In a bygone era, members of the Kahar social group were ordained to carry their supposed betters around in palanquins—a vocation prescribed and sanctified by the caste system. The Kahars of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and elsewhere, for generations bore the burden of bridal parties and hearses alike. They also fetched water for wedding feasts and heaved onto their shoulders supplies that oiled the wheels of trade.
Their caste-based occupation, relegated to the sidelines by modern transportation, consigned Kahars to the margins of society. Today, their traditional calling, romantically depicted in film, music and literature, is an outmoded quirk. For, Kahars have cast off their ritualistic burdens and taken to agriculture, labour and modest service or commercial work. They now seek an economic and political salience that a numerically small, disadvantaged caste (around three per cent in UP) finds hard to come by.
Hence, in recent years, Kahars have tried to forge strategic affiliations based on social or occupational links with dozens of other castes. “Most backward groups, including Kahars, tend to remain socially distant from even other OBC castes who more or less share the same socio-economic status. As a result, even if we struggle as one to secure our rights, only a select few end up enjoying those rights,” says Prakash Kahar, a Supreme Court advocate who leads one of many efforts to unite Kahars with members of other caste groupings such as Manjhi, Mallah, Nonia, Bind and Ravani. Altogether, Kahar argues, a united front of several dozen communities would create a pressure group of up to 20 per cent of the population. This would give their platform, the Kahar Mahasangh, clout enough to bargain with any government for jobs, civic amenities and educational services.
Yet, with a rejig of reservations for backward classes on the anvil, not just the Kahars but all left-behind social groups in Uttar Pradesh are at a crossroads, grappling with contentious choices. The trigger is the state government’s announcement that it will subcategorise Other Backward Classes (OBCs) into three distinct tiers—backward, more backward and most backward. Each tier will accommodate a fixed number of castes ranked by their relative deprivation. The tiers will be allotted fixed shares of the 27 per cent reservations earmarked for OBCs in government jobs and educational institutions.
Thus, for instance, if three subcategories are created, 13 per cent (of the 27 per cent) could go to the most backward groups, eight per cent to the more backward and five per cent to the backward. Which group gets what will determine whether they seek shelter and advancement from under the OBC umbrella or consolidate into caste groupings to satisfy practical needs.
P.S. Krishnan, who led the first NCBC, says, “Subcategorisation is absolutely essential because a nomadic group and a landed caste cannot be on an equal footing.”
“Through subcategorisation, the government is in fact trying to drive a wedge within the deprived communities while appearing to help them,” says ex-Rajya Sabha MP Sharad Yadav. “But this ploy will do the government no good. First, because it is widely known that they have created no new jobs. Second, because the available quota positions are not being filled today. And finally because OBC subcategories exist in Bihar, for example, but that did not make OBCs fight or oppose each other.”
In UP, OBCs consist of 77 distinct caste groups or 50 per cent of the population. Yet, within OBCs, a smaller number of castes, such as the Yadavs, Kurmis, Lodhs and Jats (18 per cent of the population), are economically and socially better off. The argument in favour of subcategories is that non-Yadav OBCs, such as Kahar, Lohar, Julah, Banjara, Dhivar or Gaderia, find it difficult to compete with better-off OBCs. If there is a quota within quota, the argument goes, they will be in a better position to compete for jobs or admissions.
“At best, three or four OBC castes have benefited from reservations, and those are closest to the general category in terms of their educational, political, social and financial position. Members of those castes call us their brothers only when there is talk of division of shares among OBCs,” says Kahar, while citing Bihar (where OBCs were subcategorised in the seventies and eighties and given some shares in the spoils of development and power) as a partial exception to this rule. “At the same time, whenever a community accepts the ‘ati-pichda’ (most backward) label, some political party gets a readymade vote bank while the community gains nothing, No matter what nomenclature OBCs are given now, they are watching out for gaps between what is promised to them and what is actually delivered.”
If the prospect of greater social distance, even conflict amongst OBCs, worries Kahar as much as less-advantaged OBCs being left behind socially and politically, the Yadavs and Kurmis counter the government’s proposal with the logic of their own experiences: “The Kurmis are very angry with this government,” says Sadhna Sachan of the Kurmi Swabhiman Mahasangh, a pressure group whose demands include a Kurmi CM or deputy CM in UP. “Because elections are near they have made us into Kurmis, but in the last election they sought our votes by telling us we are Hindus.”
The Kurmis, an agricultural landowning community, make up 12–15 per cent of the OBC population and are relatively better off despite economic stress caused by shrinking landholdings and job opportunities. “Kurmi voters can swing elections but only the three per cent community got a real share in power,” Sachan says, referring to Keshav Prasad Maurya, the deputy chief minister and a Koeri, which is an OBC group that makes up 3.5 per cent of the state’s population.
All India Jat Arakshan Sangharsh Samiti national president Yashpal Malik addressing Jat protesters in 2017 in Haryana. They were demanding inclusion in the OBC category.
Though Kahars and Kurmis, for instance, stand on opposite ends of the economic spectrum covered by the broad OBC classification, they share a common complaint—lack of political representation. “Anupriya Patel, a Kurmi, is a central minister but Vinay Katiyar has been sidelined, as has Ramkumar Verma, a powerful leader,” Sachan says. She argues that if OBC reservations must be split up, the respective shares should be determined by their proportion to the population. “Or else, unlike 2014 and 2017 when 80 per cent of Kurmis voted BJP, now OBCs must unite against Savarnas like they did in Phulpur,” she says.
Her reasoning is that Kurmis have a few highly-educated members but most barely finish school. “That is why Kurmis are crazy for secure government jobs. It’s not as if all of them have prospered—the poor will be penalised by subcategorisation,” she says.
P.S. Krishnan, former secretary to the Government of India who steered the first National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC), defends the logic of subcategorisation on grounds of wide diversity amongst OBCs. The category includes weavers, carpenters, ironsmiths, fishermen, boatmen and landed peasantry. “Those who have no skills, land or education have not progressed. Hence the logic that there cannot be fair competition among unequals should be extended to reservations,” he says. “Subcategorisation is absolutely essential because a nomadic group, a group previously classified as criminal and a landed caste cannot be on an equal footing. Tenants, landowners, peasants, artisans—they each have different resource bases.”
The Mandal Commission had considered subcategories too, but could not recommend it due to a legal bar that existed at the time. “Later, the Supreme Court opined that setting up relative degrees of deprivation is not unconstitutional, so the route is clear,” Krishnan says. In Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar the subcategories already exist, he points out. “There are eight in Kerala, five in the other two states and Bihar needs more. The Centre has in fact been slow in doing what is necessary,” he says, referring to a parallel ongoing central government effort to reconstitute the NCBC, whose fresh awards, also based on subcategorisation, are due in June (after two extensions to its deadline).
“Our commission has been set up to decide where communities should be placed in the (central) OBC list and their relative shares. These are questions we have no answer for yet,” says Dr J.K. Bajaj, member, NCBC. Other than the reconstituted NCBC, the government wants to vest in Parliament the power to include and exclude groups in the OBC list. The result of this (and the lasting echo of the statement by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat during the Bihar elections against reservations on caste lines) is that a message has gone out to state political outfits that reservation is going to be used as a political tool—that the Centre will propose inclusion and exclusion of communities as a way to corner opposition parties, not give real benefits.
For example, if the Centre proposes to include Marathas, Jats, Patels and Kapus among OBCs, then the political leadership of these groups would have to agree. However, this would deny those leaders the opportunity to rally behind these groups that aspire for OBC status and against the BJP. Also, if these new entrants are allowed into the topmost tier of OBC subcategorisation—say, a five per cent shared by Yadavs and Kurmis—they would crowd each other out. This would not matter to the BJP as much as it would to others, especially the Samajwadi Party. Either way, the BJP holds the trump card.
Better-off OBCs will compete within a smaller quota, while the BJP courts MBCs. If Mandal times saw peak OBC consolidation, then subcategorisation will be the nadir of division.
“The idea behind creating categories is to first make each community separate and distinct, then give them a share in power,” says Badri Narayan, director, GB Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad. Also, by creating subcategories the BJP can take credit for championing the most backward OBCs: the MBCs and EBCs or extremely backward classes.
“This can be seen as smart politics by the BJP and a lost opportunity for the opposition,” says AK Verma, who teaches political science at Christ Church College, Kanpur. “Since the BJP is in power, MBCs are drawn to it. This was not so earlier. Conflicts among MBCs, OBCs are not new—but to deny shares in reservations to MBCs on this ground would not seem fair.”
Hence, the more successful OBCs will have to compete within a smaller OBC sub-quota while the BJP will try to bring MBCs such as Rajbhars, Nishads and Kewats into its fold. “Many MBCs are amenable to Hindutva politics today because no other political consciousness has intervened in their midst—neither communist nor Ambedkarite—except the RSS,” Narayan says. To extend this argument—if Mandal times bore witness to peak OBC consolidation, then their subcategorisation will be the nadir of OBC division.
This is why commentators believe the new categories can give Indian politics a fresh tweak. Now, OBC reservations exist on the principle that the entire unit is backward with only the creamy layer (based on income ceiling and family background) setting the norm for exclusion. “Yet, every year UP has been raising the creamy layer limit. This means the state is unable to find candidates to fill OBC vacancies unless more people enter the competition. In this situation, subcategorising while saying that dominant people are taking over the quota is contradictory,” says Samajwadi Party leader Sudhir Panwar.
Is it fair, as well, that in order to give a poor Gaderia or poor Prajapati the benefit of reservation a poor Yadav will be denied the chance to compete? “Every OBC community has been given the constitutional right of inclusion in the category. The government is trying to divide and rule them via subcategorisation,” says Sharad Yadav. “Even if it was a mistake of the opposition parties to not have encouraged MBCs and EBCs adequately—will they now punish OBCs for those mistakes?”
He argues that the government is “afraid” to release the 2011 caste census data. “Because the two per cent (savarna) want to hold on to half the jobs. Undoubtedly, OBCs are now 60 per cent of the population. If this is revealed to the public there will be a big fight, which the government wants to avoid,” he says.
Naturally, if other groups are included within OBCs, then demands will arise to lift the 50 per cent cap on reservations. Till that point, the BJP might find it advantageous to create newer caste groupings in Uttar Pradesh.