WHEN THE GOVERNMENT IMPLEMENTED the Mandal Commission recommendations, in the early 1990s, it was meant to be a watershed moment for the Shudras. The measure reserved positions in government employment and public higher education for the Other Backward Classes—a category made up overwhelmingly of disadvantaged Shudra castes, traditionally labourers and craftspeople. The commission had identified these castes, part of the fourth and lowest varna of the Brahminical order, as holding a wretched place in Indian society. They lagged far behind the better-off castes on multiple social, economic and educational measures, yet were excluded from the system of positive discrimination created at Independence for the Dalits and Adivasis—officially, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The commission rightly created a separate category of reservations for the OBCs based on their historical backwardness.
The reservations were met with vicious backlash from Brahmin and Vaishya castes, and from a section of the Shudras as well. For decades, relatively prosperous, landholding groups at the top of the intra-Shudra caste hierarchy—the Kammas, Reddys, Kapus, Gowdas, Nairs, Jats, Patels, Marathas, Gujjars, Yadavs and so on—had been Sanskritising themselves, taking on the habits and prejudices of the Brahmin-Bania castes. In my book Why I am Not a Hindu, published in 1996, I described these “upper” Shudra castes as Neo-Kshatriyas, to reflect their hope that Sanskritisation would earn them the role and rank in the caste system left largely vacant by the waning of the Kshatriyas, traditionally the second varna.
Two and a half decades have passed since the Mandal Commission reservations came into force, the space of a full generation. It is time to ask: How far have the reservations brought the Shudra OBCs? What good has come to the upper Shudras who opposed them? Where do the Shudras find themselves in India today?
Shudras comprise approximately half the population of India, the second most populous country on earth. The Mandal Commission concluded in the 1980s that the OBCs, not including the “upper” Shudra castes, represent 52 percent of all Indians. This amounts to over 650 million people at present—more than twice the population of the United States, more than three times the populations of Pakistan or Brazil. By comparison, the “forward” castes—Hindu castes outside the OBCs, Scheduled Cates and Scheduled Tribes—all together count for no more than 20 percent of the Indian population.