Indian Constitution provides reservation for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes which are weaker sections of the population. The demands for a similar provision for castes other than the scheduled castes and tribes, which are educationally and socially backward, have been raised.
However, the category of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) mentioned in the Indian Constitution is only in the most general terms. There is no all India list for the other backward classes.
The Backward Classes Commission was set up in 1953 under the Chairmanship of Kaka Kalelkar with a view to decide the criterion on the basis of which socially and educationally backward classes could be identified. The Commission was of the view that the majority of the backward classes are ignorant, illiterate and poor. The recommendation of the Commission was not accepted as authoritative by the Government and hence its recommendation was not implemented. Since then, the State Govt. has been permitted to use their own criteria in drawing up the lists of the other backward classes. Some States made some provision for the other backward classes. In states where no provision was made for other backward classes, the demand for reservation of the backward castes took the shape of movement. The Central Government constituted the Mandal Commission to look into it. With the publication of the Mandal Commission report, the question of reservation became an issue of heated controversy. The result was that the Government did not accept the recommendation of the Commission. There was a lot of controversy over the definition of Other Backward Classes.
Since 1961, the Central Government of India has been pressing for the adoption of economic criteria in defining the other Backward Classes. The majority of the states have adopted economic criterion for defining backwardness.
Backward Classes in the Context of Social Change: The traditional Indian society was highly segmented and hierarchical in character. Social separation between different segments, each pursuing its own style of life could be kept intact so long as the society was fairly closed. In the traditional society, mobility – vertical and horizontal was slow and limited. The expansion of transport and communication, spread of modern education, new economic opportunities brought about significant changes in the traditional social structure. This led to the system being more open, allowing for greater mobility.
Two most important changes took place among the backward classes—changes in their life style and changes in their relation to the political system.
The changes in the style of life have two trends. They are Sanskritization and Westernization. Sanskritization is defined as process by which a caste moves up the social hierarchy by adopting the style of life associated with the upper castes. On the other hand, Westernization in the Indian context refers to the social change introduced by the British rule in India. Individuals and groups began to adopt British ideals relating to politics, economics, education, dress etc. This is due to their taking up western education and getting into modern occupation.
The process of Sanskritization was at work before the advent of the Europeans. But it was slow because the economy was relatively static and population very limited. There were strong legal sanctions which acted against the large scale movement of people from one region to another. For example, each caste was identified with a certain occupation like Dhobi, Napit etc. and each family of these castes had a traditional patron whom it served. Nobody in the traditional system could take over the occupation of another caste and as such they could not give up their own caste occupation and to go away to another place.
Both the process of Sanskritisan and Westernization led to a change of life style among the backward classes in India.
There were changes in the political system as well. The political system which developed during the British period gave increasing opportunities for political activities to the people of India. The backward classes took advantage of this facility. The advent of Independence and the introduction of adult franchise and more recently Panchayati Raj have increased access to power to the backward classes. Such access led to a shift from Sanskritization to competition for positions of higher bureaucratic and political power.
Changes in the life style are two-Sanskritization and Westernization.
Culturally the distance was greatest between the tribal and the scheduled castes on the one hand and the better off upper caste sections of society on the other. The tribal people were ecologically isolated. They have developed their own culture and ways of life. Social forces were at work leading to transmission of cultural elements from the more dominant and better off sections of society, the more backward, and the tribal’s. Two of the most important of such forces were Sanskritization and westernization.
The tribal people have been isolated to a far greater extent from the broad stream of Sanskritization than the scheduled castes and other backward classes. However, they have felt the impact of Sanskritic ideas and values. This has been largely due to the opening of the tribal areas to the outside world. One of the most general effects of Sanskritization of tribal communities is that it leads to the integration of segments of tribal society into the wider caste structure and its assimilation in the wider Hindu fold. The Bhumij of eastern India, the Raj Gond in Central India and the Patelia in Western India are examples of such integration in the caste structure. The tribal people are getting integrated more fully into the wider economic system.
The Christian missionaries play an active part among the tribal communities in India. They operate as agents of social change. In addition to providing an alternative system of religious values, the missionaries introduce many new features into tribal society such as education and modern medical facilities. The spread of education and conversion to Christianity have led to rapid Westernization among the tribal communities. The Mizo, Naga, Khasi are some examples representing such a process.
The opening of tribal areas to traders, money lenders on the one hand and cultural contact on the other hand have led to disintegration of tribal social organization. Economically they have been facing great hardship due to land alienation and indebtedness which resulted from opening up of tribal areas to the outside world. Their cultural and social life has been greatly affected by this process. Most of the scholars favour a policy of integration bringing the tribal people into the mainstream but without loss of their distinctive social organization and culture.
The impact of change on the political system of the scheduled tribes has been of great importance.
In the case of tribal’s there are certain special problems. These arise partly from their geographical isolation and partly from their ethnic identity. The consciousness of their distinct ethnic identity has led to organized political activity. The demand for a tribal homeland and the growth of political parties indicate politicization of tribal society. Through these political processes tribal communities like the Naga, Khasi, Garo, Mizo attained their separate tribal state— The Jharkhand state and Chhattisgarh tribal states in Bihar, Bengal and Madhya Pradesh.
The Scheduled Castes: The scheduled castes constitute about 15.3% of India’s total population. Unlike the tribes they did not have a history of isolation. Whereas the tribal people are concentrated in specific geographical regions, the scheduled castes are scattered throughout the state. They are concentrated in rural areas and the commonly found in multicast villages.
The social condition of the scheduled castes has been governed by the Hindu concept of pollution. The idea of purity and pollution has generally been considered a factor in the genesis of the caste system. Social groups following occupations like scavenging, leather work, removing dead cattle and so on were looked upon as pollution groups, contact with them was considered to be defiling. So they were required to live in a separate colony outside the village. Many areas of social life were not accessible to them. They suffered many sorts of restrictions and disabilities. They were prohibited from taking up any other profession than what was traditionally ascribed to them. They had no right to enter the temples. They did not have the freedom to use public wells and tanks which the caste Hindus used. They were not allowed to wear the type of dress the upper caste Hindu wore. In several parts of India women were not allowed to cover the upper portion of their body and wear ornaments. The practice of untouchability was at its worst in South India.
Economically they are among the poorest section of the Hindu society. Being predominantly rural, they are mainly engaged in agriculture today. Even in agriculture they are mainly found as landless agricultural laborers.
Other Backward Classes: The other backward classes occupied a low position in traditional society but were above the line of untouchability.
Other backward classes experienced considerable gap between themselves and the upper castes that were rapidly westernizing themselves. The upper castes not only adopted the western life style but look up western education with all seriousness. The western education being mostly confined to them, the cultural, social and economic distance between them and the other backward classes widened. The lower castes realized that mere Sanskritization was not enough to improve their social condition. It did not provide them avenue to obtain well paid and prestigious jobs in the administrative services. So they desired to get themselves educated through the English medium in order to qualify for these jobs. In fact, the demand for educational concessions was the major objective of the Backward Class Movement which started in the early part of the 20th century. The movement was strongest in Tamil Nadu, Mysore and Maharashtra when Brahmins had almost total monopoly in higher education, professions and Government employment.
They also formed associations to advance and protect the interest of the non-Brahmins. Reservation of seats in professional courses, post graduate studies and in Govt. services became their major demands.
There are those who view that reservation should be in terms of economic class instead of castes. They say that caste based reservation is against the basic spirit of the Constitution.
The Constitution promises equality and non-Castiest and non-communal society.
The upper class elites are in favour of income as the sole criterion of determining the backwardness.
Untouchables: The caste system of India is possibly the world’s ugliest social system. And it is sanctified by India’s largest religion—Hinduism; according to the Laws of Manu. Anybody from the lower orders who has the temerity to mention the name of a higher caste should have a red-hot nail thrust into his mouth. If he makes the mistake of telling a Brahmin what to do, he gets hot oil poured into his ears and mouth.