Scheduled caste: Revisiting the Old Friend: Reservation Policy in 2019

Indian members of the Scheduled Castes shout slogans during a protest against a Supreme Court order that allegedly diluted the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in Mumbai on April 2, 2018. — AFP
Credit: AFP

“Brothers and Sisters,

You cannot build anything on the foundation of caste. You cannot build up a nation; you cannot build up a morality. Anything you will build on the foundation of caste will crack and will never be a whole.”

 ( 2002 publication of Annihilation of Caste, page 202. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Vol I, p 66, Government of Maharashtra Publication, 1979). 

Only because it is not visible to the naked eye, does not mean it does not exist. Bengal, for the longest time, has been blind to caste realities and these atrocities are exposed under bright light when one delves deep into the statistics which show glaring crime rates. For several years, caste identities in Bengal have been suppressed by statist forces. This stance has also been justified by various scholars as the rhetoric of class versus caste in a state ruled by communists for over three decades. However, little did these scholars realise that caste is a class in itself, as very extensively explained by Babasaheb. In retrospect, when one examines the caste atrocities in the state of Bengal, there is substantive proof to show that the state was ranked, in fact, second in caste atrocities (National Commission for Scheduled Caste, 2017) after Kerala. The 2017 report also stated that the Bengal government was the most apathetic to caste violence and took no efforts to employ protective measures for the caste minorities in the state. The government was additionally accused of trying to manipulate statistics by the Backward Class Welfare Department, skewing up the data to be submitted by the state for the Commission’s report. Ram Shankar Katheria, who was heading the Commission, stated that the BCW Department shows the index of murder and rape of SC/ST as zero, but in reality, at least three families were recorded to have been murdered by the Commission. [i] It is ironical that no one is willing to drive their attention to a crucial question: how is it fair to place a Minister-in-Charge of the Welfare Department who is an urban-educated, Brahmin man, just as Ambedkar writes in Annihilation of Caste[ii] that he would never be accepted as a leader to other castes.

To more clearly understand this phenomenon of hidden caste atrocities, it is important to refer to quantified data, which very clearly depicts the absence of privileges of a Dalit household. In the paper Impact of Political Reservations in West Bengal Local Governments on Anti-Poverty Targeting, Pranab Bardhan, Dilip Mookherjee and Monica L. Parra Torrado (December 2009) collect stellar data showing the intra-village average benefits received in 3 categories in West Bengal- SC/ST households, landless households and female-run households. In the figure produced by them (Figure 1), we can evidently see that even though their demographic share is about a half of the total population, the share of the benefits that affect your basic living standards like drinking water and Below Poverty Line (BPL) is minimal in percentage. However, what is high is employment, and this can be evidently deciphered from the fact that caste policies have been heavily biased towards education and employment generation. This explains the severity of the jobless migration and urges the author to rethink the policies surrounding the welfare of minority caste groups.

Figure 1

Only 17% of the seats are reserved for OBC candidates in the government services and government institutions. Considering India’s average economic class, this is quite low. The higher education spending in West Bengal also very shrewdly exposes the lack of government will to increase expenditure and remove regional inequalities. Summing this debate up, any analyst is faced with questions on the reservation policy, and in particular those that have often been left at a deadlock or walkover because of the complex interdependence of the substantive problem.

Figure 2[iii]

Figure 2 shows the annual report of government expenditure on minorities’ education in North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. When reflecting on the number of students who could not be given scholarships, we can see that the number exceeds the ones who received them. In absolute contrast to this, an official letter from the Ministry of Minority Affairs, Government of India, to the West Bengal government sanctions Rs. 2,16,11,000[iv] for the multi-sector minority development in North 2 Parganas in the year 2016. There is an evident mismatch of the amount of grants received and utilised. Therefore, against this background, one raises a fundamental question: Should the reservation policy be revisited?

  1. Issue Analysis: Performance Review

To understand the reservation policy in depth, we need to examine the policy as it was introduced originally, grasping the spirit of our Constitution’s fathers, and examine the debates around the policy. Broadly speaking, we can identify three sets of policy measures that the Indian state has dealt with: (a) protective measures in the form of legal sanctions against the practise of caste crimes like untouchability (b) enabling/empowering measures in the form of progressive programmes for the development including a system of introducing the quotas in educational and employment institutions and organisations which are funded by the state and (iii) measures to increase representation in parliamentary bodies with respect to their population in each constituency. (Jodhka 2017) Reservation and the quota system can be looked at as an enabling measure, but they have largely failed at acting as protective measures in themselves. The Indian Constitution makes a solid effort through positive discrimination for SC/ST/OBCs in the Parliament and in educational institutions. While revaluating the anti-reservation protests that originated in Bihar in towards the end of the 1970s, two basic issues are raised- (a) Does the quota system fall in tandem with the secular and equal principles of the Constitution? (b) How do you quantify criteria which can be used to identify beneficiaries as per the Indian directive principles of state policy?

In answer to the first question, yes, it does keep in spirit of the Constitution considering reservation is meant to protect, promote and remove atrocities. However, what has not been in tandem with the spirit of equality is the very implementation of the policy. The Constitution states many measures including government job reservation and parliamentary reservation for SC/ST, but has been vague and very opaque about measures for OBCs, which forms a large part of the minority mandate. There is no provision for OBCs in Parliament or jobs, but only in education. Even the status of OBCs waiver in government educational institutions is marginally lower than that of an SC/ST. The treatment and fate of OBCs is completely left to the state governments, who either let them be as they are or use them to advance populist agenda, as the audience is often found to be naive. Quotas, in this regard, are widely seen as unfair, reinforcing caste lines and politicising caste differences rather than annihilating them (Deshpande 2013). In fact, a study  (Deshpande 2017) records several upper-caste and Dalit voices against the policy of reservation Many hold the view that quotas are benefiting a generation whose ancestors have already moved up the social ladder, denying benefits to the poor who actually need them, who form what is popularly known as the “creamy layer.” 

Many who criticise the reservation policy along the lines of identification of beneficiaries argue that economic backwardness should be the criterion for identification of reservation beneficiaries, and not just one’s position in the social hierarchy. However, the implementation of this provision leads to a change in the basic structure of our constitution as it demands for equality between individuals and not between groups, which stands against the very morale with which reservations were introduced (Sheth 1987). It is important to understand that economic mobility does not lead to social mobility. More importantly, reservation is a tool to eliminate backwardness which has risen from historical conditions of social injustice and not meant to be a scheme to counter poverty or economic disparity, which is in reality a result of the development pattern itself. Reservation allows the socially backward to escape the terror in a sense that they are empowered, if not practically, at least in black and white. Caste-based policies enhance caste consciousness, and caste-blind policies will only worsen conditions especially in a country which goes out of its way to sweep caste atrocities under a blanket of ignorance (Deshpande 2013).

  • Revisiting the Policy: Concluding with Recommendations

   With the introduction of reservation for the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) of the country, it is imperative to think about the massive impact that the same would have on the existing reservation policies. Far from being beneficial, this recent policy fails to understand that social mobility does not and never will, come with economic mobility. As a policy, reservation has done very little to stand up to its original objective. Several debates apart from these have been floating around reservation, but the upper caste policy circle must realise that this is the only instrument through which the oppressed breaks their chains. As we go back to the constitutional assembly debates, we see Ambedkar opposing Sardar Patel’s suggestion of limiting reservations to a time period, and that is how this policy must be- it must be free from the boundaries of the Constitution, and must be brightened with political creativity, sensitivity and kindness. It must never come down to a deadline because society does not work that way.

The most important step to be taken in this regard is the inclusion of other backward classes under the umbrella of scheduled caste and scheduled tribes, and a rigorous implementation of all the schemes under reservation policy. The criteria of economic progress must be incorporated while identifying beneficiaries. Those who have already moved up the subjective social ladder must be excluded from beneficiaries list. Lastly, one must unconditionally direct politics in a positive direction when it comes to using caste identities as a vote bank. Caste leadership must take advantage of the situation to develop their brothers and sisters in the most comprehensive manner possible. It is important to acknowledge the fact that reservation forms a fundamental aspect of the Indian polity, and the state has progressed too far to look back and repeal quotas. It is the constitutional duty of the Indian state to protect its peoples, and do everything under its constitutional capacity to promote the citizens’ good, without any kind of discrimination.


–“Grant in Aid under Centrally Sponsored Scheme of Multi Sectoral Development Programme for Minority Concentration Blocks (MCBs) to Government of Est Bengal for North 24 Parganas District.” Geeta Mishra to The Pay &Accounts Officer, Ministry of Minority Affairs, Govt. of India. September 29, 2016. New Delhi.

Ambedkar, B R (1990): Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Vol 9, edited by Vasant Moon, Education Department, Government of Maharashtra, Mumbai.

Annual Report (2012-2013). Technical paper. Backward Classes Welfare Department, Government of West Bengal.

Deshpande, Ashwini. “The Quota Debates.” In Affirmative Action in India, 114-40. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2013.

IANS. “Bengal Second in Atrocities against SC/ST, Providing False Reports: Commission.” Business Standard, October 16, 2016.

Jana, Sebak. (2017). Higher Education in West Bengal – An Overview. Artha Beekshan. 26. 21-55

Jodhka, Surinder S. (2015) Caste in Contemporary India, New Delhi: Routledge, 252 pages

Kaviraj, Sudipta (2011): “Democracy and Social Inequality”, Chapter 8 in The Enchantment of Democracy and India (Ranikhet and New Delhi: Permanent Black).

Pani, Narendra. “Reservations, Exclusion, and Conflict: Some Insights From Mandal and Mysore.” India Review9, no. 4 (October/November 2010): 397-424. doi:10.1080/14736489.2010.523617.

Satish, Deshpande. “Caste and Castelessness: Towards a Biography of the ‘General Category’.” Economic & Political Weekly48, no. 15 (April 13, 2013).

Sheth, D.L. “Reservations Policy Revisited.” Economic & Political Weekly22, no. 46 (November 14, 1987).

Thorat, Sukhadeo, Prashant Negi, and Aryama. “Reservations in the Private Sector- Issues, Concerns and Prospects.” Editorial. Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, November 2006.

Torrado, Monica Parra, Pranab Bardhan, and Dilip Mookherjee. “Impact of Political Reservations in West Bengal Leocal Governments on Anti-Poverty Targeting.” PhD diss., Boston University, 2008.


[ii]  See Annihilation of Caste, Part 1, Section 3



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