Caste and the implementation of reservation


The culprit is the state that has failed to provide quality education to our children. We need, therefore, to reassess the way we address issues of inclusion

Caste is at the centre of the arithmetic of politics in India. It is hypocrisy personified when political leaders, while espousing the cause of a casteless India, embrace it with vigour for political mileage. Caste is here to stay for a long time to come. It is better for political parties to accept the reality of caste and deal with it than to say that they do not believe in caste-based politics. Recent political events in Punjab have demonstrated that caste is relevant even in a state where Punjabiyat is a constant refrain. The genie of Mandal will continue to impact politics in the near future.

It all started when the Morarji Desai government set up the Mandal Commission in 1979 to identify Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBCs). Their pent-up anger and clamour for justice was the result of hundreds of years of discrimination at the hands of the upper castes. That the SEBCs were denied their due is a historic reality. Embedded in their minds was the belief that such injustice can only be undone if they have a substantial share, based on reservations, in both employment in services and entry into educational institutions. Though the Mandal Commission Report (Mandal) was kept under wraps for years, on 7 August 1990, then Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh announced that Other Backward Classes (OBCs) will get 27% reservation in jobs in Central Services and Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs). The Supreme Court, through a landmark judgment, approved Mandal, which brought about a paradigm shift in the nature of electoral politics. Reverberations of Mandal are being witnessed even today and have infiltrated the social fabric of our country.

While Mandal recommended 27% reservation for OBCs, the Supreme Court, through its several judgments, applied such reservation in admissions into educational institutions, both run by the state and private institutions, aided and unaided. The aftermath of Mandal witnessed protests across the country. It is believed that about 200 students self-immolated in these protests, of which more than 60 succumbed to their injuries. The OBC reservation in employment was implemented in 1992 and reservations in educational institutions came into force in 2006.

Later, constitutional amendments gave legitimacy to reservations in promotional posts in the services. The result of such and other constitutional amendments is that both electoral politics and electoral outcomes in India are slowly but surely being determined by how each political party can reach out to the poor, the socially and educationally deprived and above all the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SCs and STs). Policies for the upliftment of the poor through affirmative action and implementation of the entitlements constitutionally guaranteed to the SEBCs as well as the SCs and STs are central to the success of our democratic polity. Yet within this lie the seeds of disruption.

By now we know, through a Parliamentary Panel Report on the welfare of OBCs (February 2019), that representation of OBCs in the posts and services in the Central government as on 1 March 2016 reflected poor occupancy. The 27% reservation for them was nowhere near being achieved.

The BJP, realising the significance of caste, started espousing the cause of the most backward classes among the OBCs with the intent of garnering their support in future electoral battles. The Rohini Commission found that amongst 6,000 castes and communities within the OBCs, 40 received 50% of reservation in the civil services. Close to 20% of the OBC communities did not get any benefit in this quota regime from 2014 to 2018. The reservation policy helped those who were economically more prosperous within the OBCs rather than the most backward amongst them. It is these most backward castes that are being wooed by the BJP.

With the 103rd Constitutional Amendment, the BJP constitutionally reserved 10% of the seats for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) over and above the reservation for the OBCs, and the SCs and STs. In so doing, the threshold of 50% constitutionally approved reservation in the Indra Sawhney case has been breached. If the Court upholds the 103rd Constitutional Amendment, the reservation policy will apply to employment to civil services of both the Union and the states, which means that the threshold of 50% would become 60%. The demand for a caste-based census is evidence of growing societal pressures as OBCs seek a larger share of the pie. There are several states where the present reservation policy already exceeds the threshold of 50%. The Supreme Court will face an unenviable task when it seeks to balance equities in pending challenges to the 103rd Amendment.

The rich and the privileged have unbridled access to the best educational institutions of this country. Schooling of their children gives them a head start over others. The poor SEBCs and the SCs and STs have hardly any access to quality school education. While the Kendriya Vidyalayas (KVs) provide opportunities for children of government employees and those employed in PSUs, the children of others are left far behind. Judgments of the Supreme Court are not going to remedy that situation.

The implementation of the reservation policy will still leave behind millions of children who will not be equipped to compete with those otherwise empowered and those who find themselves empowered by virtue of the reservation provided for constitutionally. In this context, the clamour for reservation will grow and parties will seek to navigate their political fortunes based on the discontent of those who find themselves outside the reservation loop.

The culprit is the state that has failed to provide quality education to our children. We need, therefore, to reassess the way we address issues of inclusion, which is at the heart of social justice. While the aspirations of the SEBCs, the SCs and STs and the EWS of society must be realised, those left out despite reservations must also be given their due. The task of the nation is to ensure that they too matter. To do that, we need a paradigm shift in the way we educate our young.

An empowered child will walk without crutches.


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