NEW DELHI — INDIA'S Supreme Court last week halted the six week-old caste war that has deeply divided this country of 835 million. Prime Minister V.P. Singh's government was ordered Oct. 1 to stop the implementation of its Aug. 13 decision to reserve an additional 27 percent of government jobs for people belonging to low castes. The Supreme Court will hear petitions against the policy and deliver a verdict later this year.
Mr. Singh's announcement Aug. 7 that his government would reserve government jobs for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBCs) sparked riots across the nation. Angry school and college students took to the streets, battled with police, burned government property, and brought daily activities in scores of towns and cities across the country to a grinding halt.
More than 80 young people have tried to commit suicide by soaking their clothes in kerosene and setting themselves on fire or by consuming poison to protest the government's decision to reserve jobs along caste lines. Thirty have died of their burns while another 40 have lost their lives in police shootouts connected with demonstrations.
The student community, drawn from all castes and communities, is in a furor over Singh's decision to implement recommendations made to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi 10 years ago by a government commission headed by the late Bindeshwari Prasad Mandal.
The students worry that in a country where 30 million youths are jobless, reservation of jobs on the basis of caste and community will make finding employment even more difficult.
India's caste system - devised, according to Hinduism, by Manu, the progenitor of the human race - is as old as the religion itself. Manu is associated with the Manava Dharma Shastra, the most important codification of Hindu law.
Compiled between 200 BC and 200 AD, this code is the earliest of the dharma sutras, or manuals of duty. Manu divided the Hindus into four groups on the basis of their professions: brahmins (priests), kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), vaishyas (merchants and farmers), and sudras (laborers).
While the people belonging to the first three categories account for barely 10 percent of the population, these upper castes have always wielded power.
This classification led to many revolts over the centuries by the socially oppressed lower castes. Dissent within the Hindu community resulted in the birth of three major religions in the subcontinent: Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism.
The Constitution drawn up when India became independent in 1947, provides reservations for the Harijans, or untouchables, the most downtrodden of the sudras - by reserving 22.5 percent of government jobs and seats in colleges and universities for them.
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru set up a commission in 1955 which listed 2,399 Other Backward Classes (OBCs), as the Harijans are referred to in the Constitution, and identified 800 of them as the most backward.
The Commission recommended the government do all it could to uplift these people, but did not ask for job reservations. Nehru, too, did not like the philosophy of reservations.
``I react strongly against anything which leads to inefficiency and second-rate standards,'' Nehru said in 1960. ``I want my country to be first-class in everything. The moment we encourage the second-rate, we are lost.''
The first trouble arose in 1979 when a barber, or sudra became chief minister of the state of Bihar in northern India and reserved 20 percent of government jobs for the backward classes in the state. This led to widespread violence, forcing then-Prime Minister Morarji Desai to appoint the Mandal committee to suggest ways to cope with the problem.
By the time Mandal finished his work, Desai had lost his job and Indira Gandhi had returned to power. Neither she nor her son Rajiv thought it wise to act on Mandal's controversial report.
Since the census in India takes no account of caste and community, Mandal had to depend on the 1931 census data collected by the British when Pakistan, Burma, and Bangladesh were all part of India. According to this census, 52 percent of the populace belonged to the backward classes. Mandal concluded that the 52 percent had not changed.
Since a judgment of the Supreme Court has held that job reservations for the backwards should not exceed 50 percent, Mandal recommended that an additional 27 percent of government jobs be reserved for the SEBCs. Together with the 22.5 percent of jobs already reserved for the Harijans, the total is 49.5 percent.
Jobs are scarce in India. The federal government has a staff of 3.5 million and hires an additional 200,000 every year. Of these, nearly half go to Harijans and SEBCs, leaving barely 100,000 jobs for millions of youths pouring out of schools.
Frustrated by diminishing prospects of employment, the young have taken the extreme step of immolating themselves to force the government to rethink its policy.
The Supreme Court has provided Singh with a face-saving device and a three-month respite to come up with a policy that will help the low castes without antagonizing the upper castes.