Reservation was not meant to pit one caste against another.
The verdict of the Supreme Court in the Janhit Abhiyan v. Union of India 2022 to uphold the 103rd Amendment to the Constitution, which allocates a 10% reservation in educational institutions and employment for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) of the non-reserved categories, has sparked a contentious debate; the arguments question both the validity of the pronouncement as well as the far-reaching ramifications of this decision on the concept of reservation as a whole.
The party in the forefront of this opposition is the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the ruling party in Tamil Nadu.
The caste system remains the bane of Indian society. Initially established as an efficient system of division of labour and refinement of dedicated skills, it became corrupted over the ages and deteriorated to represent a despicable instrument of unacceptable discrimination. Significant sections of the population were rigidly restricted to the menial jobs done by their forefathers, excluded from education and denied upward social mobility, creating in the process a large marginalized population.
At the time of Independence, our founding fathers, realizing that the greatest need of the hour was to uplift these marginalized communities, instituted an extraordinary affirmative action program that was unparalleled in its aim and its reach. No other country in the world can boast of an affirmative action plan that is so ambitious and so extensive as India’s caste-based reservation.
Initially caste-based reservation was restricted to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. They were allocated 15% (SC) and 7.5% (ST) reservations in admission to educational institutions, government jobs and in the legislature. In 1990, Prime Minister V.P. Singh, acting on the Mandal Commission Report, expanded the ambit of reservations to include a 27% reservation for Other Backward Classes (castes other than SC and ST that were educationally and socially backward). Government of India maintains a list of castes/communities deemed as OBC.
Then, in 2019, the Narendra Modi government, via a Constitutional Amendment, introduced a 10% quota for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) among General Category candidates in government jobs and educational institutions via the 103rd Amendment to the Constitution.
Opposing the SC verdict, which validates the 103rd Amendment, DMK spokesperson Manuraj Shunmugasundaram writes (Indian Express. November 11, 2022): “Reservation is not a poverty alleviation mechanism. Reservation was always implemented to address representation or the lack thereof in educational institutions and public employment. The Supreme Court has failed to recognize that the 103rd Constitutional Amendment has relied on economic criteria to extend reservations, something that has been expressly barred in law. In Indra Sawhney vs Union (1992), it has been categorically held that in the determination of backwardness, economic condition can never be the sole criterion. The reason for this is that income is a variable factor and not a structural or systematic tool for discrimination.”
True, reservation is not a poverty alleviation scheme per se. But it would be naive to believe that economic penury was not pivotal to the decision by our founding fathers to recommend reservation in both educational institutions and jobs for the marginalized communities. If it was merely a case of adequate representation then reservation would have been restricted to quotas in legislatures alone and not extended to education and employment.
Second it is difficult to comprehend how providing relief to EWS of the general category negatively impacts those who are already the recipients of the caste-based reservations especially when the existing quotas will remain untouched. Exclusion of reserved categories from the new quota does not violate the concept of equality enshrined in the Constitution. Providing succour to another deprived section of society does not make an already privileged group under the existing reservation system less equal—it is the same faulty argument that was played up in the anti-CAA agitation.
As to using an economic indicator alone to determine backwardness, Justice P.B. Pardiwala giving the majority verdict in the current case alluded to the need to redefine the criteria for backwardness to reflect the changing times. He remarked that in views of “longstanding development and the spread of education… It is very much necessary to take into review the method of identification and the ways of determination of Backward Classes, and also, ascertain whether the criteria adopted or applied for the classification of Backward is relevant for today’s conditions”.
So, while in the Indira Sawhney vs Union of India, the SC may have ruled against a purely economic benchmark to define backwardness, it is not etched in stone. Changing circumstances call for revisions and modified criteria.
The opposition to the SC verdict by certain political parties is not entirely altruistic, but one that is ideologically and politically motivated. Parties like the DMK that have gained mileage by caste confrontations even as they championed the cause of marginalized communities, wish to perpetuate the fault lines in our society and accentuate the caste distinctions so as to remain politically relevant. It is common knowledge that the DMK’s agenda of social advancement of depressed communities was inextricably entwined with a counter narrative of hate directed against certain communities. Derogatory terms like “Pappans” to describe members of one community and the adage “when you see a Pappan and a snake, kill the Pappan first” have become mainstream folklore in Tamil Nadu. The panacea for one type of discrimination is not another.
Caste inequity was an ugly reality of yesterday’s India. Though significantly temporized it still remains a challenging problem. But it is important to remember that the reservation policy was envisioned as an idea to evolve into a truly egalitarian society devoid of class and caste. It was not meant to pit one caste against another or create a fractured society at odds with itself. The path forward should be one of co-operation and not confrontation and it is vital to look beyond caste to identify and aid other disadvantaged sections of our society to usher in a genuinely inclusive society.
The DMK needs to emulate the more mature and enlightened thought process of eminent leaders of the marginalized communities like the late Ram Vilas Paswan.
Ravi Shankar Prasad, the former Law Minister recalls (Indian Express, November 15): “However, the most remarkable part of the debate was the powerful voices of eminent leaders from the reserved category like Hukmdev Yadav in the Lok Sabha and the late Ram Vilas Paswan in the Rajya Sabha, who emotionally recalled how important leaders of the non-reserved category have consistently advocated the cause of empowerment for the OBC, SC and ST communities. They further said that now their empowerment has gathered pace and hence, it is also their responsibility to speak for the rights of the marginalized and deprived economically weaker sections. This was indeed a moving moment.”
Finally, it is important to bear in mind that caste-based reservations cannot be an open-ended proposition seen as an end in itself and extending into eternity for that would defeat the very purpose of its implementation as the honorable judges of the SC reminded us.
Justice P.B. Pardiwala, speaking for the majority opinion, said, “reservation is not an end but a means—a means to secure social and economic justice. Reservation should not be allowed to become a vested interest. Real solution, however, lies in eliminating the causes that have led to the social, educational and economic backwardness of the weaker sections of the community”.
And Justice S. Ravindra Bhat (minority opinion) reminded us of Baba Saheb Ambedkar’s cautionary counsel that reservations should be seen as temporary and exceptional “or else they would eat up the rule of equality.”