Ayushi Golwara & Muzamil Yaqoob 5 February 2019
The debate over affirmative action and reservations has always been contentious in India given the inequalities prevalent in access to education and jobs based on caste and socio-economic status. In fact, the debate has never been clement to be contended with all the parties involved in the debate. The history of positively discriminating one on the stigmatized historical wrongs done to few communities has been one of delightful and excruciating at the same place. The tumult over reservations started with the 1950’s gazette notification of a supreme court order allowing only the Hindu Dalits to be qualified for Reservations under the SC category, later amended to include Dalit Sikhs in 1956 and Dalit Buddhists in 1990.
The period of 1980’s saw the extension of reservations to the different backward sections of society and the politics of Mandal, Mandir and Market bestowed some new turns to the way politics was done in this country. Currently, the debate under the BJP government has taken a new tool with government initiating a constitutional amendment providing 10% reservations to the ‘economically backward sections’ in the general category. “The new quota proposal seeks to benefit the economically backward among those castes that do not fall under the quota meant for socially backward. This means that people who do not benefit from the 50 per cent existing quota and are below the EWS (Economically Weaker Section) criteria, will benefit from this proposal.” (India Today January 7, 2019)
Even after many attempts were made to provide reservations to the economically backward sections, the supreme court of India in its landmark 1992 judgement in Indira Sawhney declared in clear terms and restricted the reservations, including those given to Other Backward Classes (OBCs), to 50% with the exclusion of creamy layer from the OBC category.
The Current Bill and the Party’s Feet of Clay
However, “The proposed reservation will be over and above the existing 50 per cent reservation enjoyed by the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and the Other Backward Classes, taking the total reservation to 60 per cent” (Business line January 07, 2019).
Time and again, we have witnessed series of protest by these groups from general catagories that has been happening in the country like Marathas, Jats, Patidars, Kapu etc. One advantage that we can anticipate from this proposal is that these gamut’s of demands are likely to be covered under this 10% reservation criteria.
The political pundits and legal practitioners, however, claim that even if the bill has been passed by both the houses of the parliament and is approved by the President, it is doubtful that it will stand the judicial scrutiny. They refer that the proposed bill violates basic feature of the Constitution as reservation on economic grounds cannot be limited to the general categories and the 50 per cent ceiling on reservations cannot be breached as laid down by the nine-judge bench in landmark 1992 judgement.
According to Yogendra Yadav, a renowned political analyst, “the reservation system has been treated like a joke. The government keeps changing but one thing that has been common among them is that all of them have played their reservation card.” Mr. Yadav thinks that lack of education and employment opportunities are the main reason behind this.
The government in power tries to hide its failure in fulfilling promises under the garb of providing reservation whether its Congress led UPA government that approved reservation for the Jat community before 2014 elections or BJP extending 10 % reservation for EWS before upcoming 2019 elections.
However, one must not ignore the context in which the current proposal is being made. The Lok Sabha elections are around the corner and the ruling party has realized well the response for its four-and-a-half-year rule with the results of assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
The proposal for reservation on economic grounds seems more about politics than social justice, something similar to a political gimmick which the government is using to lure the discontented ‘upper castes’ like the Marathas, Jats, Patidars etc. The government waited around 4 years and 8 months to announce this proposal also suggests their political agenda behind it.
Further the negligence and inability of the government is well demonstrated by the fact that the concern for poorer sections got attention only when the tenure of the ruling party has reached to its fag end. The cap of 8 lakh rupees has been set to determine who will benefit from the proposed bill. However, going by the logistics and the data present in the public realm it is evident that almost 95% of the population will be the beneficiary of the reservation policy, if provided.
The loss of jobs and the incapacity of the ruling party to create more and fulfil its electoral promises is clearly visible on the ground. The implementation of this reservation is going to be the biggest hurdle even if it passes judicial scrutiny. States will be required to provide the data on the basis of which reservation will be provided. There is no answer to the question that how can there be any more reservation for jobs because in reality the actual question is where are the jobs?
What is the way forward?
Although the government cannot be stopped from doing politics the way they want to do it. However, the logic behind the cultural assertion by these upper castes needs to be understood. So that a clear and feasible alternative can be provided. Commenting on this debate prof. Ajay Gudavarthy in his book India after Modi argues that because of the incapacity to deal with the upper caste demands, the Right has very well-articulated the demands of these sections and their protests which foregrounds what he calls as ‘intractable symbolism’. He further writes that the assertions from women and Dalit-Bahujan communities have put the dominant castes on decline where they are in no position to ‘accept the changing power equations.
Thus, there can be a two-pronged strategy to take the debate forward. Prof. Surinder Jhodhaka in his survey, (In the Name of Globalisation, EPW) has succinctly come to a conclusion that the ‘ascriptive qualities play a major role in employer perceptions of job candidates’ where the antagonism towards the reservations and the concerns for merit ran high in the private firms where the candidates from poor socio-economic backgrounds are relegated to the background. Thus the ‘First Affirmative Strategy’ should address these issues in the private enterprises. Secondly, the ‘intractable symbolism’ should not be left unaddressed, I.e., the opposition parties should counter every disastrous move of this govt with alternative ways of politics and addressing each and every concern while stigmatizing none. Only such a dual concern can lead to a comprehensive cultural and economic development of all the sections.
(The writers are political science students at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)