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Defining Backwardness

Debates in Bombay/Maharashtra

Abhay Datar ( teaches at the Department of Political Science, People’s College, Nanded.

Various communities across the country have been demanding reservation on the basis of their social backwardness. The notion of “backwardness” seems to have attached itself to a given caste’s “position” or “status” in the traditional Hindu caste hierarchy. This is inevitable since the Constitution talks of social backwardness, in addition to educational backwardness. But as this paper argues in the debates over “backwardness” in the Marathi-speaking areas of the Bombay Presidency in the colonial period it was educational backwardness that was regarded as the primary criterion to determine whether a caste was backward or not, while in the early years of Maharashtra in the post-1947 period the criterion was primarily economic. Social backwardness was not regarded as a defining criterion, and thus can be considered as a recent entrant into the entire debate of defining the “backward.” Also, discussions on whether a community would cease to be backward if it fulfils certain conditions are practically missing in the present time.

For the last few years, the politics of Maharashtra has been roiled by strident demands by a variety of Maratha caste organisations for reservations and other measures of positive discrimination. The supporters of these demands argue that the Maratha community is socially backward by virtue of being low down on the traditional Hindu caste hierarchy, in addition to being economically backward, while the opponents, primarily Other Backward Classes (OBC) groups, argue that the community has occupied a dominant position in the rural social structure of Maharashtra for centuries, and in the politics of the state since it was created in 1960. The latter also dismiss the claims of social backwardness by claiming that many in the community perceive themselves as being Kshatriyas and therefore cannot claim to be “backward.”

On the eve of the 2014 assembly elections, the Congress–Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) government in the state approved of legislation that provided for reservations to the Maratha community, over and above the existing quantum of reservation. This was promptly challenged in the courts and was stayed. The current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)–Shiv Sena government had declared its intention of securing reservations for the community, but the legal battle seems to be a long-drawn one. These developments have once again revived the debate on what should be the criterion for defining a “backward” caste. But largely speaking, the notion of backwardness in contemporary political and social discourse surrounding positive discrimination/reservations seems to have attached itself to the “position” or “status” of a particular community in the traditional status hierarchy of the Hindu caste system. This is regarded as a self-evident criterion that does not require any justification. It is often assumed that once a community is declared backward it would continue to be so. Discussions on whether a community would cease to be backward if it fulfils certain conditions are practically missing.

It is against this background that this paper explores the debates that occurred in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries to inquire whether these contemporary assumptions have always been held to be true. The paper argues that in the Marathi-speaking areas of the Bombay Presidency “backwardness” in the beginning had very little to do with the social status of a caste. It argues that the initial understanding was that a community was backward if it was educationally backward and that a community would cease to be so under certain circumstances. The “backward classes” also had their double—the “advanced classes.” Discussions on who were “backward” naturally meant deciding on who the “advanced” were.

The reason for examining the trajectory of the concept of “backward” over what might seem an excessively long period is that contemporary debates in Maharashtra about it more often have been shaped in myriad ways by the events and processes that occurred in the colonial period. The social landscape in the 19th century Marathi-speaking areas of the Bombay Presidency was characterised by two features, first, a strong dominance of the numerically minuscule Brahmins over all walks of life, and an equally strong anti-caste movement which challenged this dominance. The former was a consequence of circumstances that did not occur in other region of India, namely the acquisition of political power by the community in the mid-18th century to which was added the huge number of employment opportunities offered by the colonial regime. The second feature was the movement led by Mahatma Jotirao Phule. His legacy developed in the early 20th century into the non-Brahmin movement.

This paper begins by mainly focusing on the occasions and arenas provided by the colonial state on and in which “backwardness” was articulated and debated. These were the various committees and commissions appointed by the British Raj. Other official documents have also been utilised. An exploration of Marathi sources, particularly journals and newspapers, would perhaps have revealed many more nuances of the debate, but regretfully that could not be done.

Historical Antecedents

The description of all non-Brahmin castes as being more or less uniformly backward and subject to “Brahminical tyranny” is a theme that runs through the corpus of Phule’s writings. This has been described by one of the earliest scholars of Phule’s contribution as being a “new social construct” (O’Hanlon 1985: 130–31). However, Phule did make a distinction between “Shudras” or the non-Dalit castes and “Ati-Shudras” or the Dalits. The use of the Marathi word for “the backward”—“Magaslela” by the non-Brahmin activists and its identification with all the non-Brahmin castes has been noted (O’Hanlon: 275–76). However, judging by Phule’s own submission before the Hunter Commission, he does not seem to have been convinced of this equation of the non-Brahmin with the “backward.” He describes “the Brahmins and the Purbhoos” as “hereditary classes, who generally live by the occupation of pen.” He puts them into the same category with the “trading classes” as all those who were actively seeking primary education. He talks of “the cultivating and other classes” who, according to him, were not actively seeking education (Education Commission, Bombay, p 142).1 The term “backward classes” does not occur in either the oral evidence of other witnesses before or in the other written submissions to the education commission in the Bombay Presidency, though there is mention of the Muslims being backward in taking to English education.

The next official reference to “backward classes” and “advanced classes” is found in the annual report of the Director of Public Instruction. Chimanlal H Setalvad had asked that the local bodies should be given freedom to determine who the advanced classes were according to local circumstances for purposes of granting concessions in fees. The Director of Public Instruction, K M Chatfield responded by saying that the local bodies already had such freedom. He went on to add that he had already classified the Brahmins of Sind and the Havig Brahmins of the North Kanara district as “backward classes.” While calling this a “questionable privilege,” Chatfield mentions the Havig Brahmins as being “clever gardeners, but illiterate” (Report of the Director of Public Instruction in the Bombay Presidency for the Year 1894–95  1895: liv).2 This makes it quite clear that it was certainly not “caste status” that determined “backwardness.” Had it been so, the above-mentioned two communities would have never made the grade. In the case of the Havigs, it is once again clear that it was their illiteracy that made them “backward” and nothing else.

Backwardness and the Public Services

The main points before the two public services commissions—the first appointed by the Government of India, the Aitchison Commission and the second appointed by the London authorities, the Islington Commission—were increased Indianisation of government employment, the introduction of competitive examinations at all levels of recruitment for the public services, and the long-standing demand that examinations for the entry into the elite Indian Civil Service (ICS) be conducted simultaneously in England and India. It was on this background that the two commissions discussed the backward classes. In this context, the issues were of the desirability and necessity of social diversity of the public services, whether this was to be achieved by earmarking a certain number of posts for the “backward classes” and whether the introduction of the principle of competition would benefit only a few communities, those who already dominated the public services. A deluge of statistics on the social and caste-composition of the public services was generated for these commissions. It is in this arena that definitions and discussions of “backwardness” were offered and debated.

The witnesses who appeared before the Aitichison Commission generally agreed that in the case of the Bombay Presidency it was the Parsis and the Brahmins, and to some extent the Prabhus (apparently both the Kayasthas and Pathares) were the communities that dominated the subordinate bureaucracy. There was substantial agreement that any system of competitive examinations would benefit the same communities. Much wrangling took place about who exactly should be considered among the “backward classes.” This seems to have revolved around to the extent that the various communities were progressing in education. The eminent Sanskritist, Ramkrishna Gopal Bhandarkar stated that while Brahmins, Shenvis (that is, Saraswat Brahmins) and the Prabhus were the castes that took to education, even the Sonars and Mahrattas were “coming in.” The equally eminent social reformer, Gopal Hari Deshmukh (popularly known as Lokhitwadi) said the Marathas were “backward” as regards education which in turn was due to their poverty and opined that with the institution of scholarships for the community, the situation would change for the better. K C Bedarkar was explicit in defining who the “backward classes” were. For him, they were those who were backward in education. But J F Fernandez, a former deputy collector included Muslims, the Eurasians and among the Hindus, only the Kunbis, as being “backward” (Proceedings of the Public Service Commission, VolIV, Proceedings related to the Bombay Presidency (Including Sind) 1887: 86, 96, 153 and 169).

K T Telang, soon to be a judge of the Bombay High Court did not seem quite convinced by the validity of the category of “backward classes.” He referred to them as the “so-called backward classes.” But when pressed, he defined them as including the Muslims, the Marathas and the non-literate castes among the Hindus and “others similarly situated.” This clearly indicated that backwardness was thought in terms of educational backwardness. Gangaram Bhau Mhaske, an associate of Phule and who was also involved in Congress’s activities, stated that both the Marathas and Muslims were backward due to their lack of education (pp 236 and 240, and 275). Furthermore, A T Crawford, the soon to be controversial Commissioner of the Central Division said that the Marathas could hardly be considered a backward community since they were progressing in education, albeit slowly. Khan Saheb Ibrahim M Sayani, a school headmaster, when asked to define the “backward classes” quoted a report on education which mentioned that the Muslims and Rajputs were “backward.” Pherozeshah Mehta, the noted Congress leader, agreed that Muslims could be considered a “backward class” and that there were backward classes among the Hindus (pp 329, 92, and 188).

Demands were made that the “backward classes” should be recruited in large numbers in the bureaucracy. G V Gilganehi, a deputy collector, representing the Lingayet Association, put forward an elaborate scheme of reservations in the bureaucracy, which in a sense foreshadowed the present-day roster system of reservations. He, of course, claimed that the Lingayats were backward in education. But his self-definition of the Lingayats’ caste status indicated that it was certainly not a criterion in determining “backwardness.” He said that while the Lingayats were certainly non-Brahmins, they were not Shudras (pp 224–25).

However, many witnesses were doubtful about giving special preference to the backward classes in recruitment. They opined that enhanced educational facilities would encourage education and soon help members of these communities to enter the bureaucracy. It was also claimed that a system of competitive examination would in fact act as an encouragement to these communities. These range of opinions cited above reveal that “backwardness” was primarily thought in terms of education, and that the enhanced access to education constituted a solution to “backwardness.”

The Islington Commission (so-called after its chairman, Lord Islington) or the Royal Commission on Public Services in India was appointed just before the outbreak of World War I. Gopal Krishna Gokhale was its leading Indian member. Once again, the questions of Indianisation of service, simultaneous examinations for the ICS, the suitability or otherwise of competitive exams and dominance of Brahmins in the bureaucracy were raised and discussed.

In the Bombay Presidency, many ICS officers argued for social diversity in the bureaucracy while warning that the dominance of any single caste or community in the public services was undesirable. The politicians among the Brahmin witnesses of the Marathi-speaking areas of the Bombay Presidency seemed to be on the defensive. Some of them grudgingly conceded some form of preferential treatment for the “backward classes.” R P Paranjpye, the principal of Fergusson College and a member of the Bombay Legislative Council, cautioned against not employing broad categories for preferential recruitment. He warned that India being an extraordinarily diverse country, some group or the other would be bound to feel left out and then would demand what today would be called “sub-quotas.” N C Kelkar, the close associate of the nationalist leader, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, was generally opposed to any form of “reservations” but had no objection if a small number of posts were reserved for the backward classes. Kelkar’s evidence also shows his definition of “backward classes.” They were the “educationally backward classes, though high in social status” (Royal Commission on Public Services in India, Appendix to
the Report of the Commissioners,
VolVI, Minutes of Evidence Relating to the Indian and Provincial Civil Services Taken at Bombay 1914: 10–12, and 388 and 396). Raghunath Sabnis, the diwan of Kolhapur, strongly argued for the representation of the “backward classes” in the colonial bureaucracy through preferential recruitment. When asked he also offered his definition of the “backward classes.” For him, the Marathas, the Rajputs, the Lingayats, the Jains and others communities, as also the Dalits, were included in this category (pp 230 and 235). Thus, backwardness was primarily thought to be educational.

The Kolhapur Reservation Scheme

In 1902, the ruler of the princely state of Kolhapur, Shahu Chhatrapati, announced the first proper scheme of reservation for the “backward classes” in the public services of Kolhapur. This announcement or the scheme is today heralded as the first step of the later programmes of reservations or often as the beginning of the journey towards social justice. Though the stated purpose of the scheme was to provide “an incentive to the backward classes to seek higher education,” its principal objective was to break the Brahmin dominance of the administration and ensure diversity in the public services and to do so, the order stated that in the future 50% of all vacancies that would occur were to be reserved for the “backward classes” and in those offices where their share was less than 50%, the next appointment was to be reserved for them. The order defined the “backward classes” by stating that this category was to include all communities other than “Brahmans, Prabhus Shenvis, Parsees and other advanced classes” (Latthe 1924: 220–21). The category of “advanced classes” was thus left imprecise which meant that the category of “backward classes” was imprecise as well. However, Shahu Chhatrapati’s biographer, A B Latthe in the discussion of the order equated the “backward classes” with the non-Brahmins who were supposed to constitute 95% of the population (Latthe, p 221). This, however, left unanswered the question as to whether a given community would continue to be regarded as backward even after its educational levels and presence in the public services had increased.

A brief historical detour is necessary in order to understand the background of the scheme. Shahu Chhatrapati, born into the aristocratic Ghatge family of Kagal, hereditary jagirdars of the Kolhapur court, was adopted into the ruling family and invested with full ruling powers in 1894. The Kolhapur bureaucracy was dominated by Brahmins while European and Parsi officers held some of the top administrative positions. Shahu Chhatrapati soon started an informal policy of actively recruiting bright young men from non-Brahmin backgrounds into the state service. By the late 1890s, he was successful in removing some of the European and Parsi officials from the state service and inducting those whom he trusted. Shahu Chhatrapati’s policy up to this point can be interpreted as one of “Indianisation” or one of removing those officials whom he did not trust and who were now to be replaced by more trustworthy individuals (Phadke 1986: passim).

It is at this point that the Vedokta controversy broke out. Shahu Chhatrapati claimed Kshatriya status for himself and his family and hence demanded that the religious rituals of his household be performed according to Vedic rites and not according to the established practice of performing them which was according to the Puranic rites. The orthodox Brahmin priests attached to the Kolhapur ruling family were loath to accord Kshatriya status to their master and hence refused to perform the rituals as per Vedic rites. Shahu Chhatrapati pressed his point and soon the entire matter degenerated into a nasty controversy. It soon became a personal contest between the Kolhapur ruler and Tilak, who sided with his fellow-Brahmins (Phadke 1986, passim). The scheme made its appearance when the controversy was at its highest.

Constitutional Reforms and After

The next set of occasions on which the issue of backwardness was debated came about due to the substantial scheme of constitutional reforms that was set into motion during World War I. This was the well-known Montague-Chelmsford scheme of dyarchy at the provincial level. The report on Indian Constitutional Reforms, popularly referred to as the Montague–Chelmsford Report after its authors, Edwin Montagu, the Secretary of State for India and Lord Chelmsford, the then Viceroy had laid out the outline of this new constitutional framework. The Indian Franchise Committee (popularly known as the Southborough Committee after its chairman, Lord Southborough), was set to recommend a scheme of political representation both at the all-India and the provincial level. This was followed by a Joint Parliamentary Committee, consisting of members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, which examined the Government of India Bill, which in turn became the Government of India Act, 1919. Both these committees invited witnesses who were orally examined. These also constitute occasions on which “backwardness” was debated. In a sense, the forthcoming scheme of constitutional reforms provided a forum wherein backwardness could be discussed, albeit within the parameters of institutional frameworks of political representation.

The Southborough Committee rejected the demand for communal electorates for “Mahrattas and allied castes” in the Bombay Presidency, a category devised by the local government (Report of the Franchise Committee, 1918–1919  1919: 8). The evidence of the witnesses from Bombay tendered before the committee reveals a diverse and nuanced understanding of backwardness. Whereas some non-Brahmin witnesses blithely equated the category non-Brahmin with backward, some Brahmin witnesses, understandably, questioned this. It must be noted that the entire debate took place in terms of who deserved separate political representation since they were “backward.”

A B Latthe, later to serve as the diwan of Kolhapur, explicitly made a demand for communal electorates for his own community, the Jains and the Lingayats. He claimed that non-Brahmins required communal electorates since “they were helpless in the face of immense influence wielded by the Brahmins.” Latthe explicitly equated the category of the “non-Brahmin” with “backward” but added that he preferred to use the former term since it was “more accurate and easy to define.” The Deccan Ryot Association, in its written statement, put forth a scheme of electoral reservations for the non-Brahmins. As soon as the “backward classes” received adequate political representation this was to be abolished (The Reforms Committee (Franchise), Evidence Taken before the Reforms Committee (Franchise), Vol II, 1919: 748 and 755). The last seemed to equate lack of adequate political representation with “backwardness.”

K R Koregawkar, representing the Maratha Akiyechhu Sabha, opined that instead of dividing Hindu society into Brahmin and non-Brahmin sections, he would like to divide it between the advanced and the backward. This was so because some non-Brahmins were advanced (p 709), though he did not quite spell out what made them so. The evidence of L C Crump, representing the Bombay government, who appeared before the committee also seemed to have accepted that being non-Brahmin was not synonymous with being backward. This point was also made by N M Joshi, the Moderate trade unionist, who pointed out that the category of “backward” was not synonymous with “non-Brahmin” (p 777). Interestingly, Babasaheb Ambedkar while dismissing the demand for communal electorates for the non-Brahmins on the grounds that they had no common interest, warned that if political concessions were granted to the “backward,” then many who were not backward would rush to claim that status (pp 731 and 739). This meant that even Ambedkar did not quite agree with the equating of the category “non-Brahmin” with being “backward.”

After the Southborough Committee submitted its report, the scene shifted to London and the proceedings of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC). The case of the non-Brahmins from Bombay was put forward by Bhaskarrao Jadhav. In his evidence to the Southborough Committee he had asked for communal electorates and later for reserved seats. In his submission, he stated that for him all those backward in education were to be classified as the “backward classes” (Joint Select Committee on the Government of India Bill, Vol II, Minutes of Evidence 1919: 299). A similar argument was made by the All-India Mahratta League in its memorandum submitted to the JPC. In addition to non-communal electorates, the League asked for separate communal electorates for practically all communities. There were to be separate communal electorates for both the Marathas and the backward non-Brahmin Hindus separately. But for the League, this concession was not to last for ever. The backwardness of a community was to cease once the percentage of male literacy in the Indian languages crossed 25% and that in English crossed 5% (Shinde et al 1919: 27). This is the clearest indication that “backwardness” did not depend on the social status of a community but rather on its educational attainments.

Period of Dyarchy

With the Government of India Act, 1919, coming into force, came the elections to the newly expanded all-India and provincial legislatures. One of the candidates for elections to the Bombay Legislative Council was “Maharshi” Vitthal Ramji Shinde. It was from him that the most interesting attempt to define the “backward classes” came. Shinde’s political and intellectual career was varied. He started as a Prarthana Samaj preacher, who at the same time acknowledged his intellectual debt to Phule, and later established one of the first institutions for the uplift of the Dalits, called the Depressed Classes Mission. While strongly opposed to Tilak’s conservative stance on social reform, he nevertheless had great respect for his political extremism and was also associated with the Moderates in the Congress. Shinde also had great respect for Gandhi, though he believed that the Mahatma was not strongly committed to the attempts to abolish untouchability. It was Shinde’s influence that led the younger generation of non-Brahmin political activists into the Congress fold in the Bombay Presidency during the Civil Disobedience movement of the 1930s. Shinde thus is the only person who in a sense is common to all the major streams of political activity and social thinking in late 19th and early 20th century Maharashtra.

Shinde’s formulation came in 1920 as the manifesto of his proposed political formation, the “Bahujan Paksha,” when he was planning to contest the elections. He practically did away with caste as the main criterion for defining backwardness. Shinde denied the equivalence of “non-Brahmin” with “backward” which he defined in economic terms. This category of his included the peasant proprietors (a word used by Shinde), the artisans, the common soldier, the teachers (but not the traditional priests and not just members of the teaching profession), the small shopkeepers, the working class, the “untouchables” and women—in sum, the masses (Pawar 2004: 529–33).3 Shinde’s formulation was indeed a refreshing departure from all the previous discussions of backwardness. However, he did not quite mention what might be the policy implications of such a formulation in the sense of it being used to grant educational concessions or preferential recruitment in the public services.

In the early 1920s, the appointment of the Reforms Enquiry Committee, to enquire into the working of the system of Dyarchy, provided another occasion for discussion of what constituted “backwardness” in the Bombay Presidency. A N Surve, a non-Brahmin member of the Bombay Legislative Council, in his oral evidence before the committee once again explicitly defined backwardness in terms of education. Citing the example of the Jain community, he pointed out that though prosperous the Jains were “educationally not very advanced” and hence communities who were similarly situated required political protection. Surve displayed ambiguity about the scope of the “backward classes.” He initially included the depressed classes or the Dalits in the category and later denied that they could be included in the category. He also admitted that there was no logic to the category called “non-Brahmin” for it included non-Hindu religious minorities as well. But he was quick to add that the only common feature among them was that they were subject to “Brahminical” influence. Surve also rejected suggestions that separate political representation be given to the “less educated castes” among the “backward classes” thus trying to keep the imagined political unity of the non-Brahmins intact (Reform Enquiry Committee 1924, Appendix 6 to the
Report, Oral Evidence
(Part 1) 1924: 267–82).

The period of Dyarchy saw renewed demand for diversity in the public services from all quarters. The non-Brahmin party in the Bombay legislature continued to exert pressure on the government to recruit more non-Brahmins into the administration (Omvedt 1976: 196–97). The Bombay government required the support of the party in order to run the system of Dyarchy. Perhaps as a result of this came the resolution of the finance department of the Government of Bombay that specified the percentage of posts to be reserved for the backward classes in the subordinate bureaucracy. The details of the order were provided in an oral answer by Sir Cowasji Jehangir, a member of the Bombay Executive Council, to a question asked by a member, Syed Munawar on 18 October 1927.

This percentage was not the same in the different regions of the Bombay Presidency. At the same time, it also specified the “backward classes” in these different regions negatively by specifying who the “advanced classes” were. In Ahmedabad, Kaira and Broach districts (all in the Gujarati-speaking areas of Bombay) and in the Central Division (which included almost all the Marathi-speaking districts), the percentage of “backward classes” to be recruited was 50%. In the Southern Division of the Bombay Presidency, the same was 60% while everywhere else it was 33%. In the Gujarati-speaking districts the Brahmins and the Banias were the “advanced classes” and for the Kaira district, the Patidars were included in this category. In the Southern Division and Thana district, the “advanced classes” were the Brahmins, Prabhus, Parsis and Christians. For the Central Division, Marwaris and Banias were added to the
category. In Bombay City, in addition to the above mentioned communities Patidars and the rather strange category of Madrasis was added. In the Bombay Suburban district, however, only three communities, the Brahmins, the Prabhus and the Christians constituted the “advanced classes” (Bombay Legislative Council Debates, Vol XXI, 1927: 1219). The same session also saw an extended debate on the Bombay University Bill wherein the question of the representation of all sections of society on various university bodies was raised. This debate had references to which communities could be considered backward.

This state of affairs was compounded by the fact that the decennial censuses classified Hindu castes in different ways. Soon after the establishment of British rule in the Bombay Presidency, a compendium of the social status of the various Hindu castes in the Marathi-speaking areas was made (Steele 1868). In the 19th century, the Census of 1872 classified Hindu castes according to the traditional fourfold division (Census of the Bombay Presidency 1872, Part II, 1875: 106), while the 1881 Census classified the same into 14 categories according to occupation (Baines 1882: ii).4 In the 1891 Census, an eightfold occupational classification was used (Drew 1892: 175), though the tables that followed listed castes in an alphabetical order. R E Enthoven, who was in charge of the census for Bombay for the 1901 Census proposed an eightfold classification (Enthoven 1902a: 187) which seems to have a racial basis, but the tables listed the castes in an alphabetical order (Enthoven 1902b: 203). The 1911 Census listed them alphabetically (Mead and Laird Macgregor 1912: 230). The 1921 Census classified castes into four groups, namely Advanced, Intermediate, Backward and the Rest, and claimed that in the previous census they had been classified into three categories, Learned, Backward and the Rest (Sedgwick 1922: viii).5

This classification seems to have created some confusion even at the highest levels of government. Sir Maurice Hayward, a member of the Governor’s Executive Council, in the course of answering a question on 24 July 1924 about the social diversity of the subordinate judiciary in the Bombay Presidency remarked he did not quite know what to make of the terms “intermediate” classes and “backward” classes (Bombay Legislative Council Debates, Vol XII, 1924: 290). Two years later, Bhaskarrao Jadhav, Education Minister replying to a question on 22 February 1926 revealed that among the Intermediate classes there were some who were backward and some who were advanced (Bombay Legislative Council Debates, Vol XVII, 1926: 62). Later replying to another question on 2 March, he revealed that the Brahmins of Sind were classified as Intermediate classes for they were backward in education (p 509). Generally speaking, an overview of the debates shows that the term “backward classes” was used for the “depressed” classes or the “untouchables.”

The 1931 Census report now classified the Hindus into five categories, namely Advanced, Intermediate, Other Backward, Primitive, and Depressed (Dracup and Sorley 1933a: 380). The last term was used to describe the caste regarded as “untouchables.” The report seems to indicate that levels of education primarily determined this classification. The report also provided statistics according to this classification (Dracup and Sorley 1933b: 411). The classification of the 1931 Census seems to have been the outcome of the report of the Bombay government’s Depressed Classes and Aboriginal Tribes Committee (popularly referred to as the Starte Committee after its chairman, O H B Starte, an ICS officer), which finally got around in 1930 to define the “backward classes.” It was the Starte Committee which created the much-contested category of the “Other Backward Classes.” However, as will be shown, the meaning of this category for the Starte Committee was very different from what it means today. It was a rather heavyweight committee with Ambedkar and
A V Thakkar (Thakkar Bappa) as members.

It also attempted to clear up the confusion caused by differential usage of the nomenclature of “Backward Classes” and “Depressed Classes.” It claimed that usage of these categories by the government had varied recently which had created some confusion (Report of the Depressed Classes and Aboriginal Tribes Committee 1930: 8–9). The Starte Committee pointed out that the category of “Depressed Classes” had acquired a wider meaning to include not just the untouchables, but also the aboriginal and criminal tribes, and the wandering tribes in the rules of the Educational Department of the Bombay Government, and recommended that the term “Depressed Classes” should be confined to the communities regarded as untouchable. The committee further opined that castes regarded as “backward” in these rules should be properly labelled as “Intermediate,” in order to conform to the category which had been used for them in the 1921 Census. It finally recommended that the broad category of “Backward Classes” should now consist of three subgroups—first, the Depressed Classes, second, the Aboriginal and the Hill Tribes and lastly, the other Backward Classes. This last category consisted of the criminal tribes and the wandering tribes. The Starte Committee added that it would have ideally liked to put the wandering tribes into the second category, but did not recommend doing so because some unspecified problems might be created when compiling government statistics.

After Advancement

But the most important and interesting recommendation of the Starte Committee was that a community should not be allowed to remain in the category of “backward classes” if it reached a certain level of advancement. The establishment of a Backward Classes Board was recommended, which would periodically review the list of “backward classes.” A community would be removed from this category if firstly it ceased to be regarded as untouchable by other members of the community, or it reached a prescribed level of literacy and or reached a certain economic status which meant that it no longer required economic assistance (p 11). Thus, apart from social stigma, educational and economic progress determined a community’s backward status.

A backward classes department was established by the Government of Bombay as a result of the recommendations of the Starte Committee. The annual reports of this department reveal the nuances of the Bombay government’s policy towards the “Backward Classes.” The annual report for 1933–34
acknowledged that there was no easy solution to the vexed problem of defining the “Other Backward Classes.” It pointed out that it was impossible to adopt any fixed criteria and added that it was desirable for the list of “OBCs” to be kept as small as possible (Annual Report on the Working of the Backward Classes Department for 1933–34, nd: 2). The next year’s report stated that it was “undesirable” to make piecemeal changes in the list of OBCs and the Intermediate castes and recommended that the first revision of these lists should take place after two years and thereafter after every five years (Annual Report on the Working of the Backward Classes Department for 1934–35, nd: 1). The first revision was made in 1939–40. Two Intermediate castes were shifted into the category of OBCs, and one caste, which had not been classified, also found its way into the OBC list (Annual Report on the Working of the Backward Classes Department for 1939–40, nd: 2). The next set of changes was listed in the report for 1940–41. Two Intermediate castes were now included in the OBC list, while one caste was removed and put into the list of Intermediate castes (Report on the Working of the Backward Classes Department for 1940–41, nd: 1). Such minor changes continued practically every year till 1947. Problematically, none of these reports mention the criteria or yardsticks that were employed to include or delete a particular caste or castes from the list of OBCs. All that one can conclude is that for the Bombay government, “backwardness” was not for all time to come but was something that could cease with the passage of time. Yet, it should be pointed out that throughout this period there was no whole-scale revision of the lists.

Independence and After

The Constitution specifically referred to preferential recruitment and educational concessions for the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs). At the same, Article 16(4) permitted the government to make reservation for “any backward class of citizens” which in its opinion was not adequately represented in the public services. The 1950s and the 1960s was a period of political change in Maharashtra. Y B Chavan became the chief minister of the bilingual Bombay state in 1956, and that of Maharashtra in 1960. With this, the non-Brahmin, particularly the Maratha, leadership rose to power in the state. The 1962 assembly elections in Maharashtra consolidated Congress dominance and through it the Maratha dominance of the politics of the state.

In 1952–53, the Government of Bombay revised its scheme of reservations for recruitment to the public services. Hitherto, the omnibus category of “Backward Classes” was used for this purpose. The government now divided the quota for recruitment in the lower ranks of the public services into three—the SCs, the STs and the OBCs. It also offered its definition of the OBCs which were described as being “educationally, socially and culturally as equally backward” as the previously mentioned two groups. These communities were “grouped together in a miscellaneous section designated as the ‘Other Backward Communities’” (Annual Administration Report for the Year 1952–53, Backward Classes Department, 1954: 44). The next year, a subcommittee of the advisory Backward Classes Board was appointed to review the list of OBCs, but since no further reference to this subcommittee appears in the later reports of the backward classes department, nothing seems to have come out of it.

With the linguistic reorganisation of states in 1956, the bilingual Bombay state was formed. The erstwhile state of Saurashtra was merged into it. The Marathi-speaking areas of Hyderabad and Madhya Pradesh, known as Marathwada and Vidarbha, were also merged to form the new state. These new regions brought along with them their separate lists of the backward classes. The government announced its intention to create a new classification of the “backward classes” on a uniform basis, but till that was done the status quo was to be maintained. The result was that there was recruitment to public services in these regions on a differential basis (Annual Administration Report on the Welfare of Backward Classes, 1958–59, 1962: 26–27). In fact in 1959–60, the criterion of income replaced caste in the definition of OBCs. The category, while including the members of the Nomadic Tribes and the erstwhile Criminal Tribes, now was to consist of all individuals whose annual income was less than ₹900 (Annual Administration Report on the Welfare of the Backward Classes in the Bombay State, 1959–60, 1962: 1). This limit was later raised to ₹1,200 in 1960–61. In addition, the SC converts to Buddhism and theSTs living outside the Scheduled Areas were also categorised as OBCs (Annual Administration Report on the Welfare of the Backward Classes in the Bombay State, 1960–61, 1962: 1).

In 1961, a member moved a resolution in the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly asking for the appointment of a committee to examine whether the quantum of reservation in the public services in the state was adequate. Chavan asked for the withdrawal of the motion and in return promised an appointment of a committee to examine the issue. A committee was appointed under the chairmanship of B D Deshmukh and hence is referred to as the Deshmukh Committee (Report of the Committee on Reservation for Backward Classes in the Services1964: 2–3). The committee recommended that the communities eligible for reservations should be grouped into four categories. First, the STs, second, the SCs and the Neo-Buddhists, third, the Denotified Tribes and Nomadic Tribes (DNTs), and last the OBCs. It defined “backwardness” as arising out of two factors: “historic and geographic isolation of groups” and “stigma of touch” that is, the criteria of untouchability. The committee examined the issue of whether the criteria for the category of “Other Backward Classes” was to be caste or income. It opined that a switchover to the criteria of income was not desirable. It added that income could be a criterion for aid and assistance to individuals but it would not be possible for it to be applied in recruitment to the public services (pp 23–25).

However, R D Bhandare, a close associate of Ambedkar and a leader of the Republican Party of India, penned a dissenting note as a member of the committee. He protested against clubbing the issue of reservations for SCs/STs with those of the “Other Backward Classes” (pp 121–22). This was for him an “injustice” to the SCs. He added that the Government of Bombay’s criterion deciding on the OBCs was vague and unsatisfactory (pp 126–27 and 134). Bhandare opined that instead of the nomenclature of “Other Backward Classes,” the term “Other Backward Communities” should be used. He offered a threefold criteria for deciding upon “backwardness,” which were social, educational and economical backwardness (pp 232 and 225). He also asked for a creation of a distinct category of “economic “Backward Class” which was to be based on economic factor and was to be irrespective of caste or religion. These two categories were to be constitute the broader category of “Other Backward Classes.” He added that whether the economically backward classes were to be given preference in the recruitment to public services was to be up to the government (pp 232–33). Thus, economic backwardness along with rather than solely social backwardness became the major criteria for defining backwardness.

The majority report of the committee was accepted by the Government of Maharashtra. The relevant annual reports of the state government provide details of the new reservation scheme in Maharashtra. The communities eligible for reservations were grouped into four categories. They were SCs and the Neo-Buddhists, the STs, the DNTs and the OBCs. With this, the discourse on backwardness in Maharashtra in a sense reached a point of closure, only to be revived in the 1980s with the submission of the report of the Second Backward Classes or the Mandal Commission and then in the 1990s with its implementation in the state. The period since then has seen periodic demands from various communities for being included in the OBC category, the most recent and the most strident being that of the Maratha community. The main basis of these claims is that of social backwardness. However, as has been demonstrated here, social backwardness was never the primary basis of deciding “backwardness,” rather it was first educational and then later economic backwardness.

The question that can be legitimately raised is that despite a long legacy of social movements characterised by opposition to Brahmin dominance, why did Maharashtra fail to launch a full-fledged caste-based scheme of reservations, as was done in Madras/Tamil Nadu much before Mandal? After 1960, the Maratha community, thanks to the astute leadership of Chavan, managed to consolidate its emerging political dominance in Maharashtra (Lele 1990). The non-Maratha, non-Brahmin castes, were gradually co-opted into the emerging structures of rural local self-government institutions and the cooperative institutions. Their political ambitions were tamed. Chavan often talked of the rule of the Bahujan Samaj (literally meaning those who are in the majority) which was assumed to comprise of all non-Brahmin, non-Dalit castes, thus invoking a commonality between the Marathas and these communities. Moreover, the first Backward Classes or Kalelkar Commision in its list of backward classes for the then Bombay state did not recommend the inclusion of Marathas, while, including many other smaller agricultural and artisan castes, some of whom like the Malis, Bhandaris, Shimpis and Nhavis, had been included in the category of “Maratha and allied castes” under the 1919 reforms. Any such scheme would have had to deal with the thorny question of whether the Marathas should be included in the category of “backward classes.”

It would have been difficult for the Maratha political elite to push this inclusion through when the Kalelkar Commission had denied it. Had the Marathas been included, it might have raised demands from the non-Maratha, non-Brahmin castes that they be given a separate quota. This might have provided these communities with a useful rallying point to challenge the Maratha dominance, or at least demand a greater share of political power. Such a possibility would have severely dented the domination of the Maratha elites over the politics of the state. Thus it is hardly surprising that the dominant Maratha elite felt no need to “do” the politics of “backwardness” when the category of “Bahujan” served the purpose. Political consolidation was possible even without reservations, and hence no such scheme emerged.


1 Phule’s submission is included along with other written submissions made to the commission, which have been paginated separately.

2 Chatfield’s response to Setalvad’s demand has been quoted in a letter written by the educational department and printed in the appendices to the main report.

3 The manifesto is published as an appendix, Appendix 2.

4 These categories were listed in a separate appendix, Appendix C, with separate pagination.

5 This information is provided in the Provincial Tables printed at the end of the volume with separate pagination.


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Updated On : 22nd Dec, 2017


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