By Gail Omvedt and Bharat Patankar

In many ways the OBCs are the most controversial and puzzling group (category) within the caste hierarchy.  This short article may seem over-simplified to some, but it is an effort to clear up some of the confusion surrounding the OBCs.

“OBC” means “other backward classes (castes).”  This is a legal term; it was used early in the Mandal Commission report, issued in 1980, which included recommendations for reservation of seats for OBCs. These were the castes between the three “higher” varnas and the Dalits (Scheduled Castes) and Adivasis (Scheduled Tribes), and amount to about 50% of the Indian population.  They were previously considered “shudras” under the traditional varna (caste) system, that is those who were the lowest of the “clean” castes.  During the colonial period they were known as “NonBrahmans” and in several parts of India – especially in the Marathi- and Tamil-speaking areas, they mounted militant movements challenging Brahmanism.  In most of northern India, in contrast, movements were more Sanskritized, with the Yadavas encouraged to identify with Krishna and think of themselves as of the lineage of Krishna, while the Kurmis (peasants) were taught to identify with Rama.

There is a great hierarchy among the OBCs.  The group considering themselves “highest” are the mainly peasant castes (Jats and Kurmis in north India, Kunbis in Maharashtra, Vellalas in south India, etc); close to these are the herding (Yadavas, Dhangars, Korbis) and gardening (Malis, Sainis) communities.  Ranging below these are the various artisan and service groups – goldsmiths, blacksmiths, potters, barbers, washermen etc.  This linkage of caste with profession is unique to the Indian caste system.  Ambedkar had described caste as a “graded hierarchy” with a ascending ladder of status and a descending degree of contempt; Phule had talked of how the “ignorant Kunbi looked down on the ignorant Mahar, the ignorant Mahar scorned the ignorant Mang” – these were expressions of this hierarchy of caste, in which every group tried to claim a higher status than another.

Kancha Ilaiah has described Dalits and OBCs as the “productive castes” – in contrast to the three highest varnas (Brahmans, Ksatriyas or rulers and Vaishyas or banias/ merchants) who are exploiters living off the proceeds of their labour.  The term “bahujan” meaning “majority people” is also often used for these groups.

What is the Percentage of OBCs in the Population?

The Mandal Commission estimated their percentage (based on extrapolations from the 1931 Census, which was the last Census to ask questions of caste) at 52%.  Later elites have preferred to use the data from surveys, which give a much lower percentage.  But the most efficient surveys (the National Sample Surveys) are fallacious – because they rely on self-identification, and many OBC groups lack the consciousness of benefits, or don’t find enough benefits, or prefer not to use a stigmatized “backward” identity.  Between the 1999 and 2004 NSS surveys there was a rise in the percentage of OBCs, showing the increase in consciousness; we might expect a “rise” in further surveys.   The current fraudulent attempt to have a “caste census” will not provide more accurate data.   Until a genuine caste-inclusive census is available, we still find it best to use the Mandal Commission data, not surveys.

How does the Contemporary Economic Situation Affect OBCs? 

Traditionally the jajmani system (Balutedari in Maharashtra) in which various OBC artisan castes performed their duties and received a share of the village harvest is dying away.  Many of the old occupations are gone, replaced by modern forms; e.g. clay pots are replaced by steel, rope-making is heavily affected by the availability of plastic ropes.  Relatively few of the OBC artisan castes now perform their traditional occupations.

In spite of changes, however, stratification remains.   A major factor in brahmanic domination of the caste system from the beginning has been to ban the “shudra” castes from receiving education.  The OBC groups are highly lacking in education, especially in the quality English education which has led to good jobs in services or the organized sector.  Most therefore are caught as manual labourers in the low-paid, disregarded “unorganized” sector.  If not agriculture labour, they do other menial work, hauling bricks, working on construction sites, wandering here and there as migrants.

A few from the farming communities have benefited from the modernization of agriculture and have become rich capitalist farmers. These aspire to all the ideology and material benefits of brahmanisation, and seek to spread this among the economically poorer of their own groups. This provides a material base for brahmanisation among the OBCs.

Education is still a major problem for OBCs, especially in the rural areas. The education they get is overwhelmingly of poor quality, in the vernacular (and in a brahmanized version of the vernacular); and all the promises of providing compulsory universal primary education have remained on paper.  While OBC groups such as Marathas are now producing writers of novels and poetry, almost all their parents were illiterate.  Because of lack of education, especially English education, OBCs remain far behind Dalits in modern technology such as use of internet, blogs, egroups etc.

What are the Relations between OBCs and “Dalits”?

The main difference between them is that while both are toiling sections, the Scheduled Castes have been considered polluting, while the other “shudras” are “clean” castes.

Consistent with this hierarchy, OBCs consider themselves higher than Dalits (though it has to be remembered that there is also hierarchy among the Dalits themselves) and they have very often been the “foot soldiers” in the Brahman-instigated attacks on Dalits. OBCs have too often absorbed brahmanic ideology and at times hardly need such instigation: they themselves are often jealous of the Dalits, who have gotten the benefit of reservations which many of the OBCs have missed out on.  Brahmanic, Hindutvavadi propaganda plays on all of this.

Sometimes the Left also falls victim to this.  There are times when the Left, conceptualizing “OBCs” as “capitalist farmers” or “affluent” farmers and the Dalits as “proletariat”, takes the non-antagonistic contradiction between Dalits and OBCs as an antagonistic “class” contradiction between a “capitalist”  and a “working” class.  This is the most dangerous position, because the Left has some base among Dalits, and Dalits do tend to be attracted to the idea that OBCs are their enemy.  The resulting heightening of the contradiction makes alliance between these groups more difficult, almost impossible.

Such contradictions have been heightening in recent years – both because of Hindutva brahmanic propaganda and misguided Left instigation.  This is a very difficult situation.  A major task of an OBC-centered movement, therefore, is to reconcile the contradiction with Dalits. It is necessary for OBCs to take the lead in this reconciliation, though the overall struggle for caste annihilation will be primarily led by Dalits.