Conscious of the advantages the lowest social categories in the State enjoy, middle and most backward castes are pushing for change in their reservation categories. Political parties are keen to cash in
Like someone forced to negotiate the stairs in one of those impossible Escher sketches, many “middle” and “most backward castes” in Uttar Pradesh are struggling to move down the ladder of caste in order to rise up from the accumulated disadvantages that centuries of social oppression have saddled them with. Because of the benefits that the lowest social categories enjoy now in terms of State policies, reservations and quotas, many Other Backward Class (OBC) castes wish to acquire Scheduled Caste (SC) status, while some SCs want to be included as Scheduled Tribes (ST) since they are not getting the desired benefits of the SC quota.
2014 a factor
The Samajwadi Party (SP) government in Uttar Pradesh is in the process of sending its recommendations to the Centre for including 17 OBC castes in the SC category. These are the Kahar, Kashyap, Kewat, Machuwa, Manjhi, Mallah, Nishad, Kumhar, Prajapati, Dheevar, Bind, Bhar, Rajbhar, Biyar, Batham, Gond and Tairaha castes. The SP had included them in the SC category by managing to intrude in the Centre’s right to change quotas and categories. The party accused the previous Chief Minister and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati of depriving these castes of their rights in order to protect her own political interests. A previous SP government, led by Mulayam Singh Yadav, had issued a government order (GO) in October 2005 providing these 17 OBCs the same entitlements as Scheduled Castes. This move was stayed by the Allahabad High Court following a writ filed by the BSP. Ms Mayawati quashed the GO on June 6, 2007 soon after she returned to power; she also asked the Centre to increase the Scheduled Caste reservation quota by another eight per cent before these 17 castes could be included.
The view in Samajawadi circles is that these 17 castes, constituting 15 per cent of the total population of U.P., are capable of tilting the forthcoming Lok Sabha election results in favour of the SP, and this is why Mayawati was against it.
Independent of the impact of quotas on the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections, these 17 OBCs are eager to be notified as SCs, while some that are included as SCs — such as Musahar, Nat, Kanjar, Bansphor, etc — are demanding to be included in the ST category. Their demand was heard at a recent conference held at Varanasi. They reasoned that some big and influential castes within the Scheduled Caste category had usurped all the benefits meant for the entire section, and that they had been left empty-handed.
Issue of numbers
This problem is not unique just to the castes that wish to move into the ST category now, but one that faces 62 of the 66 Dalit castes in U.P. The Mushahars number around 10 lakh in U.P. But each of the other castes, such as Dushad, Bansphor, Kanjar, Kharbar, accounts for less than two lakh people.
Not only are their numbers small, literacy among them is also very low. Few among them have passed intermediate exams. Many of these castes are engaged in traditional vocations. Furthermore, they have neither diversified nor modernised their caste-based professions. They are hardly engaged in any jobs. The benefits of government schemes do not reach them because they are not educated. They lack political leadership, which adds to their woes. Unable to make their presence felt in the discourses and debates within their communities, these castes are largely invisible.
State government officials, like district magistrates, subdivisional magistrates and block development officers are hardly aware of them. In such a situation it is doubtful that people from these castes would get any benefits even by changing reservation categories. Their problem is one of invisibility, which has only increased over the last decade, even during the reign of Ms Mayawati, and her Dalit Bahujan party.
Threat to vocations
State government benefits meant for them do not reach them. Second, the bazaar and modernity have made their traditional vocations redundant. Castes like Bansor, Bansphor and Dharikaar, engaged in making bamboo-based articles of daily use like baskets, winnows, etc from pre-modern times, remain threatened as their traditional vocation faces extinction. Plastic plates are steadily replacing the tradition pattal (leaf plates) in the markets. Bamboo forests have shrunk. Bamboo is now being sold by middlemen.
Having failed to develop their identity, these castes have not reached a stage where they can give adequate voice to their political and developmental aspirations. They have not been able to use their identity or their aspirations for “politics” and thus use these as resources of growth. In such a situation, what they need is not a shift in category, but a “politics of presence.” And that can come only with community leadership and education.
(Badri Narayan is professor, G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, University of Allahabad. He is the author of The Making of the Dalit Public in North India, OUP.)