When then prime minister V.P. Singh lit the fires of caste conflict by implementing the Mandal formula of job reservations for the Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in 1990, the politicians, who saw electoral benefit from the measure in spite of the resultant confrontation between the upper and lower castes, were not too perturbed. The reason was that the upper castes were numerically not strong enough to figure in their vote-winning calculations.
But what they did not foresee was the possibility of the antagonism between the lower castes themselves. The Gujjar protests have unleashed this phenomenon of fratricide, turning the dream of reservations for the supposedly underprivileged into a nightmare.
What the agitation has done is to expose the worst features of the quota system, which is a favorite of the myopic Indian politician. Apart from the fact that the system militates against merit by keeping jobs aside on the basis of caste and not competence, the easy road to employment has also brought more and more claimants to the fore.
While the Brahmins and other upper castes could be contemptuously ignored, compelling many of them to migrate, usually to the US, as also from Tamil Nadu the lower castes have stayed put to jostle among themselves for a larger share of the employment cake. What this pushing and shoving have done is to make a mockery of the caste system, upsetting the earlier traditional hierarchy in ways few could have predicted.
The present tussle, for instance, was set off by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government's decision in 1999 to include the Jats, a major north Indian community of peasants, in the OBC list. The fallout was that the Gujjar members of the list felt aggrieved because they had to share the limited number of jobs meant for the OBCs.
Hence, their demand for relegation to the Schedued Tribe (ST) status. It is this demand that has revealed all the unsavory aspects of the reservations policy. For a start, the preference for lowering one's social status is a peculiar one, to say the least. The normal impulse is to raise one's position on the economic and social scale, a process of upward mobility that has been called "Sanskritization" to indicate the imitation of the Brahmins (who spoke Sanskrit in earlier times) by the lower castes.
No one could have imagined, say, even 30 years ago that the politicians would play such cynical games to lure the various "vote banks" that a process of "reverse Sanskritization" would come into force. Little wonder that the Supreme Court has ruefully observed that "nowhere in the world do castes, classes or communities queue up for the sake of gaining backward status".
What is more, "when more and more people aspire for 'backwardness' instead of 'forwardness', the country itself stagnates". It warned, therefore, that "while affirmative discrimination is a road to equality, care should be taken that the road does not become a rut in which the vehicle of progress gets entrenched and stuck".
How the road can become a rut is evident from the laborious - and, in a sense, amusing - efforts made by the Gujjars to buttress their claim for ST status although they do not meet the usual criterion of the tribals being geographically isolated forest dwellers with a "primitive" culture.
However, to flaunt their backwardness, the Gujjars have argued before the commission inquiring into their demand that they do have primitive traits like superstitions, belief in marrying their children when they are still in the womb and practicing polyandry. Like the Supreme Court, Justice Jasraj Chopra, the head of the commission, also said: "Earlier the craze was to move forward. Now it is the opposite."
But it is obviously not very easy to become backward since opposition has come from a section of the ST. Addressing the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad, the former speaker of the Lok Sabha, Purno Sangma, said that "we will not let anyone enter our category ... we are classless and casteless people and are not going to let anyone dilute our tribal character".
His argument is based on the historical tradition of the tribals or Adivasis (original inhabitants) having lived in India before the arrival of the Aryans from central Asia around 1500 B.C. As such, they are not a part of the 'varna vyavastha' or the caste system based on a social pyramid with the Brahmins on top.
Resistance to the Gujjar demand has also come from an important member of the ST list, the Meenas, who fear that the inclusion of Gujjars will eat into their share of the job quota. Only a few months ago, there were fierce Meena-Gujjar clashes that the Supreme Court called "a national shame".
If the self-serving politicians had the real interest of the OBCs, STs and the Scheduled Castes (SCs) in mind, they would have followed India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru's advice to focus on education rather than on job reservations. In 1961, Nehru wrote to the chief ministers saying that he disliked "any kind of reservation ... I react strongly against anything which leads to inefficiency".
According to him, "the only real way to help a backward group is to give opportunities for good education ... Everything else is provision of some kind of crutches which do not add to the strength or health of the body".