Last weekend saw Jai Ram Thakur, the Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh, announcing the constitution of a Samanya Varg Aayog (General Category Commission). While the terms of reference of this Commission are yet to be notified, its constitution created a stir as there is a keen interest on several counts around this Commission.

There are several questions like what was the need for such a Commission? What does its constitution signify? What is to be achieved by the exercise? What will be the social and political ramifications of this move that comes a year before the state assembly polls? And above all, does a state like Himachal Pradesh have space for such kind of ‘maneuvers’?

The announcement came after an 11 month long movement that was followed by a massive demonstration in Dharamshala coinciding with the winter session of the state assembly last week. Jai Ram Thakur had to come amid the protesters to make the announcement after the top brass of the state administration and the police had failed to pacify them.

“There was a voice being raised by a section of the society for a Commission for them and they had raised a demand on two or three occasions. We have listened to them,” Jai Ram Thakur said.

He said that everyone has to be taken along. “It is the responsibility of the government to ensure betterment of every section of the society under a constitutional framework,” he said.

The state had seen a movement in this direction led by Devbhoomi Kshatriya Sangathan and Devbhoomi Swarna Morcha. While there had been demonstrations earlier, the movement for a Swarna Aayog (Upper Caste Commission) had gathered steam mid November when a ‘Shav Yatra’ (funeral procession) of caste based reservation and Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) (Prevention of Atrocities) Act was carried out to the holy city of Hardwar.

Thereafter the participants had performed post death rituals and returned to Himachal Pradesh while bringing back Ganges water for purification of the representatives of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress that have been in power since the state came into existence five decades ago. The Padyatra covered 1150 km in 25 days.

There are around 33 % Rajputs and 18 % Brahmins in the state that also has around 26 % SCs, the second highest in terms of the total percentage of the state after Punjab.

To drive home their point the agitators had asked the people to press the NOTA button during the recent parliamentary and assembly by-polls where the BJP lost all four seats and the NOTA votes were substantial.

“We wanted to take this Yatra to the neighbouring states as well but were denied permission. While all other sections like women, minorities, SC, ST backward cases etc have commissions to address their concerns, there was nothing like this to speak out for the interests of the general categories. There are issues like disparity in education fee structure and merit among the youth while there are disparities with regards to promotions among employees. Even the farmers from certain categories get benefits of subsidies for implements and seeds while the same are not extended to people from general categories. Above all is the misuse of the Atrocities Act which many people have made a business,” leader of the movement Rumit Thakur told The Citizen.

When asked about the possibilities of a caste confrontation breaking out, Rumit said, “We are not against benefits extended to anyone and neither have we opposed anyone. We just want our rights and have support from every category. We will see how the Commission is implemented, what will be its byelaws and what all will it cover. This is just the first step.”

Many see the move of the government as something that is not good for the social fabric where the marginalized sections continue to be at the receiving end.

The most vociferous attack has come from the Left that has pointed to the government move as politically motivated.

“In a state where communal polarization is not possible, they are raising the caste pitch. They are trying to deflect the core issues of social oppression. They have to ensure social justice to which they are constitutionally bound,” said Sanjay Chauhan who is a former Shimla Mayor and a CPM leader.

When the above mentioned cremation of the Atrocities Act and caste based reservations was being carried out, the party had come out saying that these acts were against the spirit of the Constitution and would lead to a particular kind of caste polarization besides rise in intolerance. The state secretary Onkar Shad had underlined, “While the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, the violation of the Constitution itself is not permissible.”

It was at a seminar organized by Dalit Shoshan Mukti Manch that former CPM MP Subhasini Ali pointed out that on the one side there are talks of abolishing reservation and Atrocities Act and on the other law and order gets implemented on the basis of the caste of the victim and perpetrator in the case of murder. She accused the Himachal government of murder of the Constitution by allowing a Yatra that carried out the funeral march of the reservation and Atrocities Act.

While announcing the General Category Commission, Jai Ram Thakur had pointed out that a similar Commission exists in Madhya Pradesh. Rumit Thakur claimed that although Madhya Pradesh had constituted the Commission in late January, the demand for such a body was first raised in Himachal Pradesh.

It needs to be pointed out that it was in the run up to the last assembly polls that the Gujarat government had announced setting up of a Commission to study the problem faced by the non reserved categories (upper castes) and suggest corrective measures. Sources say that the Commission eventually led to certain benefits like education loans etc for the said categories.

It remains to be seen how the constitution of the Commission plays out in the poll year in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh.