Members of the youth wing of India’s ruling BJP party (Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha) celebrate in Patna on Jan. 11 after a bill was passed providing for a 10 percent quota for upper castes in government jobs and higher educational institutions. (Photo by IANS)
The latest move by India’s federal government to give special benefits to the poor among upper-caste people has caused a political row ahead of the national election in April.
The government led by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is to allocate 10 percent of government jobs and places in higher educational institutions for such people.
A bill was passed in both houses of parliament on Jan. 9 but critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi say it was aimed at appeasing upper-caste groups that have been clamoring for the same quota benefits as lower-caste people.
Modi described the new law as a victory for social justice. He said it will provide youth with new avenues to showcase their prowess and contribute towards India’s transformation.
India’s constitution allows special quotas on jobs and places in educational institutions for socially and economically poor lower-caste people to help their social empowerment.
But some higher-caste groups claim that the poor among them are poorer than some members of lower castes.
The new reservation policy is based on economic standards. It proposes to give quota benefits to families with an annual income of less than US$11,000.
Christian leader A.C. Michael told ucanews.com that the bill is nothing but a fraud by the BJP to hoodwink people ahead of the election.
As the latest World Bank report showed that the average annual income in India is US$1,939, the new standard set by the bill makes 90 percent of Indians eligible for quotas in one way or another, he said.
“That would mean quotas for all, which questions the constitutional principle of empowering the lower castes,” Michael said.
The quota system has denied benefits to Dalit people among Christians and Muslims for over six decades on the grounds that their religions do not recognize the caste system.
“These poor sections continue to be neglected but the government is appeasing the majority Hindu higher caste,” Michael said.
Irrational and illogical measure
Asif Ali Khan, a prominent social activist in Uttar Pradesh, says the government has taken the most irrational and illogical measure by giving special benefits to upper castes.
“The government ought to uplift the underprivileged. Upper castes were never deprived of basic rights. The entire program is aimed at appeasing the upper castes,” he said.
Hindus, who form some 80 percent of India’s population of 1.2 billion, continue to use the caste system even though caste discrimination was made illegal in 1955. The system sets people into four castes, with those outside them commonly called Dalit people.
Although discrimination against Dalits, the former untouchables, remains subtle in cities, in some places they are forbidden from entering temples or sharing cremation grounds with upper castes.
Their lower social status was linked to their perceived impurity because of their traditional occupations such as working with the leather of dead animals or collecting human excrement.
The reservation policy was designed to give them educational opportunities and job alternatives to address oppression, inequality and discrimination in line with the promise of equality enshrined in India’s constitution.
Christian leader Joseph Dias said the new law is an attempt by the government to take away the few benefits given to underprivileged Dalit communities.
“It is a direct attempt to undermine those who have been deprived of basic rights both socially and economically,” he said.
He said other political groups did not oppose the bill because they did not want to annoy the majority “Hindu vote bank ahead of the national election.”
“It is clearly a pre-election sop aimed to hoodwink people. It also reflects that the Modi government hasn’t taken any remarkable measures that could have encouraged people to vote for a second BJP term. It is a last-minute bribe given to the country’s voters,” said Dias.
Supreme Court move
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India’s office for Dalit and tribal people said it was “deeply concerned about the dichotomy” in rendering social justice.
It noted that the country has various schemes, scholarships and programs to help economically weaker sections but the government pushed the bill through parliament hastily without a scientific study of the issue, the bishops’ office said.
Father Z. Devasagayaraj, secretary of the bishops’ office, said it will press the government to include Dalit Christians and Muslims in quota benefits.
Khalid Rahman, a legal expert in New Delhi, said several groups now plan to urge the Supreme Court to block implementation of the new law.
It would be “next to impossible” for it to pass the scrutiny of the Supreme Court, which in a 1992 judgment clearly stated that any quota should not be beyond 50 percent of the available seats or jobs.
An estimated 260 million people or some 20 percent of the population belong to lower-caste Dalit communities. About 15 percent of all available government jobs are reserved for them.
Tribal people, who form nearly 9 percent of the population, are given 7.5 percent of government jobs.
About 41 percent of Indians considered to belong to “other backward castes” have 27 percent of government jobs reserved for them.
The total quota comes to 49.5 percent, which is just below the 50 percent allowed for lower-caste reservations.
“Reservations were not meant as a job-offering policy to get people out of poverty. It’s a remedy to end discrimination based on color and caste. Any criteria other than caste discrimination defeat the purpose of this constitutional provision,” Rahman said.