Revisiting Mandal protests, 20 years later
Mandal was a politician who was two times Member of Parliament in the Lok Sabha and also the Chief Minister of Bihar for 48 days. In 1979, the then Prime Minister Morarji Desai had assigned the job of exploring better civil rights to a five-member commission headed by Mandal. In 1980, he submitted his report advocating further caste-based reservation but it was only a decade later in 1990 that the incumbent prime-minister V.P. Singh decided to implement the report for its widely-perceived political gains.
I remember the day and the exact events. It was our physics class and I was talking to two of my friends about the day’s news regarding protests against the Mandal report in Delhi. The professor caught us chatting and asked us to leave the class, which we did happily. For next half-an-hour, we discussed what should be done and the first thing which occurred to us was that everyone should stand-up and protest against the attempt of the government to divide the society on the basis of caste. Being students, I recollect, we were also worried about the future prospects of having a decent job.
We decided to strike down and distributed among ourselves the tasks of getting the metal plate and the dong to bell, signalling the strike and to get all students out of their classes. Fortunately for us, the principal and the professors too were equally worried and offered little opposition to our plans. We locked the college gate; I stood atop the gate along with my two friends and explained to other students why we have called for a strike. Thereafter for the rest of the day we went to all other colleges of the area and forced them also to strike down till the time the Mandal proposals were withdrawn by the government.
The strike was complete for the next one week and the general public was also highly supportive. It had become a public movement. Financial contributions poured in from businessmen and others for organising protests, printing material etc. Till now, all strategies and tactics used by protesters were peaceful except for the occasional road blocks and a few incidents of train traffic disruption. There was no violence except some occasional reports of stone pelting. The protest was highly successful and it seemed like the government would recall its decision.
Since those were not the times of Google, the original text of the Mandal Commission report was not available to everyone. Fortunately, I managed a copy (which was at high premium). After reading it (that was the first government report which I read) with whatever little bit of understanding we had of law at that point of time, we became more furious. We thought the report was absolutely illogical and was nothing but nonsense.
The commission in 1979 had used highly deficient 1931 census data to calculate the number of Other Backward Class (OBCs) and that too on arbitrary and flimsy parameters. Assumptions of Mandal were even stranger. The castes which would fall in the category of OBC were selected on the basis of mutually-independent social, educational and economical parameters with the presumption that people belonging to any of the 11 broadly-identified criteria were oppressed because of their affiliation to some particular caste (and not poverty alone). Neither the hypothesis nor the rationale was ever tested. It was just plain assumption of a politician coming from Bihar who contested and won elections on the basis of caste divide.
The criterion was equally illogical. While on one hand Mandal mentioned that castes/classes where participation of females in work was at least 25 per cent above the state average should be considered OBC, the report also had a criterion that castes/classes where the average value of family assets was at least 25 per cent below the state average would qualify as OBC.
Castes also qualified as OBC for failure of the government to provide facilities. One of the selection parameter mentioned that castes/classes where the source of drinking water was beyond half a kilometer for more than 50 per cent of the households would qualify as OBC. Under the education based criterion, the report included people/villages based on the caste where the number of children between 5–15 years of age who never attended school was at least 25 per cent above the state average and also where the rate of student dropout in the age group of 5–15 years was at least 25 per cent above the state average.
Another strange qualification to become an OBC was if one belonged to a caste where at least 25 per cent females and 10 per cent males above the state average got married at an age below 17 years in rural areas and at least 10 per cent females and 5 per cent males do so in urban areas. Besides this one of the selection parameter remained “castes/classes considered as socially backward by others.” Who are “others” and how this would be identified was not defined. No scientific methodology was applied.
We felt that the whole rationale of the procedure adopted by the commission and the resulting report were only fit for the dustbin and no sane person could think of implementing such a report. I now realise that we had little understanding of the political games of the time under which it was planned to appease a different set of castes in different states. Mainly based on vote bank, the aim was to make these castes qualify as OBCs and therefore be eligible for jobs.
The Mandal report was understood by only a few. While those of us thought to be belonging to the ‘thinking kind’ were deliberating on all this and using peaceful means to protest, the politicians had started sabotaging the movement. On the hindsight, I realise it was all a well-crafted game plan. Within a week from the protests, the involvement of politicians increased in a covert manner. None of the political parties could come out against the Mandal report in the open for fear of losing the vote bank. However, they were keen on capitalising the anger and protests.
We were also looking for more support when a friend of mine (who, I now believe was affiliated through his parents to a political party) said that a local political worker of a national party, who was also a lawyer, feels for the cause and wants to support us. We were invited to his office and had secret meetings at his place on three consecutive evenings. During the third meeting, he suggested that this was not going to work and we should adopt violent means. Use petrol bombs, remove railway tracks and beat up a few policemen. I immediately protested and we had a long argument that evening. Most of us walked-out never to meet him again. No wonder, he now has a successful career as a Member of the Legislative Assembly from Haryana.
Desperate, depressed and disheartened, students were immolating themselves, a trend started by one of the protesters from Delhi. During that week, I lost one of my seniors and an associate to immolation. We were all disillusioned. Suddenly, violence started and the whole movement went out of our hands. Vehicles and buildings were put on fire by mobs, none of whom we could identify. There were new faces and newspaper reported statements of student leaders who were nowhere in the whole movement earlier. The movement was sabotaged by strategic political manipulation. The police resorted to firing on the slightest excuse even on peaceful demonstrations. Two more of our fellow comrades were killed in the indiscriminate police firing. Seven of my friends were arrested on charges of arsoning and looting (It took them seven years to prove their innocence). I know, they were randomly picked from the roadside while having a stroll. All leaders and protesters were either arrested or went underground. The movement was successfully suppressed and protesters neutralised by force.
We had lost. Politics of divide-and-rule was victorious. Mandal report got implemented. The logic that if a person is not educated and lacks opportunity no amount of reservation would benefit him found no takers in the political world. The cry that such caste-based reservation would never reach the bottom 25 per cent and would be usurped by the already well-established creamy layer was also brushed aside.
Now, over 20 years later we find ourselves back to square one. The OBC reservation helped nobody. The number of poor has increased, the divide between the rich and the poor has further widened. Even the politicians, who supported the caste divide in expectation of votes, did not gain much. On the contrary, the efficiency of the Nation has gone down drastically.
Today we again find ourselves on a similar cross-road. The government has started reservations in education and many other places, based solely on religion. The "minority quota” is again based on similar type of illogical and stupid assumptions.
When will our politicians realise that poverty has no caste or religion? Presumably by doing all this, they are trying to convey that greed too has no caste or religion.
Hemant Goswami is a social activist working on citizen rights, good governance and public health. He also heads civil society organisations Burning Brain Society and Citizens’ Voice besides being primary catalyst behind GOI Monitor.