Round Table India
You Are Reading
‘Twice-Born’ Riot against Democracy

‘Twice-Born’ Riot against Democracy

default image

Gail Omvedt

(First published in September 1990)

Any caste based reservation system, in this case the Mandal Commission, has to be judged in terms of what it can do and not in terms of what it is not supposed to do—and in this case its goal is the limited but important one of ending caste monopoly in public sector jobs.

WRITING on the Mandal Commission and the ‘caste war’ going on around it almost seems an exercise in futility. Opinion on the subject is so nearly totally predictable from caste status that the readiness of the masses of the people to believe any written arguments must be declining rapidly.

Can one convince dalits and Shudras (a term I consider more appropriate than ‘OBC’ for reasons that will become clear) by writing in a journal like EPW or in any English-language paper today? They themselves (particularly dalits) have already thought the issue through on a collective basis—historically, from 1917 onwards, the same caste-groups have been involved in the reservation debate and the same arguments have been used more or less as today—and the less politically-conscious Shudra sections of the northern states are rapidly learning also.

There is a war going on in the streets (and implicitly in the polling booths) and a war of words accompanying it in the press, showing the fundamental caste-divide in India between the ‘twice-born’ (perhaps the most accurate term for the upper three varnas, more popularly known as the Brahman-Bania-Thakur group) and the rest (which may be termed, to use Jotirao Phule’s language, as Shudras and ati-Shudras, or Bahujan and dalits), as well as the various sub-contradictions and ambiguities among these groups.

The twice-born outnumber the dalits and Shudras in the forums which produce the ‘war of words’, but the dalits and Shudras outnumber the twice-born in the streets and in the population as a whole; and this is what will be decisive in the end. About all that seems left to do, in the English language press, is to discuss with the twice-born what is going on.

Who is taking what side in the ideological battle? First, those who oppose the Mandal Commission are invariably the twice-born, the high castes and some connected ‘high-caste’ minority groups (those of the Brahman/Kshatriya/ Vaishya varnas plus Parsis, high-caste Christians, etc). Their caste-strategy, as we may call it, requires such opposition.

Second, a few of the twice-born, mostly those in the left or associated with mass struggles, are supporting the Mandal Commission or remaining neutral— one is even heading the implementation of the report. These, we may say, are going in opposition to their caste-strategy to identify with the oppressed and exploited castes, and their existence has to be noted because it represents one important thrust of democratic and secular elements in the system.

Third, there is a group of castes who are confused, because they could potentially be included in the castes listed in the Mandal Commission (and in some cases historically they have had reservations) but they are not included at present, or they are ambiguously included. Therefore, they can have two caste strategies, to oppose Mandal, or to argue for inclusion.

To oppose it aligns them with the twice-born, to argue for inclusion aligns them with the dalit-Shudra castes. (1 am referring here primarily to such Shudra peasant castes as the Jats, Kunbi-Marathas, Vokkaligas etc/but there is also the small but influential Kayastha category who were traditionally treated as Shudras in most places but whose orientation to service/mental work has aligned their interests with the twice-born).

Fourth, dalits and adivasis (specifically the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha) are supporting the Mandal Commission and are even ready to support widening its terms of reference, in spite of the fact that the Mandal Commission does not immediately benefit them, and in spite of the fact that the twice-born are using the name of dalits and the ‘truly backward’ to oppose the Mandal Commission on the grounds that it is extending reservations to “economically advanced” rural “dominant castes” who are the ones responsible for committing atrocities on dalits.

Dalits in fact are taking the battle for the Mandal Commission as their battle and in some cases at least seem to have-been more militant and organized on the issue than the fragmented and hierarchicised Shudras.(1)

The dalits are also taking this stand on the basis of a caste-strategy. That is, they are quite aware that twice-born opposition is not simply to ‘OBC reservations but to any kind of reservations, and that if they succeed in beating back the Shudras on this they will next move to push back the dalits. In addition, dalits want an alliance with the Shudras that will give them a solid and effective majority against the twice-born, whom they consider their main enemy. If one pays attention to statements of dalit leaders, this is clear.

In the words of Arun Kamble at a Vishamta Nirmulan Parishad in Kolhapur some years back: “We are 85 per cent of the population, we can be a ruling group. We don’t want dalitisthan; India should become dalitisthan.” Here ‘we’ clearly include dalits, adivasis, the balutedars or ‘OBC’ castes and the Maratha-Kunbi caste complex; in fact Kamble went on to call for a ‘kunbi-isation’ of the Marathas.

Kanshi Ram also uses the figure of 85 per cent to identify the ‘bahujans’ whom his party claims to represent, and his slogan draws the line clearly: brahman, bania, thakur cor; baki sab DS-4. (2) And he has been making some interesting alliances in these terms recently, first with Mulayam Yadav against Tikait (dalits + Yadavas against Jats, who are the most ambivalent element in the ‘bahujan’ category) then with Devi Lai (dalits and Jats versus the brahman-bourgeois combine; Kanshi Ram’s language was more that of a caste-alliance which depicted V P Singh, the Thakur, as the main enemy; whereas Devi Lal’s was more ‘class-based in appealing to the rural sector against urban capitalists. But there was enough of an overlap to produce the alliance).

Political party positions are almost equally predictable in terms of caste strategy. BJP is in the most helpless position because its rhetoric of Hindu unity is getting disproved in practice by the struggle and because while it wants to appeal to the masses it cannot go against its Brahman leadership very much.

The Congress is in almost equally bad shape, as the main party of the bourgeois-brahman combine which has tried to build an electoral base on an appeal to dalits and adivasis (or the ‘rural poor’) against most of the Shudras (the middle peasants) and now finds this strategy getting refuted in practice; the somersaults of the Congress indicate its dilemma and its apparent involvement in provoking conflict in many areas indicate its cynicism regarding the nation whose integrity it claims to be the best upholder of.

The Janata Dal is also a bit divided but is most solidly with the Mandal Commission due to its strong Shudra element. The Communist left has brahmanic leadership and its traditional Marxist ideology has not helped it to understand or appreciate the issue very well, but its main base among Shudras and dalits generally puts it on their side and on the side of the Mandal Commission.

In all these parties there is a predictable internal division falling along caste lines, and in all cases arguments about ‘economic criteria’ are being used to confuse the issue and advance twice-born interests (this is not to say that the issue of economic exploitation is irrelevant; it is very much relevant; only that the particular appeal to ‘economic factors’ made in the case of the Mandal Commission is invariably a smokescreen).

One almost feels it is not necessary to write. Dalits and Shudras have been mostly sitting it out watching upper-caste students getting killed in battling the police because they know that they are a majority and will have their day, and that in the end the twice-born cannot defend themselves against the united Shudras and dalits. Their most astute leaders are telling them so.

There is some bloodshed going on, and any bloodshed is tragic, but for a country the size of India, with such intense interests involved, with 2,000 years of domination (and violence) of the upper-castes to have a reckoning with, there is a relatively low level of violence.

There is nothing like the ‘civil war’ that some of the hysterical English-language press reports are talking about. And, this particular episode of the caste war is not “dividing the nation”—it has been twice-born, particularly brahmanic, centralist and Hinduising strategies that have had the most effect at dividing the nation, and the dalits and Shudras have a better strategy for uniting India than the twice-born and a better understanding of what exactly India is.

Finally, it may be that the biggest immediate gain for the overall progressive movement from this battle over the Mandal Commission will be that it becomes much more difficult after this to organize an agitation on Ramjanma-bhoomi.

The twice-born of northern India will be exhausted after their current outburst and can hardly fight alone in Ayodhya and it will be very hard for them after this to rally Shudras behind them when it is so clear that Hindus are not ‘one’ With Bal Thackeray opposing the Mandal Commission and Chhagan Bhujbal and others supporting it, the caste division in Shiv Sena has also become clear. The fundamental contradiction of the Hindutva ideology—its brahmanism versus its attempts to get a mass base—is being exposed.


With this mind, it is still worth going into some of the issues involved. What is the Mandal Commission all about? Its cutting edge, after all, is caste-based reservations.

Though we hear a lot of talk about economic criteria and the “socially and economically backward”, the historical process involved has been one in which non-Brahman and dalit castes have asked for reservations to overcome twice-born monopoly of jobs; the upper-castes have resisted this and have used economic criteria as a way of avoiding dealing with caste and have succeeded in imposing economic criteria from above on various state-level programmes and on the Mandal Commission itself from the 1960s onward. (3)

There was never a separate movement of the poor (or organizations of workers and peasants) for ‘economic’ reservations; the issue has been that of caste.

Here we should be clear about what caste-based reservations can and cannot do. Caste-based reservations cannot remove poverty, cannot end economic exploitation; they cannot “uplift the poor” They can only make some of the poor non-poor. (It has to be stressed that this is also true for reservations based on economic criteria, which is why the class organizations of the poor have never demanded them).

What they can do is end the caste-monopoly of organized sector jobs, especially of the public sector. This is a caste monopoly of the twice-born, most predominantly Brahmans, and as many have pointed out, including S S Gill, secretary of the Mandal Commission, it is a caste monopoly that has arisen out of a heritage of thousands of years of caste reservation in India in which Shudras and ati-Shudras were forbidden access to power, wealth and status. (4)

Destroying or lessening this caste-monopoly helps to create a middle class section among castes that are largely poor—a fact that is sometimes used as a charge against caste reservations, but in fact it is inevitable and progressive to the extent that it breaks up the correlation of ‘caste and class’. This itself will not end casteism but it may be a necessary condition for doing so.

A programme to end economic exploitation and reduce/abolish poverty must be a different one—it is necessary to take up such a programme along with caste-based reservations, but it does not negate their value, and caste reservations themselves will tend to aid, indirectly, the process of fighting economic exploitation.

In other words, any caste-based reservations system, in this case that of the Mandal Commission, has to be judged in terms of what it can do and not in terms of what it is not supposed to do—and in this case its goal is the limited but important one of ending caste monopoly in public sector jobs.

What after all are we talking about? Public sector employment, and the education that is a channel or entry card to such employment. Now the whole of the organised sector represents not more than 10 per cent of the Indian workforce; of this the public sector is about 2/3, so we are talking of at the most 7 per cent of the employment available in the entire country, not more.

Of course, this 7 per cent is a highly privileged sector. According to a 1981 statistical estimates the average income of public sector employees stood at Rs 10,643, while cultivators had an average income of Rs 3,000, agricultural labourers of Rs 1,703 and unorganised sector wage labourers of Rs 4,871.5

It should be clear why no one has been asking for reservation in agricultural employment or in unorganized sector jobs. It should also be clear why the “educated unemployment” in this country is not a true unemployment; the educated youth wandering the village and city streets today could get work as common labourers or add their labour to the family farm, but they prefer not to, and their families will themselves work supporting the idleness of the youth, for reasons that seem even rational—not much economic gain will come from unorganised sector work, but once the golden apple of organised sector employment has fallen into his hands, his future and to some extent that of his family is assured.

Seven per cent—and any talk of ‘job creation1 by the government or private sector at this level is an illusion employment at such high levels of use of resources cannot be extended in any significant way. Most of the talk of ‘right to work’ also seems to ignore this fact; whatever work can be provided—without fundamental changes in the entire path of development—on a ‘universal’ basis can only be unorganised sector labouring jobs, ie down there on the level of the agricultural labourer and the EGS worker. And nobody in their right mind really wants such jobs, if they have any alternative.

The real means to reduce poverty and move towards equality and affluence is to have a strategy for reducing the gap between the organised and unorganised sector, and to bring up the unorganised sector as a whole, (I am using rather unMarx-ist language here, and we could as easily talk of ‘exploitation’, but it has to be remembered that the same issues regarding price ratios between industry and agriculture, or how quickly and in what direction land reform can be pushed, not to mention caste reservations as such, will have to be faced by any group of revolutionaries ‘seizing power’).

Debates about how to do this are going on and various means are being suggested, from right to work to land reform to remunerative prices to a combination of strategies.

Without going into the issue here, it can be noted that the debates are related and the controversies of the ‘new agricultural policy’ and ‘new industrial policy’ ace relevant and connected to the Mandal Commission ‘caste war’. It is not accidental, probably, that just as there is a concerted and at times hysterical outcry in the English language press over caste reservations, focusing on the charge that the ‘economically advanced’ ‘dominant castes’ will gain from the Mandal programme, so there is an equally concerted ideological charge against the ‘kulak lobby’ from very similar sources.

It is also not accidental that the same elite (and the English language press) is divided over the new industrial policy which for the most part looks like a quarrel between its private capital and bureaucratic capital factions. In any case, while programmes for abolishing poverty are taken up, as long as a gap between the organised and unorganised sector remains it is not unreasonable to demand that the caste monopoly of jobs in the public sector be reduced and that we move towards abolishing it completely.

This is a broad democratic demand, a matter of simple justice.


In concrete terms, a caste monopoly can be defined as the difference between the percentage of government jobs held by a caste-category, and its proportion of the population. Prior to independence this was very high, especially for Brahmans.

Since independence, accurate information has simply not been available since caste statistics are not recorded—the censuses take data only on SCs and STs; there are few studies down of higher-level employment (as contrasted, say, to caste studies of villages) and even these tend to record only SCs, STs and ‘other Hindus’. This allows the monopoly of the twice-born castes to lie hidden among the broad ‘other’ section and gives no information about the various Shudra groups.

But there are scattered indications. For instance, one dalit source has given the statistics that in 1981 Brahmans were 48 per cent of the Lok Sabha, 36 per cent of the Rajya Sabha, 50 per cent of governors and lieutenant governors, 54 per cent of secretaries to the former, 53 per cent of union secretaries, 54 per cent of chief secretaries, 70 per cent of private secretaries to ministers, 62 per cent of joint and additional secretaries, 51 per cent of vice chancellors, 56 per cent of Supreme Court judges, 50 per cent of high court judges and additional judges, 41 per cent of ambassadors, 57 per cent of chief executives of Central Public Undertakings and 82 per cent of chief executives of State Public Undertakings. (6)

These figures, if valid, are of course quite high. But that is not the only point. The point is, that if Brahmans represent around, say, 30 per cent’ of all government employees (that is, 30 per cent of the 7 per cent), the proportion of Brahmans in the workforce having such public sector jobs would be about 40 per cent (if we assume Brahmans to be about 5 per cent of the total population) and that is a good deal. If there were no caste monopoly—or if there were universal reservation (i e, reservation of all varna categories by proportion of the population) this figure would go down to 7 per cent.

In other words, Brahmans stand to lose a great deal at least in the short run, and they are being pushed in this direction by the reservation demands, and that is obviously why they are so upset. The same is true, to a lesser degree of the other twice-born (Thakurs and Banias) and of other small categories (Parsis, Kayasthas, high-caste Christians as opposed to Dalit Christians, etc).

What about dalits and Shudras at the other end of the scale? Obviously, the trend of their movement along the path of breaking the caste monopoly will be to go from nearly nothing or only a very low representation (i e, one to two per cent of them having government employment) up to 7 per cent.

SCs and STs have had reservation for a fairly long period of time; the STs have hardly been able to take advantage of them but the SCs have, and they are gradually moving up. For instance, the figures for 1982 show that the SCs, with 16.67 per cent of the total population, were 15.8 per cent of employees in central government service-*23.4I per cent of Class IV, 13.39 per cent of Class III, 9.02 per cent of Class II and 5.49 per cent of Class I. (7)

It has been estimated by Lelah Dushkin, a US sociologist who has studied the subject closely, that possibly one to 1½ million have white collar government service (positions in Class II and III) and this with the administrative level cadre she considers enough of a ‘critical mass? to have some effect (8) that is, it helps the dalit middle class to constitute itself; it produces a weighty political force; and having access to some white-collar help or caste-fellows in the bureaucracy provides some relief to the rural dalit poor. Dushkin also argues that reservations and other preferential schemes have had very little impact on the rural poor among dalits, and that where government schemes have had some impact these have been the general programmes (such as state-supported education) aimed at providing services to the poor of all castes. (9)

But if reservations don’t directly help the rural poor this flows from the nature of reservations themselves, i.e., the limited and elite nature of public sector jobs— that is, that while dalits may move towards proportionality in terms of representation in government service, they can never go very much beyond 7 per cent in terms of representation of the broader dalit castes.

At the beginning of reservations where only a small percentage of dalits have education to qualify for such jobs this does not matter much, but as education spreads, the competition for the reserved seats themselves grows, the issue of their getting monopolized by some castes or sub-castes within the broader dalit section emerges, and the dalit middle class tends to close itself off from the broader population—in other words, it becomes more and more clear that reservations do not solve the basic problems of poverty and economic exploitation.

Further, as this process happens, the ‘merit’ argument also tends to resolve itself. As education, Consciousness and organization spread and competition for reserved scats also grows, the gap between the marks required for ‘open’ and ‘reserved’ seats goes down, and with only 7 per cent able to get the jobs, competition will in any case be there.

Of course, there are many other responses to the gloomy and sometimes hysterical pictures drawn of an increasingly incompetent professional/ bureaucratic elite—that there is sufficient cheating and buying of positions in the ‘open’ categories anyway, that even honest marks in exams in an educational system based on passive memorizing and regurgitating give inadequate evidence of capabilities for real work. Generally it may be argued that peasants and workers themselves will protect ‘standards’ in educational systems that seem relevant to them. (10)

A word about ‘economic criteria’. I have tended to argue against them. We have some evidence that where ‘social-economic backwardness’ replaces a caste criteria the twice-born tend to re-establish their caste monopoly within the reserved quota since it is so easy to get a false certificate.(11)

But we have to recognize that even if ‘economic criteria’ could be applied in some fair matter, they would not end poverty any more than caste reservations could end poverty as long as the gap between the organised and unorganized sector remains; they would only ensure a rotation of jobs; somewhat of a creation of a ‘meritocracy’ This might in itself be desirable; but a meritocratic elite is not the same as an equalitarian society.

What is currently going on in debates about ‘economic criteria’? We hear the question, what about the boy (why not girl?) from a poor Brahman family? Doesn’t he deserve reservation more than the boy from a wealthy dalit or ‘backward’ family? In my view, the question is a bogus one. If by justice the boy from a poor Brahman family should displace anyone, he should displace the boy from the rich Brahman family, while a boy or girl from a poor dalit family should displace the rich of his/her own caste. If criteria are to be applied at all, they should be applied universally (i e, to the so-called ‘open’ sector as well as to the reserved quota).

And in fact, some of the debate on the ‘economic criteria’ is getting expressed in these terms. The upper-caste position has been that either “economic criteria’ should be applied instead of caste criteria in the reserved quota (which would mean, paradigmatically, that a poor Brahman boy would displace a better-off dalit/ Shudra applicant) or that they should be added to caste criteria in the reserved quota (which, if they were honestly applied, would mean that reserved quota candidates would come from poorer families without a tradition of education, while the richer upper-caste families in the ‘open’ quota would continue to dominate).

V P Singh gave a reply to this on August 27 when he proposed that there should be an added category of ‘economically backward’ which would cut into the ‘open’ sector (which would mean, paradigmatically, a poor Brahman boy displacing a richer Brahman boy). The lines of opinion on the interpretation of ‘economic criteria’ are as predictable as on the whole issue of reservation.


The movement for reservations has, over the years, pushed for including more and more of the castes in the ‘Shudra’ category among those claiming reservations and for claiming a greater and greater proportion of seats as reserved; the upper castes have been desperately trying to hold this back. In fact, the reservation movement is in the direction of proposing universal reservations, in which each varna or major caste-cluster would have reservations according to population— and while this is horrifying to many (Brahmans having only 3½ per cent seats?) it is in many ways both logical and just.

In a system of universal reservations, there could be broad varna categories (I) Brahman, Kshatriya,, Vaishya (these could be subdivided if those involved wish so); (2) Shudra (this category should be subdivided into the two relatively large category of the ‘upper’ or peasant-caste Shudras, and the rest); (3) Dalit; and (4) Adivasi, with separate categories for the major minorities subdivided if the majority of these minorities wish so. It would also be logical and just to give 50 per cent of each category to women, with, if one wants, a proviso that these should not be from the same family as men getting jobs.

The first category would have about 15 per cent or less in a system of universal reservations (which is why dalit leaders talk of the 85 per cent). At present, we are moving towards a system in which categories 2 and 3 have 50 per cent (less than their actual proportion in the population) while the first category continues to dominate the remaining 50 per cent, probably mostly at the expense of the minorities.

But there is no particular logic to having 50 per cent ‘open’ except that a Supreme Court decision has said so; ie, the same logic of building equality in the face of caste discrimination and caste monopoly that justifies reservations according to population for SCs and STs also justifies them for all Shudras. If there were no caste monopoly, if caste did not exist as a sociological fact, or, if ‘caste divisions’ were really only divisions between groups of more or less equal status, then the percentage of members of a caste-cluster holding the most privileged government jobs would be about what universal reservations would give them, i e, 7 per cent.

In any case, once the principle of reservation is decided upon, the task of deciding which caste-groups (jatis or local units of jatis) fit in which category becomes a technical one, and this is where the question of ‘expertise’ and census/ survey statistics becomes relevant. The Mandal Commission is currently criticized for being sloppy, for making outrageous mistakes and inconsistencies regarding the classification of many castes.

But it is noteworthy that the three ‘experts’ who have dissociated themselves from the commission—M N Srinivas, B K Roy-Burman and Yogendra Singh—appear not simply to question the criteria of inclusion but the very principle of reservation on a caste bask itself. This is certainly true of Srinivas, whose writings on the issue reproduce all the tired clichés of any anti-reservation polemic. (11)

This is not to say that the Mandal Commission did not make mistakes, but it was after all trying to make some compromise with economic criteria and a survey by one commission, however expert the people may be, will always have its limitations in a country the size of India. Without taking up caste again in the census, we will not have very accurate overall, national-level data on the broad categories.

But it is still not, after all, very difficult to decide which caste-groups belong in which broad category. There is no need for an elaborate social science survey at the district level, for instance; local people know who is who. The final decision about inclusion could be taken by a three-member panel at the district level, consisting of one dalit, one Shudra-caste and one twice-born caste member. This should ensure as much objectivity and fairness as is possible.


It really is astonishing to read world-known sociologists like M N Srinivas and Andre Beteille write as if caste as a social reality did not exist, as if only the political use of caste were perpetuating it, and as if reservations themselves were creating a division. Srinivas writes, “with the reservation system we are fast moving away from the equalitarian society which our Constitution enshrined as an ideal”; Beteille writes, “caste has no function today except in politics”. (12)

Such ‘analyses’ are only likely to discredit intellectuals, for they fit into the common experience that Brahmans and others of the elite always tend to deny (especially to ‘outsiders’ or before any official bodies) that caste exists as an important social reality in India, when every middle and low-caste person, anyone living in this country for that matter, knows that it permeates life at all levels.

When in Lok Sabha discussions Rajiv Gandhi in a long tirade against V P Singh’s policy accused him of maintaining casteism, Sharad Yadav rose to ask if any in the house (aside from Gandhi) had made an intercalate marriage; no hand was raised. (13)

The basic reply of pro-reservationists to those who charge that reservations perpetuate casteism is simple: they only bring into the realm of consciousness and public action a caste hierarchy that already exists. The first prerequisite, after all, of acting to end an injustice is to admit its existence; one cannot thereby accuse the admission of existence of itself being an injustice.

Nevertheless, it is true that caste reservations—and the process of having to produce certificates—do constantly keep the issue in a person’s consciousness. This should be compensated for by an overall process of reducing the importance of the sphere of life in which caste is relevant, and building as many spheres of life as possible in which caste does not matter.

We should remember there is still a 90 per cent ‘open’ sphere of the economy; this should be opened up further where caste barriers do operate (e g, where dalits tend not to have the ‘tradition’ for farming as well as being landless) and at the same time we should move in the direction of reducing the organised-unorganised sector gap, making agriculture more profitable relative to service, etc. Social life should be opened up—ie, interdining and intermarriage.

A ‘new caste’ or community of those struggling for social justice has to be genuinely built. It should be remembered that if there is truly action against economic exploitation and political domination—towards reducing the organised-unorganized sector gap, towards changing the economic system that makes a government job so valuable, towards reducing the power of the bureaucracy—the ability of reservations in the public sector to perpetuate anything will become much less salient.

Finally, any system of political intervention on caste should provide for the process of that system socially withering away. With the caste system, this begins to happen when there is so much intermarriage, for whatever reasons, that children can hardly identify their ‘caste’ membership. This can be easily provided for even within a quota system of universal reservations. Let there be one category for those who are products of inter-category marriages. This would be the true ‘open’ quota, and its proportion could even be kept a few percentage points ahead of the actual (estimated) proportion of such ‘non-caste’ people in the population to provide some incentive. As and when the ‘caste divide’ truly withers away, this category will, over the years, grow and eventually swamp the rest—a testimony to the creation of a truly caste-less India.


‘Democracy is the name of the game in the world today’, we frequently hear—and in fact, from South Africa to Nicaragua to eastern Europe, reactionaries and revolutionaries alike are being forced to take majorities into account. The democratic upsurge is uneven, at points ambiguous, and it is causing a lot of heart-rending to some of the pre-existing concepts of socialism and how to reach it; but in so many ways people are on the move, and the democratic challenge is also reducing the freedom of manoeuvre of the worst exploiters, US imperialism.

Democracy for the exploited and oppressed means not simply formal political democracy, but also economic well-being and the bringing forward of all the forms in which their oppression is articulated-such as gender, nationality, race, and, in India, caste Movements to break the caste monopoly are a part of the broad democratic upsurge in the world today, in which the dalit and Shudra alliance is finally making a claim for power at the national level in India.

M N Srinivas has argued that caste reservations are responsible for a permanent ‘brain drain’: “It is painful to see teenagers leaving the country in hordes. They seek and obtain admission to the best American universities and in the process, we lose the best brains… This is happening because of the reservation system”. (14)

Aside from the arrogant implication that there is no genius or political sagacity left in India, as someone coming the other way I frankly doubt that reservations make much difference: people seem to be going abroad when and as they can for about the same reason those who stay in India seek organised sector jobs.

But to the extent that the twice-born go abroad at a disproportionate rate, the process may benefit both countries. Over there, they can learn what racist discrimination means; the best of them will come back and the rest can be part of a process of pushing for a ‘majority of colour’ in the US.

As Daya Pawar has written in an early poem, ‘You wrote from Los Angeles’:

“In the stores here, in hotels, about the streets,

Indians and curs are measured with the same yardstick

‘Niggers’, ‘Blacks!’ This the abuse they fling me

And deep in my heart a thousand scorpions sting me!

Reading all this, I felt so damn good!

Now you’ve had a taste of what we’ve suffered

In this country from generation to generation…”

The truth is that the issues of the reservation system in India are reproduced in the US in regard to white domination (and there are disparities among non-white groups similar to those about Shudras and dalits, though without the clear hierarchy); the same arguments that are made about reservations in India can be heard regarding the much milder system of ‘Affirmative action’ in the US. The difference is that whites have had a much more solid majority. But this is vanishing; it is now predicted that by the year 200G a frail non-white majority will emerge in the US.

And as this majority grows, their demands for democracy will gather force, the question of really recognizing the value of cultural disparities will be pushed forward and such issues as reservation/ affirmative action will come up as part of the broader sight against exploitation. The movement of breaking down the old monopolies of race, nationality, gender, caste is a powerful democratic movement in the world today, and for all its ebbs and flows, all its unevenness and ambiguities, is unstoppable. We way even say, to extend Arun Kamble’s call, that the whole world shall become dalitisthan.


1. Ambedkar made a point of this in 1940 when he told a meeting of Kunbis at Mahad, “it seems that in Maharashtra at least, it is only Mahars and Brahmans who understand polities’—and appealed to the Kunbis to think about their caste interests and not join the “Brahman-bourgeois-dominated” Congress; see Janata March 30,1940.

2. See Sunday Observer, August 12, 1990.

3. See Marc Galantar, ‘Who Are the Other Backward Classes’, Economic and Political Weekly, October 28, 1978. Galantar’s account makes it clear that the heavy domination of Brahmans in the academic world and the bureaucracy affected this imposition: “By the beginning of the 1960s the tide was running strongly against definition of the Backward Classes by community. Opposition within the government was augmented by criticism from academics [M N Srinivas is cited here as a leading authority] and much of the national press, who voiced a common suspicion of the caste criterion. For the first time since 1951 a court intervened to strike down a scheme for Backward Classes in a decision widely acclaimed as a blow at casteism…

While a casteless and classless society’ remained the avowed aim of the Congress and a wide section of the intelligentsia, there had been a subtle shift in notions of how this aim was to be pursued.. . The notion of caste differentials as themselves a significant form of inequality deserving of special government attention gave way to a notion that the salient differences were economic; specific redistributive measures directed at caste differences were not necessary, since overall development would raise the general level…

The withdrawal of the central government from involvement in preferences for the Other Backward Classes was confirmed by the omission of any pro vision for them in the central sector of the Third Five-Year Plan… The central government’s campaign for economic criteria in the states was given added impetus by the … intervention of the Supreme Court.,.

In September 1962 the Supreme Court struck down the Mysore Backward Classes list, whose defects included exclusive reliance on caste standing as a measure of backwardness, adding the onus of constitutional disrepute to the caste criterion. The court’s judgment, which warmly recommended economic tests, was widely acclaim-ed…” (p 1819).

It is clear that the public opinion forums alluded to here covered only a very narrow sector of the Indian population. “Widely acclaimed” (by whom?); “notions” (among whom?) Who are the academics? Who sits on the Planning Commission? Who heads and sits on the various caste commissions evidently is a sociologically significant fact.

Galantar also notes Nehru’s “extraordinary reticence about using the word ‘caste'” (n 59).

4. S S Gill, ‘Mandal: Myth of Merit and Equity; Times of India, September 4, 1990

5. Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy, Basic Statistics and the Indian Economy, 1987,. Volume I, Table 10.1.

6. Dalit Voice, December 1-15, 1989. The Lok Sabha figures are difficult to accept, though the others seem quite likely.

7. CMIE, Bask Statistics, 1987, Volume I, Table 1.8D.

8. Lelah Dushkin, Equalising Opportunities in India—with Reservations, Paper presented at Conference on Minority Strategies Comparative Perspectives, New York, November 11, 1985. See also Dushkin, ‘Backward Class Benefits and Social Class in India, 1920-1970’, EPW, April 7, 1979.

9. Ibid, pp 6-8.

10. A story from Maharashtra will indicate this. In 1987 peasants of Khanapur taluka in Sangli district held a demonstration under the leadership of Mukti Sangarsh against their local university, Shivaji University at Kolhapur, demanding that the university do research on the causes of drought and its eradication, “or else we ourselves will go into the library and do research”.

Following this, relations actually improved between the university and its connected colleges and the Mukti Sangarsh Movement; students on the National Service Scheme took part in anti-drought activities, a university committee was set up, and a new vice-chancellor, K G Pawar, an eminent geologist, associated himself with this support.

This year (August 1990) a group of Bihari engineering students at a capitation-fee college demanded that they be allowed to pass even with less than 50 per cent marks, and started an Indefinite fast’ that included some very vicious language threatening university authorities and the vice-chancellor (“Who is he? My chaprasi makes more money than he does! We’ll tear him to pieces”).

Mukti Sangarsh activists and peasants took the lead in rallying local students against such an ‘anti-educational’ demand; the Biharis literally ran away.

11. After the Supreme Court decision of 1962, Karnataka adopted a non-caste income/ occupation criterion of backwardness; in 1963 Brahmans (3 ½ per cent of the population) got 36 per cent of the admission to engineering colleges in ‘merit* and 15.5 per cent of the seats reserved for ‘socially and educationally backward’, Dushkin, Equalising Opportunities… p 14.

12. Srinivas, ‘End of the Egalitarian Dream’, Sunday Observer, August 12,1990; see also Times of India, September 6, 1990.

13. Srinivas, op cit; Andre Beteille, ‘Caste and Polities’, Times of India, September II, 1990.

14. See Vasant Bhosle’s report in Kesari, September 11, 1990 page 2 (in Marathi).

15. Translated from Marathi by Graham Smith in Vagartha, January 1976, No 12, introduction by Eleanor Zelliot, September 15, 1990

[Courtesy: Economic and Political Weekly, September 29, 1990]