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24 March, 2015

Problems of affirmative action

BRP Bhaskar

The Supreme Court recently struck down the Centre’s decision to place the powerful Jat community of northern India in the “Other Backward Classes” category to make its members eligible for reservation in the services and in educational institutions. The decision was taken by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government last year with an eye to the Lok Sabha poll.

Also last year the Congress-led government of Maharashtra, through an ordinance, gave the powerful Maratha community of the state and the Muslims reservation of 16 per cent and five per cent respectively. The Bombay high court, acting on a writ petition, stayed the decision, pending detailed scrutiny. The BJP-led state government, which came to power last October, scrapped reservation for Muslims but retained it for the Marathas.

Reservation in educational institutions and government service for socially disadvantaged communities, introduced by Shahuji Maharaj, who was Maharaja of Kolhapur from 1900 to 1922, is the first known instance of affirmative action in the world. Under pressure from the South Indian Liberal Federation, better known as the Justice Party, the British introduced reservation for non-Brahmins in the Madras presidency. Princely states like Baroda, Mysore and Travancore also took affirmative action.

Initially the beneficiaries of reservation were determined solely on the basis of caste since social disabilities were a direct consequence of the caste system. The Constitution adopted after the country became free limited such privileges to Dalits and Adivasis. Two Brahmin petitioners from Madras challenged reservation for non-Brahmins in the court on the ground that it is against the equality provision of the Constitution. The Supreme Court upheld their contention. Thereupon the Centre amended the Constitution to permit special provisions for socially and economically backward classes of people.

Successive governments at the Centre and in most northern states took no steps in pursuance of this provision until Prime Minister VP Singh decided in 1989 to grant 27 per cent reservation to other backward classes (OBCs) on the basis of the Mandal Commission report, which had been gathering dust for a decade. The decision led to widespread protests by students belonging to the so-called upper castes and the BJP brought the government down by withdrawing its support.

The Supreme Court upheld the extension of reservation to OBCs. It frowned on caste-based reservation but said caste could be a factor in determining the backwardness of a group. While deciding other related cases, it set a 50 per cent ceiling on reservations and ordered exclusion of the creamy layer, comprising second generation of families which have benefited from reservation and families with incomes above a prescribed limit.

There are no data to determine the level of backwardness of any group. Since collection of data on caste was stopped after the 1931 census, even the number of persons belonging to different caste groups is not known. Following widespread demand, the UPA government ordered a caste count but its results have not been published.

In the absence of reliable data, it has been easy for leaders of caste organisations, which serve as vote banks, to make exaggerated claims either to secure benefits for themselves or to deny them to others. The grant of reservation to Jats, who are a major force in the politics of half a dozen states, and to Marathas, who have dominated Maharashtra politics since the state’s formation in 1960 and provided more than half of its 18 chief ministers, are examples of wrong decisions taken to appease large groups.

While reservation has helped disadvantaged groups to move forward, few communities have reached the level where they can do without the crutch. The primary responsibility for this rests on the lack of sincerity of the bureaucracy, which is still dominated by erstwhile caste supremacists.

In Tamil Nadu, where reservation has been in force for nine decades, Dalits have made remarkable progress by taking advantage of reservation in educational institutions, but intermediate castes which have achieved a dominant position through the anti-Brahmin Dravidian movement are denying them a legitimate share in the power structure.

The Judiciary is one limb of the state which has not come under the affirmative action regime. Some of its decisions have attracted criticism from supporters of reservation policy.

There is a legitimate fear among the forward castes that the beneficiaries of reservation may seek to perpetuate it. The remedy for the problem lies in gathering hard data periodically and progressively reducing the reservation quota of each beneficiary group in keeping with the social and educational progress it has achieved. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 24, 2015.

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