The Sharmas of Roopvas

Raul Irani
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A Brahmin village erupts in joy over the new economic quota

IT TAKES TIME for the eyes to adjust to the dark, dingy room. A hand pump gleams through the darkness of the kuchcha brick- walled space. Next to a dimly-lit adjoining room with charpoys, a staircase leads to an open terrace where Dharmendra Sharma’s wife Seema makes chapaatis on a chulha under the winter sun. She quickly tells her seven-year-old daughter Akanksha to get some chairs from the neighbour’s house. The girl, whose hair is cut short like her two younger sisters’, looks up through the fringe over her forehead and offers a mischievous smile. A class II student in the village school, Akanksha says she wants to be a teacher when she grows up.

“I hope she will be able to fulfil her dream,” says Dharmendra, who is holding his fourth child, a boy, in his arms. He has no television, but he has heard from other villagers that a bill has been passed in Parliament to reserve 10 per cent of government jobs and educational seats for General Category candidates who are not in high-income brackets. The move has not just raised hopes of Dharmendra, a farm labourer who owns 2.5 bighas of land, but also of other Brahmins of Roopvas village of Bulandshahr district in Uttar Pradesh.

“Even if one of my children gets the benefit of reservations and does well, it will be good. If this had happened earlier, maybe we would have got educated,” says Dharmendra, who had been a die-hard Congress supporter till 2014, even in a Modi wave. From his terrace, one of the villagers points out a two-storeyed house of a Dalit family around hundred metres away. The insinuation is apparent. Scheduled Castes and Tribes have been beneficiaries of India’s reservation policy for over six decades. The Mandal Commission’s recommendations for an Other Backward Classes (OBC) quota were implemented in 1992, taking the total proportion of reservations for SC, ST and OBC to 49.5 per cent of all government jobs and seats. The Modi Government’s legislation just ahead of Lok Sabha elections, aimed at ‘economically weaker’ sections of those in the General Category (non-SC/ST/OBC), has been the first major modification of India’s affirmative action policy since Mandal.

In Roopvas village, dominated by Sharmas, a Brahmin surname, there is a sense of contentment over the move. Between milky cups of tea with spoonfuls of sugar, some five elderly men sitting in the sun on benches made of wood planks welcome the move as ‘justice at last’. Dayanand Sharma says his grandfather had 20 bighas of land, which was distributed among his two children, who further divided it among their own children. “There’s hardly any land left now. We need reservations.” As a young man comes riding a tractor, his cell phone ringing constantly, someone points him out as the village headman, Hemant Sharma. He gets off the tractor and reels out the demographic statistics of the village. Of its 1,350 voters, nearly 1,000 are Brahmins. The literacy figure in the village is around 80 per cent, yet barring around 10 families, all the Brahmin households expect to qualify for reservations, since the policy excludes only households with incomes above Rs 8 lakh that possess agricultural land above five acres and a house larger than 1,000 sq ft. In the last decade, only around 10 people in this agricultural village have managed to get government jobs, says Hemant, an advocate himself, like several other youth in Roopvas.

The village, which falls in UP’s Debai assembly constituency, has traditionally supported the Congress in the past. Before delimitation, it was part of Anupshahr, where the Congress had last won in 1996 when Satish Sharma contested the assembly seat. Hemant says political preferences have changed since 2014. While admitting that the alliance between Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and Mayawati’s BSP could pose a challenge to the BJP in the General Election this summer, he adds that in a state where caste affiliations dominate voting patterns, such a pre-poll partnership could consolidate the general category vote against it. Like in the run-up to 2014, Modi has again raised expectations ahead of elections.

Shanti Swarup Sharma, 65, farm labourer earning Rs 250-300 per dat, has three teenaged sons who had to drop out of school and join him in the fields because he could not afford to educate them any further

The pradhan, an aspiring politician, points out to a few Brahmin households living in abject poverty in the village. In his courtyard, Shanti Swarup Sharma, 65, has before him a plate of potato curry, chapaati and green chilli pickle. A farm labourer earning Rs 250- 300 per day, his three teenaged sons had to drop out of school after class VIII and join him in the fields because he could not afford to educate them any further. The only thing that brings a smile to his face is playing with his lame dog Liza. There are charpoys, a calf and a chulha to cook. The lives of the other impoverished villagers are similar— around two bighas of land, a cow, two rooms and children with aspirations. Mukut Lal Sharma’s daughter Priyanshi, a class VII student dressed in track bottoms and a T-shirt, wants to study further, and her brother, a year younger than her, wants to join the police.

Rich or poor, old or young, educated or uneducated, woman or man, everybody makes it a point to proudly add the Sharma patronymic, a name which also insulates them from any caste-based discrimination. Devki Nandan is the only one who does not use the Sharma surname. Why? He shrugs. Though he too echoes the ‘reservations-may-help’ line, there is a certain nonchalance with which he wears his Brahmin identity.

Vinod Sharma, an advocate, whose family is highly educated, says 10 per cent is “too less” for the General Category, a population that is estimated to account for around one-third of all Indians.

Notwithstanding the nitpickers, Prime Minister Modi seems to have provided some consolation to his party’s core upper-caste and Bania supporters during election time. “The Prime Minister has been addressing concerns of all sections, but General Category people were not getting anything. Now, like children of OBCs, our children will also get reservations even if they get less marks,” says Brajesh Kumar Sharma.

How justified their optimism is remains unclear. The Centre’s quota surprise, seen as an attempt to appease the BJP’s Brahmin-Bania vote base after the party tried to shed the image of its close association with the two upper-caste groups, comes in the aftermath of its defeat in three states: Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. According to Hemant, it has diluted upper-caste disillusionment over the BJP’s ‘Dalit appeasement’ caused in no small measure by the Government’s legislation to nullify a Supreme Court judgment tempering draconian provisions of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

Reservations have raised the hopes of Dharmendra Sharma, a farmer who owns 2.5 bighas of land in Roopvas village of Bulandshahr district in Uttar Pradesh

According to Professor Gilles Verniers, political scientist and co-director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data at Ashoka University, “Since the impact of reservations will not be visible before the General Election, it will remain elusive till then.” In his opinion, it is less about economic uplift and more an electoral signalling gimmick aimed at addressing an old upper- caste demand. Besides, given the apex court’s cap on overall quotas at 50 per cent and the constitutional amendment to add another 10 per cent being challenged legally, uncertainty looms over whether the new quota will go through. “How it is going to make any tangible difference is hard to see,” adds Verniers, “It’s yet another illustration of pointed intervention coming out of the blue with no scope for public debate. It reveals the mode of governance through spectacular action that aims more at revealing the intrinsic qualities of the Prime Minister. Quota is presented as a gift of a benevolent leader. Timed ahead of elections, who can be fooled that it’s not an electoral gimmick? In a way, it’s an indirect and involuntary admission of failure.”

THE BILL, DESIGNED for the benefit of the economically ‘weak’ among Brahmins, Banias, Thakurs, Jats, Bhumihars, Marathas, Kammas and Kapus among various other caste and religious minority groups, was passed in Parliament with only the DMK, RJD and AIMIM resisting it. Political analyst Kanchan Gupta says a simmering disquiet over quotas for SCs, STs and OBCs had started finding expression in the country’s Hindi belt. “In states like UP, MP and Rajasthan, there are sections in the ‘upper’ or ‘forward’ castes who can claim that they are lower on the economic ladder than many Dalits and tribals. They needed to be comforted and reassured.”

The long-pending demand had also gained momentum because of widening economic disparity, irrespective of caste barriers. In The Bombay Plan, a book on the forgotten Bombay Plan that business leaders and technocrats rolled out in 1944-45, the ideas put forth to address inequality include inheritance taxes, land reforms, and the redistribution of shares in joint stock companies, among other measures. ‘The Bombay Plan did envisage a major shift in employment from agriculture to industry, and to some extent, to services as well. The share of sectoral employment between agriculture, industry and services was to go from 72:15:13 in 1931 to 58:26:16 by 1962,’ writes Ajay Chhibber in a chapter titled ‘The Surprising Genesis of our State Albatross’ in the book. Chhibber concludes by saying, ‘In hindsight, the Bombay Plan could be blamed for having supported the intellectual groundwork for the state albatross that still holds back this great country. It could have been different had we followed a different economic path and would by now possibly be both an economic superpower and a happier country.’

The plea for the economic status-based reservation of jobs and educational seats is as old as the first affirmative-action measure adopted by the Government after Independence (for SCs and STs). Quotas have been routinely extended, reaching a stage where no government and no party dares to scale them back, leave alone abolish the policy, given the political repercussions of such a move. What was a tool of empowerment, however, is now a symbol of entitlement. “What I believe is that affirmative action falls through if you do not have a sunset clause. That’s the dark side of reservations,” says Kanchan Gupta. He views the concept of such affirmative action at three levels: sending out a political message that the state is not indifferent to the real and perceived grievances of a specific group; economically empowering marginalised groups and making them upwardly mobile; and, sharpening the administrative response to community-specific problems.

Around 40 km away from Roopvas, in Surjawali village, where everyone is hassled over cows ravaging their crops, resentment over the SC/ST Act is more apparent among upper castes—Thakurs and Brahmins—who constitute around 15 per cent of the population of this Jatav- dominated village. Bhavad Pal Singh, a Thakur who lives with his wife and three children in a single-room thatched hut, is waiting for other pre-poll promises before he makes up his mind whom to vote for. He is candid. “Janata toh laalchi hoti hai, na (people are greedy, aren’t they)?” he says.

Somvir Sharma, whose three children are working in private companies, hopes that reservations will help them get better education and jobs. According to him, around 200 people who’re not in the General Category have government jobs in this village with a voter population of 2,200. Devendra Singh, a Thakur working in an RSS school, says that the SC/ST Act was often misused. Dheeraj Singh, a Jatav and husband of village Pradhan Surajmukhi Devi, says the quota will mitigate anger among upper-castes over SC/ST “appeasement” to some extent.

A man on a cycle stops to ask what is being done about the cows. Dheeraj Singh says a ‘gaushala’ will soon be built. The man nods and cycles away.