The Idea of Mandal
In August 1990, the National Front government led by VP Singh, made an announcement in parliament regarding the implementation of the Mandal Commission report. The report, commissioned during the Janata Party government’s tenure (1977-79), recommended a reservation of 27 percent in the government service and public undertaking jobs for candidates belonging to backward castes.
The Mandal Commission provided representation to the masses of the country who remained socially backward and economically disadvantageous. The need for such representation existed through various channels even before India gained independence when caste associations (for instance Triveni Sangh in Bihar) had been formed by certain OBC castes to demand their adequate share from the colonial government and in the state of Kolhapur a reservation system implemented but in Independent India no government had demonstrated the ability to implement the Mandal report. It was only when VP Singh became the Prime Minister that the concept of social justice gained prominence, leading to the eventual implementation of the Mandal report for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs).
The Mandal Commission report and Indian Academia
The National Front government faced opposition from upper caste groups, academia and politicians who reiterated the question of merit. Under the caste system the graded inequality of the Indian society favoured the upper castes and they were the ones who remained predominant in all the government services including academia. After the implementation of the report there were claims that the Mandal report could potentially lead to the collapse of the Indian administrative apparatus and it became the case for the non-implementation of the Mandal reservation in academia, particularly Central Universities and institutions of eminence.
The Mandal Commission has given an illuminating example for the need of the reservation for the backward castes: “It is not at all our contention that by offering a few thousand jobs to OBC candidates, we shall be able to make 52 per cent of the Indian population as forward. But we must recognise that an essential part of the battle against social backwardness is to be fought in the minds of the backward people themselves. In India, the Government service is always been looked upon as a symbol of prestige and power. By increasing the representation of OBCs in Government services, we give them an immediate feeling of participation in the governance of this country. When a backward class candidate becomes a Collector or a Superintendent of Police, the material [goes] to the members of his family only. But the psychological spin-off of this phenomenon is tremendous, the entire community of the backward class candidate feels socially elevated. Even when no tangible benefits may flow to the community at large, the feeling that now it has “its own man in the “corridors of power” acts as moral booster.” This clearly demonstrates that the concept of OBC reservation was intended to promote social justice.
In North India, a significant protest against the Mandal Commission took place due to the Kamandal-Mandal conflict in the region known as the cow belt. Universities and institutions in Delhi became the focal point of the protest, with some students resorting to self-immolation. Rajeev Goswami was among the students who set himself on fire, leading to a wave of unrest within the academic community and student of upper castes. After some time, the Mandal fame student Rajeev Goswami was voted president of Delhi University Students Union (DUSU). One of the newspapers reported, “Rajeev Goswami is back at his crusade against casteism….” Before winning the election, he had done a joint conference with ABVP leaders and he wanted to form a non-political party, ironically with the help of ABVP. (Times of India, April 26, 1991).
This student disruption was fuelled by the upper caste academics by their numerous columns against the Mandal commission. In response to the announcement of the Mandal Report, large segments of the Indian academic community, which were predominantly controlled by upper caste individuals, expressed their opposition through articles and columns in newspapers. Prominent sociologist Andre Béteille, for instance, strongly criticized the quota system, arguing that it perpetuates and fosters casteism, thereby undermining the fundamental principles of democracy. He suggested that caste is no longer have a tangible existence in modern India, except in the realm of politics, and argues that there are no valid justifications for its invocation in social contexts. Here he implicitly supported the rhetoric of ‘merit-based selection.’ Being a such academic reputed person taught in social science he totally refuted to see the structure of Indian pedagogical practices which have been remained as ‘Ghetto’ for low castes. After the implementation of Mandal report Delhi University Vice Chancellor Prof Upendra Baxi pointed out that till a few years ago casteist categorisation did not exist at all in the varsity. He said, “I have been here, I know. No one knew what the caste of his or her roommate was,” (Times of India, Sep 22, 1991). Here he mentioned about the changing pattern of caste due to the Mandal and one can easily recognize that caste cannot become invisible If someone hides it. Like them, a significant number of Indian professors from JNU, DU, AIIMS etc had provided weak justifications for why the Mandal Commission’s implementation would potentially endanger the entire academic system. This rhetoric was there notwithstanding the academic reservation for OBC castes in central universities was introduced relatively late, under the leadership of Arjun Singh.
The idea that “Merit Rules-Not Mandal” among the upper castes category students found mentions in their rhetoric against the Mandal report. The question of merit finally rested after the implementation of 10 percent reservation for the upper castes. After the EWS suddenly the idea of merit evaporates from the academic’s circles and writings and almost no academic writings are coming against “the question of merit.” This clearly shows that the nature of Indian academia is still imbedded in upper caste psyche.
Vikash Kumar – Presently, the author is a PhD student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Centre for Historical Studies. His studies focus on the representation of caste in film, the geography of visual culture, and the construction of Dalit identity.