The politics of OBCs

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WHILE the policy of reservation in favour of the Scheduled Castes was implemented very early on and systematically in post-independence India, the same arrangement could not be made for the Other Backward Classes. Positive discrimination was probably so well accepted by the Indian elites and especially the Congress establishment so far as the SCs were concerned because none of these measures threatened their superiority. More importantly, it enabled them to defuse the Ambedkarite mobilization through co-option of Dalit leaders who could be offered some kursi in the mist of quotas. The case of the OBCs involved a completely different dynamic: the Congress establishment remained reluctant towards any positive discrimination in their favour till the end and when such measures were taken it was for purely political reasons, not for the socio-economic benefits they were supposed to offer.

The expression ‘backward classes’ appeared for the first time in the 1870s in Madras Presidency, a region which was plagued by a non-Brahmin movement made up of lower castes except for the untouchables. To begin with, the British government in Madras had grouped together under the label ‘backward classes’ both Shudra and untouchable castes, swelling their numbers from 39 to 131 between 1870 and 1920. This classification had no other aim than to identify the groups eligible for positive discrimination. But the stigma of untouchability decidedly made the depressed classes a separate group, whereas the ‘castes other than depressed classes’, an awkward expression indeed, finally became a separate category in 1925.1

When India achieved independence, Nehru gave them a new name, though hardly more satisfactory: ‘other backward classes’,2 implying classes other than the untouchables and the tribes. But the key word here is ‘classes’: even if he was not the first to use it, Nehru was clearly intending to distance himself from an approach in terms of caste.

The Constituent Assembly did not enter into this debate. It merely included a clause in the basic law, article 340, stipulating that the President was entitled to appoint a commission in charge of identifying the ‘socially and educationally backward classes’ and suggesting measures to improve their condition. By emphasizing their backwardness in social and educational terms, the Constituent Assembly further complicated the task of those who would have to define the contours of this new social category, ‘OBC’ to use the abbreviation commonly employed in India.



The first Backward Classes Commission was appointed in 1953. After working for months, it came to the conclusion that its four main criteria for social backwardness – a degraded status, lack of education, under-representation in the civil service and secondary and tertiary sectors – all came down to one common denominator: belonging to a lower caste. The Commission thus drew up a list of 2399 so-called OBC castes, which made up 32% of Indian society on the basis of the 1931 census. 3 The commission in fact had to go back to the last detailed census (the one taken in 1941, in the middle of the war, was more succinct) that took caste into account, because the Indian government had eliminated this factor from the 1951 census, feeling that it underlay divisions that might jeopardize the unity of the young Indian nation.

The resolutely modernist attitude that permeated Jawaharlal Nehru’s government partly explains why his Home Minister, G.B. Pant, rejected the commission’s report. He in fact argued that development efforts – which he saw as embodied in the first five-year plan – would lead to ‘the establishment of our society on the socialist pattern,’ an evolution with which ‘social and other distinctions will disappear.’4 Pant added another argument to this in 1961. Informing heads of government of the states of the Indian Union of the decision not to initiate policies in favour of the OBCs at the federal level, he explained that positive discrimination measures would have the drawback of penalizing the most capable (and deserving) people, and would therefore hinder efficiency in the administration and business.5

This last argument was a direct reaction to the commission’s recommendations, which included several measures in favour of the OBC, ranging from a 70% admissions quota in vocational training institutions to a 25 to 40% reservation of vacant positions in the civil service, depending on the class. The argument of merit – and its corollary, that of efficiency that flows from competence – reflected the aspirations of independent India’s leaders, but also the dread of the upper castes (to which these leaders all belonged) of seeing the OBC gain more jobs in the civil service, considered by the educated elites as their private reserve.



The point to be noted is that the eclipsing of caste by the Indian elites after independence came to challenge decades of positive discrimination in favour of lower castes both in British India and the princely states. On the whole these states are often considered as a repository of tradition. In fact, some of these states played a pioneering role in implementing positive discrimination, for the simple reason that their sovereign had come from a shudra caste. For instance, in Maharashtra, Kolhapur, where the dynasty was of the Maratha caste (a caste of farmers), an egalitarian quota policy was applied at the turn of the century. Shahu Maharaj, on rising to the throne in 1895, was concerned by the domination of Brahmins over his administration and in 1902 had already reserved 50% of the vacant positions for backward castes.6



However, the princely state that experimented with the most voluntaristic positive discrimination policy was Mysore in the southern Maratha region. Here again, a sovereign from the shudra caste had sought to combat Brahmin over-representation in his administration. He charged Leslie Miller, the British president of the state’s high court, with assessing the problem and making suggestions to remedy it. So it was that in 1918, the Miller Commission was the first of a long series of Backward Classes Commissions, even if it didn’t bear this name. The term ‘backward classes’ was, in any event, used to refer to the lower castes, for which it recommended reserving half the highest civil service positions,7 a quota that the sovereign was to implement in 1921.

At the same time, the British were striving to improve representation of these groups in elected assemblies with ever-increasing powers. The 1919 reform thus brought the government to reserve seven seats of the Bombay Legislative Council for Marathas and 28 of the 65 seats of the Madras Council for non-Brahmins, a category created by grouping the untouchables and the shudra castes to combat Brahminic hegemony. This comfortable quota of reserved seats allowed the Justice Party, a group that claimed to speak for the non-Brahmins, to win the 1920 regional elections and in 1921, the government thereby formed introduced a 48% quota in the administration for non-Brahmins.8



These quotas based on caste criteria were all called into question after independence. The state of Mysore was the first hit: pursuing the momentum begun in the 1920s, by 1959 it had set a 59% quota for backward classes in civil service jobs. The state’s high court objected that this quota had been attributed to groups identified on a caste basis, which was in breach of the constitution. The government therefore appointed a Backward Classes Commission, which concluded that there were no other viable solutions and recommended reserving 50% of government jobs for backward classes, still defined by caste criteria. These quotas were added to those already granted to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, so that over two-thirds of the state civil service jobs were subject to quotas.

This positive discrimination policy was brought before the Indian Supreme Court by upper caste opponents, which handed down its decision in 1963 in the famous Balaji v. State of Mysore judgment. The measures passed by the state of Mysore were repealed, first because they were based on an unconstitutional definition of OBC, giving too much weight to caste criteria and, second, because the judges felt that having over 50% of jobs subjected to quotas was contrary to the spirit of the constitution, particularly because it penalized individual merit.

This judgment was to challenge all regional positive discrimination policies in favour of OBC. In Kerala, the 40% OBC reservation for civil service jobs was repealed by the state high court in 1964. The same occurred in Andhra Pradesh – a state created when the province of Madras was redrawn in 1953 – three times, in 1963, 1968, and 1972, each time for the motive that the beneficiaries were defined in terms of caste. In Bihar, for instance, the high court decided, invoking the Balaji decision, to invalidate the OBC list that the state had drawn up in 1951 – without ever having made the least use of it.



The rejection of the report by the first New Delhi-appointed Backward Classes Commission provoked an intense debate, beginning in the 1950s, on the place of caste in Indian society and the role of positive discrimination policies in such a context. The socialists served as the avant-gardes of this reflection. Drawing his inspiration as much from Ambedkar as Marx, 1950s-1960s Socialist Party ideologue Ram Manohar Lohia maintained that caste, much more so than class, was the basic unit of Indian society and that Nehru’s version of socialism would not be enough to combat inequalities.9

Nationalizing industries and collectivizing land would never lead to revolutionizing the social order, simply because the upper castes would continue to exercise real social domination on the basis of skills handed down from father to son ‘for thousands of years’ (to use Lohia’s expression) whereas, at the same time, the lowest castes were in need not only of socioeconomic redistribution but also needed to shed their feelings of inferiority. A policy of positive discrimination was therefore indispensable. In 1959, the Socialist Party passed a resolution in favour of reserving 60% of civil service jobs for the OBC.10



The socialists could not promote their ideas at the Centre so long as the Congress was in office. They were finally in a position to make inroads through the Janata Party. In December 1978, their representatives in the party – then in power for more than one and an half years – managed to have a second Backward Classes Commission appointed, presided by a lower caste leader, B.P. Mandal. His report, completed two years later, again considered caste as the relevant criteria for positive discrimination: ‘Caste is also a class of citizens and if the caste as a whole is socially and educationally backward, reservation can be made in favour of such a caste…’11

On this basis, the Mandal Commission identified 3743 castes that it found to form India’s other backward classes, representing 52% of the country’s population. Noting that OBC only occupied 12.5% of civil service posts, it recommended a 27% reservation for them. This figure was not proportional so as to be spared the ire of the judges, who, since the Balaji decision, were concerned with keeping quota totals below 50% (these 27% in fact were in addition to the 15% in favour of the Scheduled Castes and the 7.5% in favour of the Scheduled Tribes). The authors of the report justified their recommendations in new terms:

‘It is not at all our contention that by offering a few thousands jobs to OBC candidates we shall be able to make 52% of the Indian population as forward. But we must recognise that an essential part of the battle against social backwardness is to be fought in the minds of the backward people. In India, government service has always been looked upon as a symbol of prestige and power. By increasing the representation of OBCs in government services, we give them an immediate feeling of participation in the governance of this country. When a backward class candidate becomes a Collector or a Superintendent of Police, the material benefits accruing from his position are limited to the members of his family only. But the psychological spin off of this phenomenon is tremendous; the entire community of that backward class candidate feels socially elevated. Even when no tangible benefits flow to the community at large, the feeling that now it has its ‘own man’ in the ‘corridors of power’ acts as morale booster.12



The rationale behind this project was therefore not as much social as it was political: the issue was not primarily to improve the socioeconomic condition of a disenfranchised population but to make it gain new confidence in its relationship to power, even to mobilize it politically.

The Congress was unable to rise to the challenge contained in the Mandal report. Returning to power in 1980 after the Janata interlude, Indira Gandhi, instead of implementing its recommendations, which in any case would not have brought about radical changes because the quotas would never have been filled, made the mistake of sweeping them under the carpet. Not only did she deprive herself of OBC support, in other words over half of the population, but she gave up this trump card to her opponents. When in 1989 Janata Dal, distant heir of the Janata Party, once again ousted Congress from power, its leader, V.P. Singh, hurried to announce application of the report. In his Independence Day speech on 15 August 1990, he espoused the rationale of the report.

‘We believe that no section can be uplifted merely by money. They can develop only if they have a share in power and we are prepared to provide this share. In this year of justice, in memory of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar the government has recently taken a decision to give reservation to the backward classes in jobs in government and public sector. It is being debated as to how many persons would get benefit out of it. In a sense, taking into account the population of this country, the government jobs account for only one per cent and out of this one per cent if one fourth is given to anyone, it cannot be a course for this economic betterment though it may have some effect. But our outlook is clear. Bureaucracy is an important organ of the power structure. It has a decisive role in decision-making. We want to give an effective [sic] here in the power structure and running of the country to the depressed, downtrodden and backward people.13



Empowerment was the watchword of this political programme. Hiring quotas did not have a redistributive vocation in favour of these underprivileged categories, but were instead intended to give them access to the management of public affairs and mobilize them politically. For V.P. Singh as well as for the Mandal report, reservations were not employment schemes and, indeed, the new quota of 27% did not represent many jobs. Out of the 204,288 recruitments that had been made in 1988, 55,158 jobs would have been given to OBCs according to the new reservation policy. In fact, the number of posts were declining (from 226,781 in 1985 to 204, 288 in 1988), whereas the candidates were more and more numerous (from 2.4 million in 1985 to 2.9 million in 1988).14 Consequently, the quota was even more strongly resented by the upper caste people who regarded administration as their monopoly. In 1980, the OBCs represented 12.55% of the central services and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes 18.72% (in Class 1 services, the OBCs represented less than 5%, as against 90% of high castes).15



In 1990, the reaction of the upper castes – especially students – who protested violently against both their loss of job opportunities and the challenging of a sociopolitical order they had always dominated took a radical turn immediately after V.P. Singh’s announcement. Street demonstrations multiplied, students immolated themselves by fire (63 of them died this way according to official accounts), and the Supreme Court finally ordered the announced measures to be suspended.

This upper caste resistance played a major role and endowed Mandal with unintended consequences. It gave rise to counter mobilization among the OBCs, who for the first time formed a common front to defend the quotas they were in danger of having taken away from them. This abstract administrative category, ‘the OBC’, thus acquired political substance not from the inside, but under the influence of external opposition, by being faced with the Other, the upper castes.



In such a context of social polarization, the OBCs were bound to make a greater impact at the time of elections, since they were in larger numbers. The Janata Dal had already fielded larger numbers of OBC candidates in 1989. It continued to do so and other parties started to do so, not only breakaway factions of the JD like the Janata Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, but mainstream parties like the BJP and Congress too given that OBC candidates were increasingly successful at the polls: they could have ignored them at their own cost since, now, OBCs voted for their own and no longer for upper caste notables they had done before in the clientelistic framework initiated by the Congress system.

In northern India, the proportion of OBC elected representatives went from 11% in 1984 to 25% in 1996, whereas that of the upper caste elected officials fell from 47% to 35%.16 V.P. Singh’s prognosis thus proved true. He had announced that: ‘Now that every party is wooing the deprived classes, with every round of elections more and more representatives of the deprived sections will be elected. This will ultimately be reflected in the social composition of the local bodies, state governments, and the central government. A silent transfer of power is taking place in social terms.’17

Certainly, the OBCs have been plagued with divisions when competition for power developed between some components of this federation of castes. In northern India, Yadavs, Kurmis and Lodhis got aligned with different political parties, for instance, but OBC politics remained the order of the day. Any way, in this sense the political moment inspired by Mandal created history: a point of no return had been reached in the assertiveness of the OBCs in the political sphere, so much so no party could ignore them as before.18 In fact, whatever the party in office, the chief ministers have mostly been OBC leaders in the Hindi belt – the crucible of the ongoing silent revolution – over the last ten years, a situation which stands in stark contrast with the one which prevailed before.



This silent revolution, still underway, naturally resulted in newfound legitimacy for caste in the public space, for the OBC front that crystallized over the ‘Mandal affair’ was nothing other than a collection of castes. And the increased weight of caste in the political arena was to come back like a boomerang into the field of positive discrimination: the Supreme Court, before which a complaint was brought by an upper caste opponent to the Mandal report, finally validated caste as a criteria by which to identify OBC within the framework of positive discrimination programmes, thus cancelling 30 years of jurisprudence founded on the Balaji decision.



In December 1992, the judges solemnly declared: ‘A caste can be and quite often is a social class in India.’19 Symmetrically, the Supreme Court put a stop to the attempts of the Congress government – which had managed to bring down V.P. Singh in 1990 – to implement positive discrimination on the basis of some criteria other than caste. In 1991, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao had introduced a 10% quota of national civil service jobs for ‘economically backward’ people. In their December 1992 decision, the judges objected that economic backwardness could not be a sufficient criterion and so repealed the Rao decree.

Affirmative action has followed a very specific route so far as the OBCs are concerned. Civil service quotas – the Mandal report allowed them as of 1980 – were not intended to equalize socioeconomic conditions but to empower its beneficiaries. Indeed, they have transformed the OBC relationship to power: some of their own kind hold office, and psychologically this encourages them to go further. But even more importantly, Mandal enabled the OBCs to win political power. They started to make this achievement in the 1990s because they ran into such resistance from the upper castes that it galvanized them. The old vertical, clientelistic brand of politics inherited from the Congress system simply broke down. Therefore, even though positive discrimination programmes did not do much to change the socioeconomic condition of the lower castes, they had major political consequences. Now, whether the seizure of power by OBC leaders translates into redistributive practices remains to be seen.


1. P. Radhakrishnan, ‘Backward Classes in Tamil Nadu, 1872-1988’, Economic and Political Weekly, 10 March 1990, pp. 509-517.

2. See his inaugural speech before the Constituent Assembly on 13 December 1946 (Constituent Assembly Debates, vol. I, Lok Sabha Secretariat, New Delhi, 1989, p. 59).

3. Report of the Backward Classes Commission, vol. 1, Government of India, Delhi, 1955.

4. Memorandum on the Report of the Backward Classes Commission, Ministry of Home Affairs, Delhi, (no date), p. 2.

5. Quoted in the letter from J. Nehru to the Chiefs Ministers, 27 June 1961 in: J. Nehru, Letters to the Chief Ministers, 1947-1964, vol. 5, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1989, pp. 456-457.

6. Chandra Mudaliar, The Kolhapur Movement, Shivaji Vidhyapith, Kolhapur, s.d., p. 21.

7. See J. Manor, Political Change in an Indian State: Mysore, 1917-1955, Manohar, Delhi, 1977, p. 60; O. Chinnappa Reddy, Report of Karnataka Third Backward Classes Commission, vol. 1, Government of Karnataka, Bangalore, 1990, pp. 11-12.

8. E.F. Irschick, Politics and Social Conflict in South India. The Non-Brahmin Movement and Tamil Separation, 1916-1929, Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1969, p. 369.

9. R. Lohia, The Caste System, Rammanohar Lohia Samata Vidyalaya, Hyderabad, 1964.

10. ‘The Socialist Program’ in S. Mohan, H.D. Sharma, V.P. Singh and Sunilam (eds.), Evolution of Socialist Party in India, Bapu Kaldate, New Delhi, 1997, pp. 258-259.

11. Report of the Backward Classes Commission. First Part, Government of India, New Delhi, 1980, p. 21.

12. Ibid., p. 57.

13. ‘Justice for the Poor’’ in S. Mohan, H.D. Sharma, V.P. Singh and Sunilam (eds.), Evolution of Socialist Party in India, Bapu Kaldate, New Delhi, 1997, p. 361. Emphasis added.

14. India Today, 15 September 1990, pp. 36-37.

15. These figures were based on replies furnished by 30 central ministries and departments and 31 attached and subordinate offices and public sector undertakings under the administrative control of 14 ministries. (For the complete statistical figures, see Report of the [second] Backward Classes Commission, op. cit., p. 42.)

16. These figures come from a data base I have compiled starting in 1987, the main findings of which were presented in C. Jaffrelot, ‘The Rise of the Other Backward Classes in North India,’ The Journal of Asian Studies, February 2000.

17. V.P. Singh, ‘Power and Equality – Changing Grammar of Indian Politics’, in A. Prasad, Reservational Justice to Other Backward Classes, Deep and Deep, New Delhi, 1997, pp. 316-317.

18. For more details see C. Jaffrelot, India’s Silent Revolution. The Rise of the Lower Castes in North Indian Politics, Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2003.

19. ‘Summary of Issues, Judgement and Directions in Indra Sawhney v. Union of India’, in A. Prasad, Reservational Justice, op. cit., p. 308.