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Reverting to the Original Vision of Reservations

The solution to the reservations imbroglio lies in reverting to the original conception of reservations for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes as a countervailing force against the disability of Indian society to treat its constituents with equity.

Reverting to the OriginalVision of Reservations

The solution to the reservations imbroglio lies in reverting to the original conception of reservations for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes as a countervailing force against the disability of Indian society to treat its constituents with equity.


he recent agitation of gujjars in Rajasthan for getting themselves the status of scheduled tribe (ST) has once more brought the reservations imbroglio to the fore. Gujjars, a caste in the northern, north-western and western parts of India were designated as STs in Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, but in all the other states in this region they are classified as the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). In Rajasthan they had made a claim to ST status in 1981 but a committee constituted by the then Congress government rejected it on the basis of criteria laid down for being an ST. This time they came out on the streets in a militant manner to press for the implementation of their demand for ST status. The agitation, apparently against the state, inevitably provoked the meenas, a prominent ST community in Rajasthan, and tended to become an inter-community clash. Fortunately, the state has succeeded in cooling off the agitation by referring the issue to a three-member committee, with a mandate to advise the government on a course of action for meeting the demand of the gujjars within a period of three months.

Gujjars, as an OBC, do enjoy reservations in Rajasthan. Why should they then want to be designated as ST? There are three reasons. Firstly, in the ST category, the proportion of reservations are more in line with their proportion in the population as against the 27 per cent quota for OBCs that is much less than the claimed 52 per cent in the population, and more importantly, the well-off gujjars stand a better chance of bagging the reserved seats in employment and educational institutions as STs than as OBCs. Second, gujjars are already recognised as STs elsewhere.

Economic and Political Weekly June 23, 2007 Thirdly, there is a possibility of such inclusion as in the case of meenas, who got it in 1954 and have become a formidable community in the state. Getting a scheduled caste (SC) status might equally have conferred the same advantages and therefore it may be interesting to ask why the gujjars do not ask for the SC status? The answer is that unlike any other caste, there is a social stigma associated with the SCs, which no non-SC caste would like to incur no matter what the benefit. The other reason is the more definitive criterion of belonging to an ex-untouchable caste for being an SC, unlike the relatively subjective criteria for being an ST.

Reservations-centred Politics

While the above constitutes the backdrop to the gujjar unrest, political parties play a major role in inciting reservation agitations. Reservation has been a surrogate for caste politics and is being skilfully manipulated by the political parties. The sway of caste identities in influencing voter groups has intensified with the collapse of the hegemony of the national parties, the emergence of regional parties, and the rise of coalition politics. Since explicit castebased communication is forbidden by the Constitution, reservations become a via media to influence castes. The social justice pedigree of reservations gives this communication a progressive veneer. Reservations-centred politics is played along three main dimensions: one, demanding reservations for certain social groups, e g, dalit Christians, backward Muslims, etc; two, backing demands by certain castes to get included in the reserved categories; and three, inciting demands for a split in the quota by certain sub-castes in a conglomerate reserved category (such as madigas in Andhra Pradesh). All of these inevitably create inter-caste conflict, which are manipulated by the parties to their advantage.

After the basic schedules for the SCs and STs were prepared in 1936, there have been many subsequent inclusions of caste groups within them. The meenas, who have come out in the open to oppose the demands of the gujjars, were included in the ST category only in 1954. In Rajasthan, they constitute 10 per cent of the population and virtually monopolise the ST reservations. But the gujjars who constitute 7.5 per cent of the population have become important enough in the coalition era. Their demand for ST status was articulated in 1981, during Congress rule. In recent times, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) upheld this demand by promising the gujjars ST status during the 2003 legislature elections. When the BJP-led state government failed to do anything about fulfilling its promise over the past three-and-a-half years, the Congress grabbed the opportunity to fan the gujjar anger. Now when the gujjar agitation has provoked the meenas, both the BJP as well as the Congress have been vacillating in their stand, whereas others like Samajwadi Party, which does not have much influence among the meenas, has voiced its support for the gujjars.

The gujjar agitation highlights the devastating hold of reservations. Any caste can make its claim, contend with some other caste(s), grudge some other castes getting more, and so on. It is dividing people in numerous ways and pushing the country to the edge of civil strife. When the neoliberal economic policies are fast reducing the size of the reservation pie itself, people are viewing caste-based reservations as a panacea for their social and economic backwardness. Interestingly, reservations are being used to blind people from seeing why the pie is diminishing. This has been possible because of the subtle but systematic distortion of the concept of reservations.

Originally Conceived

When reservations were first introduced for the untouchables through the Poona Pact between Ambedkar and Gandhi, which replaced separate electorates won by the untouchables through the communal award of the British prime minister, the basic premise was that the untouchables were distinctively the stigmatised community that suffered deep social discrimination in Hindu society. It was agreed that the larger Hindu society could not be relied upon to represent their interests and grant them their dues. Therefore a kind of mechanism that would ensure they get their due share of representation was needed. Reservation thus became a countervailing mechanism against the social discriminative instinct of Indian society. It was like a bitter pill for a sick Indian society, a necessary evil, required as long as the disease lasted. There was in-built motivation for the society to recover from the disease at the earliest and stop the pills. Since, the disease basically referred to the caste system, reservations werethecatalyst that would hasten its death.

Reservations as a policy of positive discrimination needs to be exceptional and should be self-destructive. Although the caste system as a continuum of hierarchy, from some sub-caste of brahmins at the top of the heap to some lowest of the low among dalits at the bottom of that heap (both imprecisely defined), has its associated discrimination across castes, there is a kink, a point of inflexion, that divides caste and non-caste communities, with social osmosis on either side but no contact across. This understanding of castes is vital in reservations. By providing reservations only to the untouchables, it was made exceptional. While the self-destructiveness was not expressly provided, it was implicit: if society ceased to discriminate against the dalits, reservations could be abolished.

Unfortunately, this vision or philosophy behind the early reservations is not properly documented. Reservations were merely viewed as one of the administrative measures of social justice. After independence, when the Constituent Assembly adopted these measures from the colonial regime, it subtly brought in the connotations of backwardness to associate with them and accordingly promised to consider other “socially and educationally backward classes of citizens” also for the state support (clause 2 of Article 29 of the Constitution of India). While this was the result of the pulls and pressures in the constituent assembly, it also smacked of a subtle realisation of the divisive potential of reservations by the new ruling classes. It is interesting to note that “classes” in the Constitution are taken as “castes” and more so, no one ever questioning this. Using these constitutional provisions, various commissions were appointed for identifying and devising measures in favour of the backward communities, which culminated in the Mandal Commission recommending an array of measures along with reservations for the backward castes. When the V P Singh government, obviously politically motivated, accepted a part of these recommendations by instituting reservations for the “backward classes” in 1989, the floodgates were formally opened for politicking on reservation issues.

Apart from the considerations of electoral politics, reservations came handy for diverting the attention of people from the deepening unemployment and underemployment problem associated with the liberalisation policies during the 1980s and full-fledged globalisation after 1991. Paradoxically, when the policy thrust of

Economic and Political Weekly June 23, 2007

globalisation tended to severely diminish the reservation pie itself, there is a spurt of demands for a larger share of this pie. There are pending demands from backward Muslims, dalit Christians and the BJP’s demand for extending it to the economically poor of the forward castes, strangely echoed by Mayawati after her recent transmigration into a ‘sarvajan samaj’ leader. It is inconceivable how on earth anyone could devise a system to accommodate growing claims of communities for reservations unless of course the entire pie is summarily distributed to all the castes and communities in the same proportion as they are constituted in the total population. Impracticable as this intrinsically is, such a system, instead of solving the problem, will further aggravate it because the enlarged domain of reservation would generate as many claims and counterclaims. Ignoring the differential resource base of castes, to institute pervasive reservations for them would itself negate the concept of social justice, which the entire exercise is seeking to achieve. A system of pervasive reservations, in any case, would be meaningless.

The solution lies in reverting to the original conception of reservations for the SCs and STs as a countervailing force against the disability of Indian society to treat its constituents with equity. The implicit part of this policy may be properly articulated and disseminated in public. Given this societal disability, there is no justification for restricting the domain of this policy to only the public sector. It could reasonably encompass all other sectors, the private sector, the judiciary, the army, and so on. Since it is conceived as an antidote to a societal disease, society would strive to recover from it as fast as it can. A proper design of metrics and a monitoring mechanism may record the progress in this direction. Even the beneficiaries would not like reservation in perpetuity as it is associated with caste. The system should be worked as a mechanism to end the caste system itself along with other cultural measures the state ought to take. The backwardness criteria in a backward country like India makes reservations pervasive and hence meaningless. It is a fundamental duty of the state to support the poor and needy, irrespective of caste and creed, in realisation of their full human potential. This support system can be well devised on secular criteria.



Economic and Political Weekly June 23, 2007

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