability and caste-based exploitation is the main criterion to identify SCs; unique culture and indigenous ways of life as principal factor to classify STs; and, distinctive culture, language, religion and script to determine the minority status of a community, primarily at the state-level.

Also Read: CM Yogi Ending SC/ST, OBC Reservation in UP’s Pvt Medical Schools?


Defining the OBC Category

But the OBC category is a bit complicated. The second Backward Classes Commission (popularly known as the Mandal Commission) is the most important policy document in this regard. It recognises caste as a basic feature to determine backwardness. Using the 1931 census, the commission divided India’s population into five categories:

  • Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes;
  • Non-Hindu Communities, Religious Groups, etc.,
  • Forward Hindu Castes and Communities.
  • Backward Hindu Castes and Communities;
  • Backward Non-Hindu Communities.

It concluded that the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and other backward classes constitute nearly 52 percent of India’s population.

This 52 percent is further divided into Hindu and non-Hindu communities. The Commission thus, notes, “After giving a good deal of thought… the commission has evolved the following rough and ready criteria for identifying non-Hindu OBCs.

(i) All untouchables converted to any non-Hindu religion; and

(ii) Such occupational communities which are known by the name of their traditional hereditary occupation and whose Hindu counterparts have been included in the list of Hindu OBCs. (Examples: Dhobi, Teli, Bheemer, Nai, Gujar, Kumhar, Lohar, Darzi, Badhai etc.)

It is, thus clear that the SC, ST, OBC and minority are not closed categories.


Political Misinterpretation

Our political elite intentionally try to interpret these constitutionally evolved categories in political terms. SC becomes Dalit; ST becomes tribal; minority becomes Muslims and OBC becomes Yadavs!

An impression is created that the legal status of these communities is fixed and permanent.

The Congress’ insistence that a quota for minorities must be created within the OBC establishes the perception that OBC is an exclusively Hindu category. Similarly, BJP’s argument that OBC is a religion-neutral category is also misleading as the Mandal Commission itself took up the question of non-Hindu communities seriously and worked out a formula for their inclusion in the OBC list.

Asserting “identity-based victimhood” for political recognition is an unwritten norm of Indian politics. Unfortunately, this norm of politics often overshadows the secular spirit of the Constitution.


(The writer is assistant professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, and Rajya Sabha Fellow 2015-2016. He can be reached @Ahmed1Hilal. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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