In his book The Age of Kali: Indian Travels and Encounters, William Dalrymple wrote: “Ten years ago every second person at Delhi drinks parties seemed to be either an old schoolfriend of the Prime Minister or a member of his cabinet. Now, quite suddenly, no one in Delhi knows anyone in power. A major democratic revolution has taken place almost unnoticed, leaving the urban Anglicised élite on the margins of the Indian political landscape.” And, in a meet with Mr. Dalrymple, the late Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh remarked after his elevation to the national cabinet in 1996, “…for the first time, power had come to the underprivileged and the oppressed and we will use it to ensure that their lot is bettered.…”
The socio-political movement that led to this phenomenon known as “Mandal” has dramatically changed the demographic diversity of people’s representatives. It is no wonder then that scholar Christophe Jaffrelot called it, ‘India’s Silent Revolution’.
On social justice
The social justice discourse in modern India can be traced to the initiatives of social revolutionaries such as Jyotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, Sahuji Maharaj and Periyar during colonial rule. But a sustained intervention with a concrete outcome in terms of policy prescriptions surfaced only with B.R. Ambedkar arriving on the national scene. The “depressed classes” (Dalits) and “tribals” (Adivasis) — as they were termed by the colonisers — were already listed as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, respectively, by 1935. The benefits of reservation in education and employment for these social groups in proportion to their population were adopted as soon as the Constitution of India came into force. But a large section of the “backward classes” and occupational caste groups remained socially and educationally backward; hence, their presence in the bureaucracy, the judiciary, academia or the media remained abysmal.
The post-Independence years witnessed Nehruvian socialism losing its sheen. The polity and governance remained in the grips of cherry-picked brahmanical minds. At this juncture, the Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP) sounded the clarion call, “Sansopa ne bandhi gaanth, pichhda pawe sau me saath” (SSP was committed for 60 per cent share for the backward classes”). The Constituent Assembly had debated caste-class dichotomy. It was envisioned that backward classes would be backward communities. This was endorsed by B.R. Ambedkar who said: “…a backward community is a community which is backward in the opinion of the government….” But the Mandal report reaffirmed this with the line “a caste can be and quite often is a social class in India”.
Article 340 of the Constitution entailed egalitarian possibility that resulted in two Backward Classes commissions, the Kalelkar Commission (1953-1955) and the Mandal Commission (1978-80). The first did not yield anything. The mobilisation campaign for implementing the recommendations of the second led to a “Mandal movement”. The announcement of implementing one of its recommendations, of 27% reservation for the Other Backward Classes (OBC) in the central services on August 7, 1990, was the “Mandal moment”. Even while Mandal parties lost power at the Centre, the Mandal effect has continued. The 73rd and 74th Amendments have furthered the idea of social justice by extending reservation benefits to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and OBCs. Horizontal reservation was also extended to all women. In 2006, reservations were extended to OBC candidates in institutions of higher learning — popularly known as Mandal II.
The popular understanding of secularism in India has undergone a sea change. Much has been written about its failings. The real test of secularism and social democracy is hinged on mutual co-existence of communities. Thus, secularism needs to be situated within the perspective of “Fraternity” as enshrined in the ‘Preamble’ of the Constitution. This entails instilling confidence and camaraderie in the minority communities. Mandal parties checkmated communal mobilisations and hate mongering by the right wing. There were two spectacular political decisions in 1990 — the arrest of L.K. Advani by the Lalu Prasad-led government in Bihar at the height of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Second, the Mulayam Singh-led government in Uttar Pradesh ordering the police to fire at kar sevaks assembled in Ayodhya near the Babri Masjid.
Another point of merit derived from “Mandal” has been the identifying of socially and educationally backward castes and communities by not letting religion become a barrier. The consciousness generated by Mandal demolished a perception about Indian Muslims being a homogenous monolith. The churning around Mandal also led to the emergence of a pasmanda (backward in Persian) movement among backward Muslims demanding democratisation and representation. The Mandal report fairly recognised a large section of Muslims and Christians who converted from Hinduism, but with a majority of them continuing with their earlier caste-based occupations. Thus, Mandal situated backwardness at the intersectionality of caste and religion.
Blunders and course correction
Mandal(ite) political parties have made serious blunders too by restricting key organisational positions to family members and extending favours to caste brethren. However, there could be possible course correction such as being more accommodative towards the aspirations of the lower castes such as the economically backward classes or most backward classes; forging alliances with parties championing Dalit and Adivasi agendas; and pushing for quota within quota in the women’s reservation Bill — which is still pending — with fresh insights, and also fielding more women candidates from the marginalised communities. Solidarity does work in politics. The role played by two Dalit icons, Kanshi Ram and Ram Vilas Paswan for mobilisation and implementation of Mandal has been immense. It is worth recalling how Kanshi Ram met with successive defeats in the Lok Sabha elections from Allahabad and East Delhi in 1988 and 1989, respectively. Mulayam Singh extended unconditional support to his candidature in 1991 and helped him win from Etawah, Uttar Pradesh. In turn, the Bahujan Samaj Party-Samajwadi Party alliance fixed the mighty Bharatiya Janata Party in the hotly-contested Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections of 1993. One of the popular slogans in that election still has high decibel and political value — “Mile Mulayam-Kanshiram; Hawa me Ud Gaye Jai Shri-Ram (When Mulayam and Kanshi Ram came together, the euphoria of ‘Jai Shri-Ram’ evaporated”).
Arvind Kumar teaches at the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi