Friday, September 22, 2023

Backward and forward

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In striking down Jats’ inclusion from the central list of OBCs, the apex court has rejected all the present paradigms of backwardness. But then, how do we define it?

By Meha Mathur

They are ridiculed for their rustic ways. They are perceived to be  patriarchal and are not known to throng institutes of higher learning, nor hold any clout in senior government cadres or the corporate world.  But they own land in most states where they dominate, and enjoy enough political clout to swing electoral fortunes. It’s therefore open to question whether to call the Jats backward or not.

In its judgment on reservations for the Jat community under the OBC category, the Supreme Court recently ignited debate on who is a backward. It rejected the claim of this politically strong community for inclusion in the central list of OBCs, while claiming that newer criteria have to be evolved and newer forms of backwardness explored.

What was welcome was that the SC rejected caste and historical injustice as criteria for backwardness. Thus, said the SC, affirmative action for the third gender was a path finder, if not a path breaker. “It is the identification of these new emerging groups that must engage the attention of the State… rather than to enable groups and citizens to recover ‘lost ground’ in claiming preference and benefits on the basis of historical prejudice.”


A rail roko movement by Dangars who are also clamoring for reservation
A rail roko
movement by
Dangars who are
also clamoring
for reservation

It also rejected perceptions of backwardness as a criterion, both of the community about itself, and of others about a community. But then it also ruled out any mathematical formulae for taking into account social, economic and educational indicators, which would enable some objectivity and unifor-mity. What’s more, it said backwardness has to be social, and educational and economic backwardness can’t be parameters for deciding social backwardness. How, then, does one decide who is “most distressed”?

The Supreme Court passed its judgment on a notification published in the Gazette of India dated March 4, 2014, wherein the Jats had been included in the central list of backward classes for Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Bharatpur and Dhaulpur districts of Rajasthan. The center had done so after rejecting the advice tendered by the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC), a statutory body. (The SC, in its ruling said NCBC’s advices are binding on the government). The Union Cabinet meeting to have the notification issued was held on March 3, a Sunday and the notification issued the next day, a day before the general elections were announced. In their appeal to the SC, the complainants asked what was the hurry to have the meeting on a Sunday?

Formed in 1993 in the wake of Mandal Commission Report, the NCBC first submitted its opinion on the inclusion of Jats in November 1997, and recommended it only in Rajasthan, and that too excluding Bharatpur and Dhaulpur. But following the National Commission for Backward Classes (Power to Review Advice) Rules, 2011, and numerous representations from Jats, the need was felt to review earlier recommendations.

In a meeting in June 2011, NCBC decided to defer the matter till the finalization of Socio-Economic Caste Census (SSC), 2011, which was being conducted by the Registrar General of India. But then, in July 2011, it decided to approach the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) for a full-fledged survey in the concerned states for Jats. And in October 2012, in another flip-flop, it decided to curtail the scope of the  survey to 2 percent of the Jat population.

But in the midst of this, the UPA government instituted a Group of Ministers (GoM) under the finance minister to look into the demand of Jats for reservation and to monitor the survey of NCBC and ICSSR. In its December 2013 meeting, the GoM decided that NCBC and ICSSR, rather than carrying  out fresh survey, come at a conclusion based on existing literature and material available. Thus, the ICSSR, relying on reports of various state commissions submitted to the respective  state governments, and books, some of which were outdated, arrived at conclusions for each state under question.

Thus, in the case of Haryana, ICSSR stated that “Jats are a land-owning community. Their share in Class I and II government service is close to their population share but they lag behind in both school and higher education enrolment.” In Rajasthan, they are “better off with respect to ownership of land but somewhat lag behind with respect to literacy rate, enrolment in graduation and representation in government service.”

After receiving ICSSR’s report on states, NCBC did a few public hearings to hear the views of stakeholders, examined the literature on which the ICSSR analysis was based, and arrived at its own conclusion, which it submitted on February 26, 2014. It observed that merely belonging to an agricultural community doesn’t qualify Jats for backward status, and called for non-caste criteria. It said that Jats were not socially or educationally backward, nor did they have inadequate representation in public employment, or in the Armed Forces.

It also claimed that the literature on which the ICSSR based its research was in some cases flawed or outdated and cited reasons on a case-to-case basis. The NCBC recommendations were, in turn, rejected by the Union Cabinet in its March 3 meeting.

In its judgment, the SC laid stress on affirmative action only to the most deserving. “New practices, methods and yardsticks have to be continuously evolved,” it ruled. But in a country where polity thrives on identity, that’s easier said than done.   

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