The ABC of OBCs

Written by vik

Topics: Socio-Political

This was written in 2006; I have not updated it. It traces the evolution of OBCs in India.


The recent decision of the government to extend reservations to the OBCs in central educational institutions has stirred up a real hornet’s nest. “Reserve vs. deserve”, “ghost of Mandal”, divide n rule not cool”, “disowned by my own country”, “death of merit” on one hand and “reservation is our right”, “jiski jitni bhagidari , uski utni hissedari”, “ 10 per cent can’t rule the country” on the other – these speak volumes of the raging debate in the country. The extraordinary heterogeneity of OBCs, large size (or the lack of it) and ambiguity of identity have always fuelled controversies. There is also a debate going on the utility and futility of reservations as an effective tool of social justice. Here is a layman’s guide to the evolution of the concept and controversies to date.

  • The term ‘backward classes’ is an administrative euphemism for the backward castes, that is, the Shudras. It consists of communities located in the middle rungs of the traditional social stratification. The term has been used in different parts of the country since the late 19th century. Especially since the 1920s a number of organizations united around the issue of caste sprang, thanks to the British policy of distributing patronage on the basis of caste.
  • Southern states of India have been more vocal in demanding reservations in jobs thereby challenging the domination of the minority Brahmins. Jyoti Rao Phule’s Satyashodhak Samaj, anti-Brahmin movement, Justice Movement, E. V. Ramaswamy Naicker’s Self Respect Movement, DMK, AIADMK were all manifestations of backward classes’ mobilization. UP and Bihar witnessed backward caste mobilization in the 1970s which resulted in their significant political and economic empowerment.
  • Articles 15(4) and 340(1) of the constitution refer to them as ‘socially and educationally backward classes of citizens’. Article 16(4) speaks of them as ‘backward classes of citizens.’
  • A commission was appointed (as provided in article 340(1)) in January 1953 with Kaka Kalelkar as chairman and ten members. It used 4 criteria for identifying OBCs – low social position in the traditional caste hierarchy, lack of general educational advancement, inadequate representation in government service and inadequate representation in trade, commerce and industry. It submitted its report in 1955 and listed 2399 communities as backward with 837 of them as ‘most backward.’ It recommended, inter alia, reservation of 25 per cent in class 1, 33.3 per cent in class 2, 40 per cent in class 3 and 4 jobs and 70 per cent seats in all technical and professional institutions. It had a weak data base and methodology; five of its members submitted dissenting notes and the chairman himself repudiated the commission’s work in the last minute. The then government rejected ‘caste’ as the basis of reservation.
  • The government in May 1961 informed the states that while they had the discretion to apply their own criteria, it would be better to apply economic tests rather than go by caste. Many states provided reservations to the backward classes on the basis of income and occupational criteria.
  • Mandal Commission was appointed in January 1979 by the Prime Minister Morarji Desai with B. P. Mandal, former Chief Minister of Bihar, as chairman and five members. It used a haphazard methodology to estimate the OBC population – subtracting from 100 the population percentage for SCs, STs and non-Hindus (22.56 and 16.16 respectively) as per the 1971 census and the forward Hindus(17.58 ) as extrapolated from the 1931 census, and adding to this derived sum(43.7) about half of the population percentage for non-Hindus(8.4)! Its socio-educational surveys, eleven indicators of social, economic and educational backwardness and other aspects of the research have been called in question. It enumerated 3743 communities as backward comprising 52 per cent of the population. It recommended 27 per cent reservations in jobs and educational institutions
  • The Janata government was out of power when Mandal Commission submitted its report in 1980 and Prime Minister Indira was not willing to act on it. Rajiv Gandhi too avoided ‘having a ball with Mandal.’ The National Front government of V. P. Singh announced in August 1990 of his government’s resolve to implement the Mandal report beginning with a reservation of 27 per cent in jobs (This was seen as a political ploy by V. P. Singh to counter Devi Lal who then commanded the support of the backward castes in the ‘cow-belt’ and to shore up the National Front’s support among the OBCs. Rajiv Gandhi had stated in an interview that V. P. Singh himself was opposed to the Mandal report when it first came out during his tenure as the Cong(I) CM of UP and also when he was a member of the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet at the centre( The Times Of India, Bombay, 2 Sep.1990)! The whole of North India erupted in protests.
  • Supreme Court intervened on 1 October 1990 granting a stay on V.P. Singh’s notifications when its constitutional validity was challenged. V.P.Singh’s ministry fell barely 11 months after its induction and was followed by an ephemeral Chandrashekhar ministry. The electorate in 1991 mid-term polls rejected the ‘Mandal Messiah’ and Cong (I) came to power.
  • SC issued a directive to this government to make its stand clear on the Mandal recommendations. The minority Congress government changed its attitude to Mandal report to draw political mileage. The government announced the reservation formula on 25 September 1991. In addition to retaining the 27 per cent job reservation for OBCs, it provided for 10 per cent reservation for the economically backward among the forward communities.
  • The SC rulings of 16 November 1992 by a nine-judge bench ruled out the economic criteria for reservation. Economic or educational backwardness not result of social backwardness cannot be the criteria of backwardness under article 16(4). It also excluded the ‘creamy layer’- the advanced sections from the backward classes (presently those who have an annual income of more than 2.5 Lakhs) from the ambit of reservations.
  • In August 2005, Supreme Court in the “Inamdar case” abolishes reservations in unaided private minority and non-minority educational institutions. Article 15(5) comes into being to address this predicament.
  • The present incumbent of Human Resources Development Ministry(HRDM), Shri Arjun Singh, announced the government’s intention to implement the Mandal report for reservations in educational institutions ostensibly on account of 93rd  Constitution Amendment which provides for reservations in private unaided institutions for SCs, STs and backward classes vide a new clause 5 in article15 (Fundamental Right to Equality). Ironically however, the HRDM recently dropped its move to impose 25 per cent reservations for children from weaker sections in unaided schools at the elementary level!
  • Medical students and doctors are spearheading the movement against further reservations to the OBCs. There are pro-reservation agitations too. The government has decided to implement it from June 2007 backed by a commensurate increase in seats in the general category which is likely to cost some 10,000 crore Rupees to the exchequer (the latter of course to ensure the interests of general candidates as recommended by the Group of Ministers under Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee).

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