Sunday, April 22, 2007

Jaffrelot on Mandal II and Hindu Nationalism

The "Idea Exchange" section of today's Sunday Express has an interview with the academic Christophe Jaffrelot, whose area of specialisation is Hindu nationalism. While the idea of having several journalists interview a single public figure on various issues is commendable, I think the value of this section would be immeasurably increased if the interviewee was allowed to air views more than the questioners. As this particular 'idea exchange' shows, the interviewers seem to say more than the interviewee, which seems to defeat the purpose of the whole exercise. Jaffrelot has many interesting things to say about the current state of Hindu nationalist politics, but given the topical nature of Mandal II, the initial questions focus on his views on Mandal II and his reactions to those questions are as follows:

"This reservation business, I find it very interesting that in a way we are back to the 1960s, when the Supreme Court was objecting to the Backward Commission reports coming from the states. If you remember the famous Karnataka vs Balaji case of 1963, when any caste-based reservation was not made possible by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court changed its mind in the 1990s and the 1992 case was the most interesting one, when the court said sometimes caste can be a class and it cleared the way for everything and we could have caste-based reservations. And it seems this kind of progressive approach to the issue is not the position of the present Supreme Court. So we are back to a struggle of the judiciary and legislative wings of power. Let’s see whether the judiciary prevails, but if it does, then it means that the whole range of policies based on reservation will be slowed down and frankly speaking I think it’s one of the few corrections to what liberalisation is doing to societies these days. …

One of the things necessary is the redistribution to correct the widening of gaps between the upper classes and the lower classes. Because the grand theory that in India it will percolate and everybody will benefit from it is not happening. Maybe in the long run, but in the long run we will all be dead. … …

Well, so far, all backward classes commissions that have gone to the field have concluded that the most relevant variable to identify social and educational backwardness was caste. If things have changed, let’s have a survey and let’s check if caste is not relevant any more for identifying the lowest plebeians. But you can’t dismiss any policy on the grounds that there is no data because if there is no data you have to rebuild the data and not remain status quoists. And I am afraid caste is one of the major variables still."

It is interesting that Jaffrelot's views, to the extent they resonate with those of Omvedt on the need for a caste-based survey, seem to reflect the tendency of academics to emphasise the importance of formulating policies after carefully evaluating the background empirical data. As the debate over Mandal II wears on, at least part of its contested nature seems attributable to the reason that there is great disagreement about the basic facts at issue.

Update (April 23, 1.13 pm): In the comments section, V. Venkatesan points out that I misinterpret Jaffrelot's statement, and that instead of calling for a new caste-based survey, he was arguing that the government can be faulted for using caste as a basis for new quotas only if caste is perceived as being irrelevant in contemporary India, which is clearly not the case. I think this is a more nuanced reading of Jaffrelot's view, and I stand corrected. I can't help wondering how Jaffrelot would have reacted to a more specific question on the existing data regarding the proportion of OBCs in India. To me, the divergence of numbers projected by the Mandal Commission and the National Sample Survey Organisation (to name two studies on this issue) is problematic. This issue will no doubt form part of the arguments which are currently underway before the Supreme Court, and which will garner considerable attention in the days to come. Regardless of how that case turns out, the collection of solid data on OBCs in India is clearly an issue which needs to be studied closely going forward.
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