CULTURE POLITICS AND IDENTITY
Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication
MANDAL COMMISSION - PERSISTENCE OF
CASTE IDENTITIES and RESERVATIONS IN
1. Akshay Ratan, student ID: 201101137, is pursuing Bachelor of Technology
(Information and Communication Technology) at DA-IICT, Gujarat.
Email ID: email@example.com
This research work is the end term paper for the course HM327 Culture Politics
Identity, Winter 2013-14 submitted to Prof. Madhumita Mazumdar.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Prof. Madhumita Mazumdar for
developing my interest in the course of Culture Politics Identity and giving us the
chance to theorize and apply the concepts of identity in any of the field which interests
us. Without her guidance, it would have been impossible to analyze the question of
caste-identities in the Indian society.
Further, I will be grateful to my colleagues Yognik Baghel, Divy Thakkar, Chinar Mehta ,
and Rakesh Rajak for insightful discussions regarding the topic as well as the course
and helping me theorize the pertinent questions on identity. They played an important
role in terms of my deeper engagement with the research topic.
I would also like to profusely thank my senior Sandeep Mertia for giving valuable tips
during the course of writing and Komal Jain for patiently reviewing my text specially for
I am indebted to my father, who with his immense experience of Government
Services, gave valuable insights on reservation system.
Affirmative Actions by a State are a set of policies to provide special opportunities
to a certain section of society, who have faced discrimination and socio-economic
oppression through large part of history. In India, this kind of positive discrimination
is implemented through reservations by government to improve the well-being of
backward and under-represented communities - defined by their caste. The aim of
this quota-based reservation system is to bring the beneficiaries in the mainstream
of the Indian society. The Indian constitution reserved 22.5% of the Government
jobs and slots in public universities for the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes.
Mandal Commission set up in 1979 by the Morarji Desai Government then
gave its recommendation to increase this exclusive access to 49.5% by including
those weaker sections of the society in the target groups which are identified as
The Mandal Commission was established with an aim to “identify the socially or
educationally backward”. It was chaired by the former chief minister of Bihar - B.P
Mandal. The commission used various methods and techniques to form eleven social,
economic and educational indicators to determine “backwardness”2. There has been a
lot of public debate and protest over the recommendations of the Commission.
This research paper aims to explore the question of reservations on the basis of caste
identity and how the Mandal Commission altered the identity politics in India. The
direction of my research is not in the technicalities and framework of the Mandal
Commission, but it theorizes the pertinent questions on caste identity and the
relevance of the affirmative actions in the stratified Indian society. Mandal
Commission went beyond the Hindu religion to identify the socially oppressed Muslim
and Christians too and gave rise to an altogether new identity which was beyond the
Further, I have tried to explore how in general reservations have reinforced the
identity politics in contemporary India also studying about the ramifications of
affirmative action in India on caste and backward identities from the point of view of
those who are the beneficiaries as well.
The line of action is a thorough literature review to theorize opinions on these issues.
2. The Constitution accords to these weaker sections of society protective
discrimination in various articles, including Article 15(4).
Affirmative Action in India
The origin of affirmative action in India dates from the British Colonial rule to remedy
the age old caste inequalities prevalent in the Indian society. In the adoption of the
new constitution, founding fathers had dual objectives with regard to the affirmative
actions for the greatly stratified Indian society. They wanted equality of opportunity for
everyone along with reducing inequalities to build a just and fair society. The Indian
constitution has rightly reinterpreted and enshrined the concepts of equality and
justice considering the specificities of the unique Indian social fabric. The term
‘equality’ means the absence of special privileges to any section of the society and
provision of equal opportunities to all without any kind of discrimination. There are
provisions2 in the constitution to achieve civic, political and economic equality. ‘Social
Justice’ denotes the equal treatment of all citizens without any social distinction based
on caste, colour, race, religion or sex.
The logic for affirmative action says that where a “certain criterion of merit”, even if it
is not intentionally discriminatory, works to the disproportionate exclusion of
minorities, the burden is on the defending organization to defend the policy in
proportion to its exclusionary effect (Lovell 1974).
Reservation is a quota-based affirmative action. After India gained independence in
1947, two lists of Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) were formed and
their protection was incorporated in Indian Constitution. Policy existed for a decade to
see what measures can be made without concreting the quantifiable factor to measure
it. The provision has since been renewed time after time.
It is within the ambit of our constitution that reservations on the basis of caste have
been encouraged. Positive discrimination aims at ensuring social justice, equality of
resources and equality of opportunities.
In this paper, I am going to address three very specific issues pertaining to the
affirmative action policies in India.
First, the question of backward class identity would be explored and how it has
affected Indian politics at large.
Second, I would come to details about how Mandal Commission gave rise to altogether
new and strong identities of so-called ‘backward’ Muslims and Christians.
Lastly, the whole complex picture of the need of reservations and its effects on the
identity of those who are entitled as well as the viewpoint of those who protest it, will
Article 340 of the Indian Constitution states that, “It is obligatory for the government
to promote the welfare of the Other Backward Classes.” This article provided the
legitimacy for setting up the Mandal Commission. Before that, adhering to the Article
340, Kala Kalelkar Commission was set up to identify socially and educationally
backward classes. Though there were some noteworthy recommendations forwarded
to the President by the Commission, it was not accepted by the Central Government
on the rationale of not deploying any objective tests to determine the backward
classes. There thus arose a need for a second commission.
With Morarji Desai as the Prime Minister, Janata Party Government officially set up the
second backward class mission on January 1, 1979 under the chairmanship of B.P.
Mandal 3. Their objectives were to determine the criteria for defining and advancing the
socially and educationally backward classes, to examine the provisions for the
reservation of posts in their favour and on that basis present a report. It submitted its
report in December 1980.
To identify the socially and educationally backward classes, eleven criteria 4 were
adopted which were categorized under social, educational and economic headings
having 3, 2 and 1 points respectively as the weightage. After the survey, all those
castes which scored more than 11 points (50%) or above by applying those eleven
criteria, were identified as socially and educationally backward classes. The new thing
had been the presence of economic value in determining the identity of the people.
The Commission used 1931 census data to come up to a figure of 52 percent of the
population of our nation to be OBC. The commission recommends a reservation of 27
percent for OBC’s resulting in a quota allotment of 49.5 percent in government jobs
and public universities.
3. Bindheshwari Prasad Mandal (1918–1982) was an Indian parliamentarian. He
was also the first OBC Chief Minister of Bihar during a period of intense political
instability. The Government of India issued a stamp in honour of Mandal in 2001. A
college named in his honour, B. P. Mandal Engineering College, was founded in 2007.
The recommendations were tabled after a decade in 1989 under V.P. Singh’s
government. Delhi became the center stage for all kinds of protests especially from
the upper caste Hindu students. They felt that their future was at stake. There were
protests all over with bandhs, dharnas and hartals as its various forms with many
students even self-immolating5 themselves. There was a great debate between the
anti-reservationists and the pro-reservationists and all the newspapers were flooded
with dissents and discussions on the preference of identity of caste and class over
merit. All this discussion became important in the contemporary politics because of
the fact that these agitations and debate gave rise to a new identity of backward
classes and since then the political discourse in India has undergone a reflective shift.
In wake of the anti-reservation protests, Mandal Commission recommendations gave
rise to counter-unity and mobilization among the OBC’s, and for the first time in social
history of India, they formed a common front to defend the reservations they were
entitled to. Quoting Marx,
“men make history, but only on basis of conditions which are not in their own
This definitive asserting of their identity and their abstract category of “OBC”, was
not primarily because of any substance from inside, but majorly under the
influence of the external conditions of dissent and by being pitted against the
upper caste. It is not a question of how to obtain identities and get recognized by
people around, but the real question is which identity to choose7.
Before I move on to analyze the whole essence of reservations and its complex picture in
context of a stratified society like that of India, I want to focus on the role identity plays in
Indian political scenarios.
Social polarization was bound to happen in this case. With the BJP withdrawing its support,
Janata Dal Government fell. As a slogan very popularly goes in Indian Elections, “Indians
do not cast their votes, they vote their castes”, OBC’s were bound to assert their identity
in terms of political leverage.
4. To know more about the details of these eleven criteria used by the Mandal
Commission, visit this link: 11 Criteria in Mandal Commission (Source: OBC
5. Two noteworthy self-immolators were Rajiv Goswami and Surinder Singh Chauhan.
6. Referenced from The Question of Cultural Identity, Stuart Hall
7. Referenced from Identity in the Globalizing World by Zygmunt Bauman
Almost all the parties including the mainstream Congress and BJP started fielding
candidates from backward classes. It is interesting to study how politics is largely affected
by different identities and how mainstream governance is put at the backbench when the
question of votes comes to the forefront. These bigger parties could have ignored the
power of the backward class identity at their own peril. This period saw the emergence of
small regional parties and the breakaways from Janata Dal which were based on the
mobilization of the backward classes like Lalu Prasad’s RJD , emergence of Mulayam Singh
Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and the politics on the ideology of Kanshi Ram. Post Mandal,
Indian politics got plebeianised, resulting in OBC’s and other low caste formations gaining
power in most of the North Indian states. Proportion of OBC elective representatives went
from 11 percent in 1984 to 25 percent in 1996 with the fall of upper caste elected
members from 47 percent to 35 percent 8 . The reason my research particularly deals with
Mandal Commission is precisely this : how Mandal Recommendations created history in
the process of identification of backward classes and how it inspired instant political action
in terms of class and caste mobilizations. It was nothing more than a collection of castes
Understanding identity in terms of affirmative actions which asserts political leverage is
very essential. The Mandal Commission recommendations gave a very specific route for
OBC’s. It was meant to empower and improve the socio-economic conditions of those who
satisfy the criteria of the Commission. This affirmative action might not have done much
change in this context; however, it had great political consequences. The existing genre of
upper caste politics changed with the rise of this new identity of the backward classes. The
post-Mandal period saw the rise of many new OBC leaders and Chief Ministers. Gradually,
this identity of backwardness, gave psychological encouragement to OBCs for greater
involvement in the decision-making too which was more or less the aim of the
I am not trying to gauge the technicalities of Mandal Commission and whether or not it
has been able to fulfill the objectives it set out to achieve. What my literature review does
is to analyze the effects of the recommendations the commission made on the questions
of caste and class. The discussions and protests made way to strengthened identity of
backward classes and reasserting of the recognition in a mobilized manner.
I discussed the Indian politics here because it is very important to bring out the role
identity plays in shaping the opinions of the people and the representation in the
government. It is very imperative for us to understand this politics of recognition of a
certain section of a society because it has the potential of changing the dynamics of the
future of the Nation- State. With the context of the Indian society, what remains to be
discussed at large is that whether the politics of governance can overpower the politics of
identity. It is interesting to observe that how campaigning has shifted its focus from other
issues to identity empowerment. A new paradigm of developmental politics needs to
come to the forefront however.
8. Data referenced from The Politics of OBC’s by Christophie Jaffrelot
There is one thing which is the crux of the relation between identity and politics this paper
is trying to explore in context of India – There are structural limitations of caste-based
political mobilization in Indian politics. We have to understand that identity politics is here
to stay as any party that relies on identity, caste, creed alone, even for the sake of
betterment of society and good governance, is bound to disseminate them.
Moving to the second important part of the realization of the identity debate in the Mandal
Commission recommendation and that is ‘Mandalisation of Muslim Politics in India’ 9.
It has actually transformed politics along the line of religious identity to caste identities
among the Muslims itself. The Mandal Commission Report had also included a number of
backward caste Muslims along with the Hindu backwards for the reservation allotment on
the basis of socio-economic-educational criteria the Commission set up. Dalit Muslim is the
concept which emerged after the Mandal Commission because of the consciousness of the
oppression by the socially lower class Muslims. There was a socio-political hegemony of
the Ashrafs (High-born Muslims) over the Ajlafs (low caste-born Muslims) and Arzals
( Dalit-born Muslims). There was a dissent arising against the feudal character of Muslim
socio-political dominance. Before getting into the insight of the identity question coming to
play, it is vital to understand the process of identification and existence of the concept of
caste in the generally termed egalitarian faith of Islam.
Muslims of foreign ancestry like Syeds, Turks, Moghuls, etc, who claim to be Ashrafs,
maintained social aloofness with the Pasmandas who were the Indian converts from
backward castes and untouchables of the Hindu caste system. Though these Pasmandas
constitute over 80% of the Muslim population, only the Ashrafs remained the
representative body of the Muslim Community. With the emergence of champions of
backward class politics like Lalu Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav, the political bond
between Hindu backward castes and Muslims strengthened which led to the awakening
and re-identification of the Pasmandas. To counter the Mandal Commission
recommendations, the Ashrafs launched a movement to declare the entire Muslim
Community as a backward caste for reservations. Most of the eminent representatives
were however belonging to the Ashraf category, and thus they decried the caste-based
division as a further fissure in their identity of the already marginalized Muslim community.
As a result, post-Mandal annals saw the emergence of number of backward Muslim caste
organizations to counter the Ashrafs. Their main contention was that if the entire Muslim
Community would be considered as backward, the Muslim upper caste would eat up the
representation and they would be left marginalized.
The famous slogan ran, “Dalit-pichhda ek samaan, Hindu ho ya Musalmaan” solidified the
identity of the backward castes across the religious lines.
9. Interpretations on this aspect of the identity are largely based on a popular essay of the
same name by R. Upadhyay.
This identity, recognition and mobilization of the Pasmandas too affected Indian politics in
the states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Nitish Kumar grasped this new awakening of the
Pasmandas, concentrated on Mandal Recommendations’ implementations and garnered
their support in winning the 2005 Bihar State Assembly elections. In 2005, Sachar
Committee was commissioned by the Prime Minister to report on social, educational and
economic conditions of the Muslims.
The recent outcome of the 2012 state assembly elections in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh
shows a huge change in Muslim Politics. Definitely, the political affinity of the backward
identities of Hindu and Muslims challenged the political hegemony of the Ashrafs besides
shifting the focus from religion based partisanship to that of a caste-based one.
Mandal Commission in itself should not be judged as successful or unsuccessful but in no
doubt it is historical, for it gave way for a great debate on reinforcement of caste-identities
extending it to Muslim and Christians. It is important to study about the Muslim
caste-based identity with reference to the Mandal Commission since it led to the churning
of the idea of egalitarian faith of Islam in India. India is a diverse nation with multiple
cultures, backgrounds and identities. To study the impacts or the relevance of any social
scheme, it is important to study the background and context of the problem with
reference to the Indian society which is genuinely complex. In a pluralist democracy like
India, the economic, political and social equalities are interwoven and we should accept
this reality and understand its implications. The role of the affirmative action is to give
equal opportunities to everyone, irrespective of faith, caste, creed etc. There is
fundamentally nothing wrong in extending the OBC quota to other faiths, and that is the
beauty of identity politics which asserts their unification by socio-political leverage.
“The Politics of Caste Identity”: So far this is concerned the mention may be made that
reservation is necessary in the lower caste people because the people who are living in
those sections are much more economically weak. (Dalmia, Vasudha; Sadana, Rashmi,
Public debate over this new identity of lower caste oppressed Muslims were very
necessary and it is important to mention that it is the Mandal Commission which propelled
the process of its formation.
When the British first introduced the reservation system in India, they were of the
perspective that the ‘majority’ communities would outplay the ‘minorities’ in the process
of democratic decentralization and thus steps should be taken for affirmative actions.
What are these majorities and the minorities? The argument which comes upon analyzing
the Mandal Commission and applying the ideals of Zygmunt Bauman is that identities
are never fixed. Mandal Commission apart from giving political identity to the backward
class Hindus also gave some food for thought for social restructuring of the Islamic faith in
the nation itself. Further, though it would not be covered in this paper in detail, is the
concept of ‘creamy layer’ and ‘non-creamy layer’ within the OBC10.
10. ‘Creamy Layer’ is used to describe certain members of the OBC who are wealthier and
better educated compared to others who are considered ‘non-creamy layer’.
Identity is indivisible yet fragmented - Analysis of this case leaves us to this
conclusion that Mandal Commission gave rise to an altogether new identity of the
backward class which in itself had so many assertive groups for their own benefit. It has
demarcations within itself which is mostly due to the fact that we have a large democracy
with multiple kinds of faiths and cultures present. The large umbrella of backward class
identity has within itself many sub-identities meant for socio-political representations.
Having discussed Mandal Commission and the relevant question of identity, it’s the right
time to discuss the whole issue of reservation system in the country with references of
Mandal Commission to enhance and specify our case.
This paper will try and explore the issues pertaining to reservation system discussing each
in depth with regard to the identity politics contextual to the unique Indian society.
The first major argument which the anti-reservationists talk about is that of merit versus
caste-birth. It is very common to hear people condemning the quotas citing that merit is
being sidelined and caste-based politics is being done which kills the talent of many young
students. But, it is to be understood that what we call ‘merit’ in a selective society is
actually a native privilege. A child from a backward family would not in any case be ‘equal’
to that from an advanced family. It is wrong to mark them with the same yard stick. The
masses should be at the same level since meritocracy without equality has no meaning.
With this quota system as a means of affirmative action, the Indian Constitution attempts
to give a head-start to the under-privileged masses.
However, there is much to think about. The intent of this kind of affirmative action
considering the ideals of equality is fine, but we must realize the kind of subjective society
we live in. Essentially, it is a very imbalanced society. It is easy to understand why there is
a need of reservation system and for whom it should be targeted to, but it is fairly difficult
to realize about its implementation on how a particular law seeks to rectify the social
practices deep rooted in the society.
The second issue with the reservation is also a very important one that needs light to be
shed upon. We consider reservations for the socially oppressed sections of society at the
higher education level and then at the employment level. It is good that we want to
rectify the historical wrong that was done on a particular section of the society, but we
must realize that it is very essential to improve our deliverance of education to the
deprived classes at a primary level.
“The fruits would be sweeter if the roots will be strong”
Reservations in higher institutions and jobs without strengthening the primary education
framework in the country would not help eradicate the problems faced by the deprived
classes. Taking the argument further, giving reservations at higher levels without a basic
skill set already developed would propel the anti-reservationists’ view of quality of
institutions going down because of affirmative actions.
A true change and real fruits of reservation would be tasted only when
affirmative actions are planned with real policy changes at the ground level,
better teaching facilities at primary level with a good infrastructure. The wheels
have already been set up by populist schemes like Mid-Day Meals and Sarva Shiksha
Abhiyaan and it lies on the State as to how things can be done better.
Mandal Commission is criticized for reinforcing caste-identities, let alone giving birth to
new ones. However for a democracy it is very essential that this regular churning of
identities take place so that no section of the society remains oppressed or without voice.
Identity politics does play a key role in giving voices to people. It is an agreed fact that
the mere representation of the backward classes in the political discourse and legislation
of the country cannot bring about a social transformation, but it does help the backward
class psychology to grow and let them feel more included in the governance of the
Reservation system in the current stages is largely viewed as a burden for the upper caste
students and employers. There have been numerous protests similar to that after Mandal
Commission recommendations. One such was when the legislation regarding the
reservations in promotions were contemplated during Mayawati’s rule in Uttar Pradesh. We
have all seen the upper caste anger against the reservations. We see common arguments
coming along the lines of merit, along the lines of institutions getting degraded in terms of
quality of education and work, in terms of the divisive nature of caste-based politics, in
terms of ideals of secularism being contradicted in the wake of religious minority
reservations and in terms of autonomy of the educational institutions getting lost.
However, efforts must be made to laud the positive aspects of the affirmative actions in
India along with understanding reservations and identity from the point of view of the
Reservations do provide for social justice to the most ostracized and the underprivileged,
and give them a chance to lead a better life, thus reducing caste-based discrimination to a
certain extent. Further we should not forget that reservation is not the final solution, it is
just one of the means in the aim of social justice and equality. Still most of the backward
caste is employed in jobs that require physical skills unlike the white-collar jobs oriented
towards mental skills. This disparity needs to be dealt in order to achieve the idea of
equality. We need to critically think about the cultural capital identity of these backward
castes people. There is a dearth of artists belonging to backward caste identities. A true
progressive society is one which does not have these kinds of longings.
The incident of being asked about one’s surname seems very mundane but it has a
potential to lead to a feeling of a stigmatized identity in a self-respecting Dalit
individual. 11 Thus, study of Dalit context has lot of scope in psychological aspect of the
backward caste identity. Based upon my constant interest in the reservation issue and
interaction with the backward castes acquaintances, I have framed this opinion that the
beneficiaries of the reservation system are happy with the fact that they are getting
privileges which they are entitled to, but at a deeper level or at some instances faced a
11. Referenced from International Society of Political Psychology (ISPP) Blog
As Charles Taylor writes in The Politics of Recognition,
“Misrecognition shows not just a lack of due respect. It can inflict a grievous wound,
saddling its victims with a crippling self-hatred. Due recognition is not just a courtesy we
owe people. It is a vital human need.”
It is very important for the society to not let the reservation system make the backward
caste identity that of the slurred one. During one of my interactions with a fellow backward
caste student in my institute, when a question was asked to him that what do you think is
the general take of backward castes students on the issue of quota, his reply was apt.
Interpretation leads to this that it is an individual identity first and since the adverse
conditions in which those students were brought up and the minimal exposure to
education makes that student feel a sense of human right towards reservations. It
definitely at a level strengthens and demarcates caste boundaries but in a deeply unequal
society like India, it is a necessary step.
The concept of reservation requires constant re-synthesizing to make it more holistic and
ample. The possible areas to ponder upon are the time frame of the reservations and the
pragmatics of its implementations.
There needs to be credible means to measure the changes the affirmative policies have
brought about in India. There might be several sections of society who no longer need the
reservations and there might be economically backward people in dire need of quotas to
be educated. What is imperative is to review the existing policies to fit in the social
context of India. Further, we need to understand that we cannot debate reservation
system in black and white. The picture is too complex since our society has great
inequalities and thus to take a hard line view on reservation without understanding the
grim realities of Indian society may be a big folly.
I have tried to understand the caste–based identity and the essence of affirmative action
in India through an in-depth literature review. Mandal Commission has been a historical
and one of the most significant events of post-colonial India which has shaped the
backward class identity and thus gave rise to an altogether new genre of Indian politics. I
have applied the concepts of Stuart Hall, Zygmunt Bauman and Charles Taylor to arrive at
the conclusion of the process of identification of an identity. Further, the paper discussed
at length how the identity plays a pivotal role in determining the course of politics of a
nation-state. In the end, key issues of caste-based reservation system are discussed from
both the point of view of the oppressed as well as the anti-reservationists.
Michael D. Barker. (2010). The Effect of Reservation on Caste Persistence in India
Unit 17. Identity Politics in India (Caste, Religion, Language and Ethnicity)
Ira Gang, Kunal Sen & Myeong-Su Yun. (2011). Was the Mandal Commission Right? .
Economic and Political Weekly
Jha, Trehan, Rao G., Vishwanath B., Sarin R. & Monga A. (2013) . Mandal Commission:
Equality and Liberty. International Research Journal of Social Sciences.
T Deane. (2009). A Commentary on the positive discrimination policy of India. SAFLII
Dr. S.K. Jangir. (2013). Reservation System and Indian Constitution-Special
Reference to MANDAL COMMISSION. American International Journal of
Research in Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Clark D. Cunningham. Affirmative Action: India’s Example. Global Views
Stuart Hall, The question of Cultural Identity
Zygmunt Bauman, The Identity in the Globalizing World
Thomas Erikesen. (2001). Ethnic Identity, national identity, and intergroup conflict: the
significance of Personal experiences
Humanities and Social Sciences Net Online
Alyssa Ayres. (2014) . Indian Politics : From Identity to Governance
The Indian Express Newspaper
The Hindu Newspaper
Antithesis of caste and class – An orthodox Marxist Hypothesis , Liberation (1994)
Recognition. (2013) . Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Mandal Commission Report, Simply Decoded