“May I ask,” T.T. Krishnamachari queried in the Constituent Assembly on November 30, 1948, “who are the backward class of citizens?” The Assembly was faced with the task of determining who were the groups deserving special protections and privileges other than the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs). TTK was quick to add, “It does not apply to a backward caste.”
In seven decades, the nation has failed to answer the question and it also willy-nilly blurred the distinction between caste and class. This failure is at the core of demands by several rich, powerful and dominant castes to be included as backward classes (BCs) to obtain the benefits of reservations.
The new NCBC
On April 10, Lok Sabha passed the 123rd amendment to the Constitution which will, when it becomes law, bring into being a ‘constitutional’ National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC). The current NCBC was created under an Act of Parliament in 1993. The new insertion into the Constitution (Article 338B) is identical to the Articles 338 and 338A that respectively created the national commission for SCs and another for STs. (The amendment also brings about changes to Articles 342 and 366.)
What the 123rd amendment amounts to is that the Union government has in one stroke brought BCs in league with the SC/STs as victims of discrimination, exclusion and violence. It not only is illogical and lacks historical justification, but is fraught with several challenges to the way India runs its welfare system. The move turns social justice on its head.
Interestingly, the government pushed this amendment on a war footing. All that it took was five days — from introduction to passage — which included the weekend. On a Wednesday the Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha which passed it the following Monday! If the government had had a reason to push the Bill so hard and fast, it’s not obvious to common folk. An opportunity has been wasted to reimagine the whole social justice architecture that is appropriate for 21st century India.
In fact, the new NCBC is a solution in search of the problem. It is bound to create more problems than it is capable of solving. One, on the task of identifying backward classes, the new entity will not even be expected to do the job. Hereafter Parliament will determine who is a BC for the ‘Central’ List. Two, since it has no responsibility to define backwardness, it cannot address the current challenge of well-off castes’ demands to be included as BCs.
Delinking Article 340
It may be recalled that TTK was speaking during the discussion on Article 340 which deals with the need to, inter alia, identify those “socially and educationally backward classes”, understand the conditions of their backwardness, and make recommendations to remove the difficulties they face.
The article stipulates the appointment of a commission to give effect to its provisions. This was the context for the appointment of two commissions (one headed by Kaka Kalelkar in the 1950s and the other by B.P. Mandal in the 1970s). Even the 1993 NCBC Act was based on this article.
The 123rd amendment delinks the whole folio of backward classes from Article 340 and brings it closer to provisions related to SC/STs. The main shortcoming of the current NCBC, according to the Union government, is that it has no power “to hear the grievances” of the BCs. Curiously, the SC commission has become the gold standard for those demanding the new NCBC. If the new body is as incompetent as its role model, the nation will be spared of a lot of avoidable problems.
The government initially proposed to set up the “National Commission for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes” which is — in nomenclature, at least — closer to Article 340. By retaining the old generic name of NCBC and delinking the body from its soul (Article 340), the government set the stage for the whole scheme of special protections under the Constitution to crumble.
Once the 123rd amendment becomes law, Article 340 will be dead without being accorded the dignity of a repeal. It will be a pity. The article reflects the Constituent Assembly’s understanding on the matter which is relevant even today: there are classes, not castes, which suffer from social and educational backwardness, and the state has the burden of allocating adequate funds to ameliorate their conditions. It stretches one’s credulity to accept that the article stipulates quotas and representation be extended to BCs.
Though Article 338B keeps the socially and educationally backward classes as its subject matter, in practice the proposed system will treat the developmental issues related to BCs on a par with caste discrimination and untouchability suffered by SCs and even by STs. The new NCBC will hear grievances, inquire into complaints, summon officials given its powers as a civil court, issue directions and have the right to be consulted by both Union and the States on policy matters related to BCs.
One is right to assume that BCs do face discrimination and exclusion and they deserve state support. Is there any justification to suppose, however, that their conditions are as bad as those faced by the SC/STs? The whole business of inquiries into complaints, safeguards, recording evidence, etc will result in the need to enact laws similar to the ones in existence for the protection of SC/STs. Have there been instances of BCs (Shudras) suffering violence/intimidation due to their caste? Are such instances, if they were taking place, widespread enough warranting special legislation and watchdog bodies?
This illogic will sooner than later degenerate into perversion. Consider a possibility: in case of an atrocity against SCs, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes intervenes as a guardian of their rights. It is not rare that in most atrocities SCs are pitted against Sudras (be they upper or lower). It is irrelevant whether it is an atrocity or a group clash, once an incident flares up two ‘constitutional’ national commissions will clash, each defending its wards.
A generation ago social justice was mistaken to be a new dawn for ‘weaker’ sections such as SC/STs, BCs and minorities to be united as one group of Indians with common interests and destiny. That project was dead on arrival, as its votaries lacked both intellectual honesty and policy imagination. Its new and more sinister variant seeks to smuggle BCs into the tent meant for SCs. An ill-defined need begets a monster which is sure to do more mischief than good.
D. Shyam Babu is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Views are personal