ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Defining Backwardness

Debates in Bombay/Maharashtra

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.

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Updated On : 22nd Dec, 2017
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