It is an irrefutable fact that the social system in India is deeply hierarchical. The founding fathers of the Indian Constitution were well aware of this. In his last speech in the Constituent Assembly on 25th November 1949, Dr Ambedkar said, “Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy.”
To ensure social democracy, the Constitution lays down several provisions to protect and uplift the socially and educationally backward sections and provide adequate representation in the services offered by the state. Reservation in India is a form of affirmative action that provides the deprived classes access to seats in government jobs, educational institutions, or legislative bodies.
Recently, 27% reservation for OBCs in All India Quota seats was introduced for admission in post-graduate and undergraduate medical courses in government-run medical studies.
Articles 15(4), (5) and (6) provide reservations in government educational institutes to socially and educationally backward sections. Article 16(4) & (6) includes reservation in government jobs in favour of any backwards class of citizens, which in the opinion of the state, is not adequately represented in the services under the state. In 1991, the V. P. Singh government introduced 27% OBC reservations at the suggestion of the Mandal Commission.
Reservations to the SC and ST communities in Parliament are provided by Article 334. Besides, seats are also reserved for SC and ST in local-level governments.
The 103rd Constitutional Amendment, 2019, introduced 10% reservations for Economically Backward Class (EWS). Before that, reservations were only based on social and educational backwardness. The matter is sub judice.
Apart from this, reservations are also given in promotions. Several states reserve seats for people belonging to a particular region.
Originally, the Indian Constitution only provided reservations for SC\ST, that too, only for 10 years. However, through various amendments, reservations have been extended to include other groups as well. Also, now there is no deadline, which means reservations can extend for eternity.
The Questions Around Reservation
Three issues arise concerning reservations: –
- What is the criteria to decide backwardness?
- What should be the extent of reservations?
- Can merit be compromised to give representation to backward communities?
The Constitution mentions giving reservations to backward classes. However, they have become equivalent to caste-based reservation. Reservations for the SC ST community has been a colonial legacy. It is also the outcome of the Poona Pact. It is compensation because of the failure to end untouchability.
In the Indira Sawhney case, 1992, while deciding the validity of OBC reservations, the Supreme Court held that caste is not only the principal criteria, but can also be the sole criteria for determining backwardness. This is because the purpose of the reservation is to address the historical injustices faced by the community.
Earlier, the Narsimha Rao government introduced a 10% reservation for the economically weaker sections. However, the Supreme Court declared it null and void on the ground that economic criteria can’t be the sole criteria for inclusion or exclusion.
Many states have tried to introduce reservations on economic basis. However, they have been struck down by the courts. In 2019, the 103rd Constitutional Amendment Act was passed to provide 10% reservations to the economically weaker section of the unreserved caste. The Supreme Court is yet to decide its constitutional validity.
The OBC reservation’s concept of a “creamy layer” ensures that the benefit reaches the most vulnerable. However, no such concept has been introduced in the SC reservation despite the Supreme Court’s insistence.
Another pertinent question is; can reservations breach the 50% ceiling? The Supreme Court holds that reservations should not exceed 50% of the total seats. However, in exceptional situations, reservations can exceed. For example, in Tamil Nadu, there is a 69% reservation.
At the end, the issue of merit is often raised. Article 335 of the Constitution reads, “The claims of the members of SC and ST be taken into consideration consistently with the maintenance of efficiency in administration while making appointments to the services and post.” However, the 82nd Constitutional Amendment added a proviso (exception), “Provided that nothing in this article shall prevent in making of any provision in favour of the members of the Scheduled Castes.”
The Supreme Court of India answered to the questions of merit by saying that reservations provide substantive equality to our people not just formal equality. Reservation is a way to remedy the real structural barriers that hinders the equality of opportunity. The proponent of merit forget that merit is the cumulative result of family status, community linkages and inherited skills which most others in our country have been deprived. With respect to the discourse of ‘efficiency of administration’ being impacted by reservation, the court in BK Pavitra vs State of Karnataka (2019) said that efficiency of administration should be defined in inclusive sense giving scope for representation of diverse segment of the society.
The Politics of Reservation
On the flip side, this social remedy has played quite infamous role in the complex Indian politics. At present, questions are being raised about the efficacy of reservations. The need for affirmative action is acknowledged. However, the manner in which the tool of reservation is being utilised by the political class is under severe scrutiny.
Caste-based reservation is accused of strengthening caste-based politics in India. Caste-based politics is not new to India. It has been present since ancient times. During the Colonial era, the British promoted caste politics under the “Divide and Rule Policy.” Political parties during the national movement were also dominated by different castes.
After independence, the constitution mentions caste. Since 1989, regional parties have grown in large numbers. These parties often belong to a particular caste. Thus, not only has politics been affected, even caste has undergone a change. In the words of Rajni Kothari, “The alleged casteism is thus no more and no less than politicization of caste.”
Kanchan Chandra says that we cannot think of caste-free politics until patronage is based on caste. Andre Beteille put a question mark on Nehru’s wisdom. According to him, Nehru was thinking of achieving a caste-free India when the Constitution itself mentioned caste.
Thus, we see even stronger communities demanding reservations. The demand for Jat reservation or Maratha reservation are a few examples. M.N. Srinivas has given the concept of ‘dominant caste’. These are not the conventional “upper castes.” Rather, these castes hold social, economic, and political power. For example, Yadavs in UP and Bihar, Jats in Haryana, Marathas in Maharashtra, Reddis in Andhra Pradesh, and Lingayats in Karnataka are dominant castes. Both the Jat and Maratha reservations have been struck down by the courts.
Caste-based reservations strengthen identity politics, which can be detrimental to the unity of the nation. It also promotes religion-based politics. For example, when V. P. Singh introduced OBC reservations, the BJP had no other option but to start Rath Yatra to consolidate Hindus.
The very fact that governments hesitate to introduce the concept of ‘creamy layer’ in SC reservations highlights that reservations are more of a political tool than a policy tool.
The political importance of reservation can be gauged by the fact that the BJP performed poorly in the Bihar assembly elections in 2015 because the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat mentioned reviewing reservations prior to elections. Thus, no party is in a position to make the necessary changes due to the fear of losing political leverage.
It is the duty of the state to provide equality of status and of opportunity to its people. Affirmative action is an inescapable part of the public policy of any modern welfare state. However, affirmative actions should not become political tools. Not only does it leave reservations ineffective, but it also harms the unity and integrity of the nation.
Instead of expanding reservations, governments should explore introducing other welfare measures. Creamy layer should be introduced in the SC category as well. Also, improving the quality and access of education is the only long-term solution.