The Politics of Reservation

The Discussion Map charts important debates from the pages of EPW.

In 2006, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government proposed a 27% reservation of seats for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in elite higher education institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). The announcement led to anti-reservation protests across the nation in what came to be known as “Mandal II.” 

In a special series published in EPW in June 2006 on reservations in higher education, authors discuss the various debates that erupted over the reservation policy. 

Satish Deshpande and Yogendra Yadav argued for a better policy design for “India’s affirmative action,” while Jayati Ghosh made a case for a caste-based quota system in higher education. Sukhadeo Thorat stressed the necessity of recognising and addressing the discriminatory nature of society with appropriate remedial policies, and Satish Deshpande addressed the idea of “merit” in higher education. Ashwini Deshpande analysed available data on OBCs and expressed a need to address the underlying structural problems created by caste, while Kancha Ilaiah questioned the projection of the reservation policy as “anti-national.” 

In 2007, Susie Tharu, M Madhava Prasad, Rekha Pappu and K Satyanarayana responded to the special series, writing that, with the exception of Ilaiah’s article, none of the other contributions treated reservation as a “political question.” The authors argue that the articles in the series chose, instead, to focus on policy and economy, and remain within an “academic-bureaucratic framework” when they demonstrate the reality of discrimination and marginalisation. 

Tharu et al further question who the articles are attempting to convince with their numbers and analyses. As the government already announced reservations for OBCs, it is the opponents of reservations who the articles are attempting to convince. “Thus,” write Tharu et al, “in a peculiar twist, policy recommendations seem to be addressed, not to the state, which seems to be already responding to these realities, but to the phantom majority.”

Articles in the series also called reservations “India’s affirmative action,” a comparison that Tharu et al believe to be unjustified. The American approach, the authors argue, is to “voluntarily” right historical wrongs, but reservations in India, which predate affirmative action by decades, embody an altogether different political proposal.

A few other works that are broadly related to this discussion:

  1. The ‘Ideal’ of Political Reservation, Gopal Guru, 2021
  2. The Emergence of New Reservationists, EPW Editorial, 2018
  3. Reservations within Reservations: A Solution, Anand Teltumbde, 2009
  4. Caste, Courts and Reservations, EPW Editorial, 2007
  5. Moments in a History of Reservations, Bhagwan Das, 2000
  6. Reservations in Myth and Reality, Ashok Guha, 1990


Ed: To contribute to a more comprehensive discussion map, please share links to other relevant articles in the comments section or write to us at with the subject line—“Politics and Reservations”


Curated by Anandita Chandra []


Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Sidbij [CC BY-SA 4.0]

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