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Analyzing the ‘OBC-Minority’ Sub-Quota

Analyzing the ‘OBC-Minority’ Sub-Quota

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Khalid Anis Ansari


The recent announcement of a 4.5% sub-quota for backward sections within minorities in the overall Central OBC quota by the UPA government on 22nd December, 2011 in the wake of elections in five states, including the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, has drawn in a number of reactions, some valid and others not. Even though the media has often presented the sub-quota as one for the Minorities, or in extreme cases a quota for Muslims by default, thereby providing wind to the wings of the votaries of a hegemonic bipolar politics (Congress vs. BJP) revolving on a secularism-communalism axis, there can be nothing further from the truth. As we know a number of backward caste groups from the minority sections were already included in the Central OBC list and were availing the benefits of reservations from 1993 onwards. What the UPA government has done is to club together all these already recognized and enlisted backward caste groups within minorities (especially, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs) into a 4.5% sub-quota, thereby by default reserving the remaining 22.5% for OBCs within the majority community (Ministry of Minority Affairs 2011). While this move has been received with much speculation by the intended beneficiaries so far, it has also met a number of criticisms from the BJP and a few other OBC groups. There are broadly two aspects to this debate: one, the policy (or technical) dimension, and, two, the political dimension. But before I take up these two aspects, an indicative description of the larger transformations in Indian democracy would be helpful in making sense of this recent move by the Congress Party.

The Deepening of Indian Democracy

The way in which political demands get translated into policies or the way in which policies engineer new aspirations and solidarities is not a neat field but one marked by contestations and negotiated settlements. In the modern history of India this is illustrated by the classic case of the struggle between Gandhi and Ambedkar over the question of a separate electorate for dalits. As we know Ambedkar had articulated dalits as a community different from Hindus, an argument which was fiercely opposed by Gandhi and which led to a compromise between the two in the form of the Poona Pact in 1932 wherein Ambedkar had to scale down his demand and settle for political reservations for his people. However, much has changed in Indian democracy since then. In the pre-independence period Ambedkar had consistently argued for the ‘annihilation of castes’ and the upper castes seemed pretty amused. In our times the upper castes, especially those inhabiting the academia and media, remind everyone of Ambedkar’s thesis and the dalits seem equally amused (Narayan 2009). In the initial phases of the Indian nation a party like the Congress entered the political space through the self-assured universalist vocabulary of secular nationalism and in stark contrast the dalit and other lower caste parties employed the particularistic vocabulary of identity politics. In our times while the dalit parties like the BSP have claimed the universal (PTI 2012), the Congress has been forced to stoop down to the same parochial and sectionalist identity politics that it had ridiculed thus far (Ghildiyal 2011). The tortuous career of democratic transformation in India has indeed thrown many surprises and in this epic hegemonic struggle between the dominant and subordinate caste/class groups nothing can be taken for granted. While norms can only be a useful beginning point, in the ultimate analysis all norms are negotiated, twisted or written anew depending on the state of the hegemonic struggle at hand.

While this re-scripting of political normativity is underway in a big way it would be useful to remind ourselves that still the sites like ‘ethics’, ‘civil society’ and ‘policy’ are overly informed by the modernizing impulses of the ruling caste-class elite across religions. In stark contrast, the maximum maneuvering space has been offered to the subaltern caste groups in the categories and sites of ‘politics’, ‘political society’ and ‘democracy’ thus far. The quotation marks obviously indicate the flux we are in where the respectability and utility of any settled aprioristic notions seem to have limited scope at present. So while recent populist mobilizations like the anti-corruption movement (launched by Anna Hazare) have tried to inhabit politics through the articulation of an autonomist democracy that interrogates party politics, dalit leaders like Dr. Udit Raj have staged their own version of bahujan civil society thereby displacing the universalist pretensions of mainstream civil society. These are probably productive tensions and a sign of maturing and deepening of Indian democracy.

They are also a wake-up call for the advocates of social justice that we are now entering a new spiral of democratic politics where we have to move from a formal notion of democracy to a substantive one, from social engineering to a deeper notion of social justice, from the dominance of the numeric to infinite responsibility for the marginalized and excluded envisaged in much more nuanced and sensitive ways. Indeed, it seems that we are entering the limits of representative politics based on purely group identities and this entrenched trajectory of social justice needs to be supplemented fast with popular interventions for systemic reforms, including electoral reforms (proportional electoral system, right to recall, state funding of elections, etc.), judicial reforms (Article 312, etc.), administrative reforms, police reforms, affirmative action in the private sector (including media and civil society), democratization of religious institutions, people-friendly policies in agriculture and industry, common schooling system, and so on and so forth. Moreover, in this new phase of social justice movement the key sites for the bahujan sections would be ‘knowledge’ and ‘culture’ and that now they should prepare themselves not only for securing their place in the power structure but also taking the management (not ruling) of the society into their hands through the guiding slogans of liberty and equality for all in alliance with the oppressed all over the world.

But for such a version of politics to be inaugurated the prevailing and well-entrenched trajectory of social justice politics will have to be rethought. This is not to suggest that it had no emancipatory role to play which it obviously had but that its very success also reveals its limitations and urges us to move forward in more promising directions. So where will the ruptures come from? In this context Yogendra Yadav indicates at a few openings:

Such a vast and ambitious agenda for rethinking and redesigning policies and politics of social justice is bound to invite a simple question: Who will take it up? […] This is a difficult question with no easy answers. But there is one possibility. If the push towards the dead end has come from the interlocking of policy and politics, a resolution may also come from the same source. The last few years have witnessed a rise in the aspirations and demands of various disadvantaged groups who remain largely excluded from the benefits of the existing policies and politics of social justice. The lower OBCs are already a political force to reckon with in several states. The question of Mahadalits, comprising the lowest groups among SC, could well spill over from Andhra and spread to the rest of the country. Pasmanda or Backward Muslims have already started mobilizing in Bihar and are trying to expand. The existing equilibrium on social justice works to their disadvantage. As these groups and their issues rise to prominence, the settled political equations can face a challenge […] if the politics of social justice shows greater imagination, such a rupture can point to a way forward for everyone. This would involve revisiting the ideological and political legacy of Phule, Narayan Guru, Ambedkar, Periyar and Lohia. […] A dead end might well become a point of renewal (Y. Yadav 2009).

Deconstruction of the Secular-Communal Axis

The careers of ‘religion’ and ‘caste’ have played out interestingly in Indian politics. Broadly, while caste can be categorized as an ‘ascriptive’ identity alluding to identities that we acquire at birth, that are closed, and that an individual cannot readily enter or exit, religion on the other hand also has connotations of an ‘acquired’ or ‘achieved’ identity as in principle one can move in or out of particular religions through conversion. So, even when Christianity may be a religion shared by most Americans it may speak differently to a white, an Afro-American or a woman. In other words, a Christian Afro-American may feel much closer to a Muslim Afro-American in terms of a shared history of humiliation, racial discrimination or a sub-culture than probably a white American with whom of course s/he may share other ritualistic and theological notions or practises in varying degrees. Something similar could be said of the relationship between religion and caste in India. So while caste has often been articulated as a system of hierarchical ranking based on Hindu religion, the recent caste-based movements within non-Hindu religions like Islam, Christianity and Sikhism have deeply interrogated this simplistic logic. These new counter-narratives of lower caste sections in non-Hindu religions clearly illustrate that despite conversions to supposedly egalitarian religions the lower castes could not really escape the stigma and humiliation attached with their former caste location. This occurred largely because it were not only the lower castes that converted to these putative egalitarian religions but because of the ascendance of these religions in certain temporal contexts the upper castes among Hindus also converted to them in order to consolidate, preserve or improve their worldly position. These new upper caste converts subsequently ended up monopolising their interpretative technologies/institutions and informing them with the hierarchical values of caste. But, having said that, it must also be remarked that the supposed egalitarianism of non-Hindu religions is in all likelihood an exaggeration as all these non-Hindu religions emerged in highly stratified societies and there were probably already elements of hierarchy and stratification in their knowledge traditions/practises that made it easier for caste to be accommodated and appropriated.

Overall, religion is a complex phenomenon which is informed by elements of ethics, morality, desire, embodiment, affect and of course since the advent of modernity and governmentality its politicization and secularization in the form of identity. While it has often acted as an instrument of control and domination, it has also acted as a libratory force in other spatial and temporal contexts. While the textual evaluations of religion are a useful exercise but it is also important to take cognizance of the practices, lived reality and its interplay with power in modern democracies. In short what are the possibilities that it promises or closes in contemporary Indian democracy is a vital question that needs to be addressed. If we look closely then the politics, discourse and institutions arranged around religious identity are more or less controlled by the upper caste sections of all religions in India. In short, religion as a political identity is hegemonized by the upper castes and their interests and is stabilized by the cooption of sanskritised (or ashrafised) sections within the lower castes. Consequently, the politics on the axis of communalism-secularism, which has historically taken cue from the monolithization of religious identity and subsequently privileges religious identity at the expense of other identities like caste or gender, largely emerges as a weapon of the ruling castes/classes to divide, tame and control the vast majority of subordinated caste groups in lower caste narratives. In interesting ways the discourse of communalism has only led to the consolidation of power of the upper caste elite in all religious groups in India (K. A. Ansari 2009). In the history of modern India the most significant events that were intended to serve the interests of the hegemonic classes, like the Partition holocaust in 1947 or the Babri Mosque demolition in 1992, were clearly arranged around religious identity and in turn reproduced the notion of religion as the overarching identity in India.

However, this fault-line based on religious identity and the related notion of Hindu and Muslim monolith probably received its biggest blow when the Mandal moment was inaugurated in 1990. The Mandal report not only included the Hindu shudra castes in the OBC list but also fully endorsed caste based inequalities within non-Hindu religions by including similarly placed caste groups in these religions too. It included about 80 lower caste Muslim groups in its list along with the Hindu OBCs. Now this was a remarkable development which was informed by the articulation of social justice politics by Dr. Rammanohar Lohia in North India who often used to address the backward caste sections of Indian minorities in his writings. Lohia’s methodology did not conflate caste with Hinduism per se and so he could penetrate the facade of religious monolith and could analyze caste-based practices and discrimination within non-Hindu religions as well. Overall, the Mandal moment created the ground for the formation of a counter-hegemonic solidarity of lower castes across religions under the rubric OBC which constitute over 50% of Indian population. Interestingly, while OBC and ST lists include lower caste or adivasi sections of all religions thereby leading to non-communal solidarities, the dalits belonging to non-Hindu religions were ejected out of the SC list through the Presidential Order (Clause 3) in 1950. Even when the Sikh and neo-Buddhist dalits were included in 1956 and 1990 respectively the Muslim and Christian dalits still remain excluded from the list. This is clearly a violation of the principle of secularism which articulates symmetrical treatment for all religious groups.

Since the 1990s the mandalisation of Muslim political space has happened at a brisk pace and has led to the enactment of ‘pasmanda’ identity which alludes to dalit and backward caste Muslims. As a result Muslim politics has become increasingly complicated and contested one due to the ascendance of the lower caste movements and their challenge to the hegemony of forward caste Muslims from within. The mushrooming of caste-based organizations within Indian Muslims like the All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz (Bihar and UP), All India United Muslim Morcha (Bihar), All India Muslim OBC Organization (Maharashtra) or the Pasmanda Muslim Samaj (UP) have triggered in debates of internal social reform and reconfiguring of community identity and solidarities. In this respect, the most interesting move made by the pasmanda movement has been the articulation of a counter-hegemonic horizontal solidarity of all lower castes across religious formations as is exemplified by their slogan ‘Dalit-pichda ek saman, Hindu ho ya Musalman!‘ [All dalits and backward castes are alike, whether they are Hindu or Muslim.]. The pasmanda ideologues have consistently argued that so far the upper caste sections of all religions have focused on the forging of vertical solidarities on the basis of religious identity which has continuously fed the competitive and symbiotic discourses of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ extremism in India. According to them this politics of religious difference (communalism) and inter-religious harmony (secularism) are two sides of the same coin and keep intact the hegemony of upper caste/class sections of all religious blocs by subverting the assertion of internal lower caste challenge and channelizing it into the fear of the religious Other. In striking contrast to this hegemonic politics of difference on religious lines the pasmanda sections have articulated a new politics of solidarity on caste lines that takes cue from the shared histories of humiliation of the lower castes across religions owing to the stigma attached with their occupations and location in the caste hierarchy. Indeed, the pasmanda discourse is now sedimenting and is influencing academic and popular opinion on the subject of communalism and secularism [See (K. A. Ansari 2011)]. For instance, in a recent essay one of the leading left historians opines thus:

The conception of secularism as religious harmony is based on a monolithic view of religion, which does not take into account the differentiation within it. Within each religion there are several cultural and social groups, between whom both contradictions and complementarities exist. […] The assumption of Indian secularism that the tensions arising out of religious pluralism can be overcome by harmony is unreal because of the cultural and social hierarchies that exist within religion. Because of the prevalence of these hierarchies, attempts to bring about religious harmony cannot cover all followers of any religion. The approach to secularism exclusively through inter-religious relations cannot lead to an abiding solution…The Indian form of secularism draws upon cultural plurality, which does not dissolve but accentuates differences and thus tends to undermine secularism. Integral to the concept of secularism, therefore, is cultural equality; so also are democracy and social justice. Without these three interrelated factors – equality, democracy and social justice – secularism cannot exist as a positive value in society (Panikkar 2012).

‘Mahadalit-MBC-Pasmanda’: The Emergence of a New Political Bloc

Overall, in the context of representative politics it is clear that of the three broader categories—SCs, OBCs and Minorities—a few caste groups within them have now been more-or-less adequately represented in the power structures. So caste groups like the Yadavs, Koeris or Kurmis in the OBC, the Jatavas or Paswans in the SC and the upper caste sections among the religious minorities (like the Syeds, Sheikhs, Mughals and Pathans among Muslims, Syrians and Saraswats among Christians, Jats and Khatris among Sikhs, etc.) have a fairly decent voice in the decision making processes. Broadly this has been a gain for the social justice movement in India. But these caste groups as we all know don’t add up to more than 30-35 castes of the total recognized castes numbering about 3000 according to most estimates. Consequently, the vast majority of lower caste groups that feel excluded have now begun organizing through the employment of new categories like the ‘Ati/Maha-Dalit’, ‘Extremely/Most Backward Classes (EBCs/MBCs)’ or ‘Pasmanda’ and are increasingly destabilizing the consensus that was achieved on social justice and minority rights during the initial scripting of the Indian Constitution and the administrative and social policy subsequently.

In fact, if the Mahadalit, MBC and the Pasmanda sections, which have a combined population of not less than 50% of India’s population, come together as a political block (henceforth, the New Bloc) they could create interesting ruptures in social justice politics and break the stagnation that has come to be identified with it at present. There is a strong possibility that if this New Bloc is able to form successfully it can create the necessary momentum and openings for launching the agenda of social and political reforms that have been completely side-tracked in the post-Lohia period due to the overemphasis on social engineering politics. Obviously, the key question is: which party at the moment appears ready to take cognizance of this New Bloc and ride on this fresh wave of social justice politics and thereby further deepen Indian democracy?

As we know these identities—Mahadalit, MBC and Pasmanda—owe their enactment to the social justice movement in the state of Bihar. While MBC was articulated by Karpoori Thakur in the late 1970s, Pasmanda was named by Ali Anwar in 1998 and Mahadalit was introduced by Baban Rawat around 2004. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that this bloc was appropriated first by a Bihar-based Party—the Nitish Kumar led JD (U)—which decimated its arch rival Laloo Yadav led RJD and ended his 15 years long regime in 2005 (A. Yadav 2011). It is now clear that the both the JD (U) and Congress Party are trying to employ this New Bloc in UP-2012 elections and probably across the country there onwards if the results turn out to be positive (Thakur, 2012; Jain, 2012). I would venture to posit that the recent announcement by the Congress Party to implement a 4.5% sub-quota for the backward classes amongst the minorities must be construed as a move in appropriating this New Bloc. However, having said that it must be remarked that the move by the Congress is not guided by subaltern interests but by an urge to come back to power in the Hindi belt by taking advantage of the internal contradictions within the dalit-OBC movement which have not been addressed by the mainstream lower caste parties like the BSP and SP so far. Interestingly a number of objections have been raised against the sub-quota, some legitimate and the others not. I would address these objections in the following sections.


Please read Part II of the paper here.


Works cited

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Yadav, Yogendra. “Rethinking Social Justice.” September 2009. (accessed January 20, 2012).

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—  “‘Muslim Quota’: Keep it Simple, Silly!” September 2, 2011. (accessed January 22, 2012).

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