Revisiting reservation

Any democratic society faces the challenge of harmonising two essentially contradictory political concepts: first, equality before the law irrespective of religion, caste, race and gender; and second, social justice at the cost of the same commitment to equality before the law. Over the years, reservations have become the Indian government's standard approach towards groups demanding equality, and this has led to increasing political pressures to extend reservations to communities other than Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs).

For a week during late May and early June, Rajasthan witnessed an unprecedented level of violence over demands by the state's Gujjar population for inclusion in the ST list. The protesters sought, extraordinarily, to demote their caste category from Other Backwards Classes (OBC), in order to gain further benefits from affirmative-action policies reserved for STs and SCs. Their demand was subsequently violently opposed by Rajasthan's Meena community, which is currently listed as a Scheduled Tribe. Gujjar demonstrators blocked the national highway in Rajasthan, dismantled railway lines, and burned bridges, public buses and railway property. All in all, the protests claimed 26 lives. The agitation spread like wildfire to Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi and even Jammu & Kashmir, even while the police, paramilitary forces and army seemed nonplussed.

The roots of the current crisis can be traced to promises made by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Vasundhara Raje. During her 2003 campaign in Rajasthan, Raje had pledged to grant ST status to the Gujjar community. Since becoming chief minister in December of that year, however, she has not moved to fulfil that promise. Even as Gujjar anger escalated, things were made more difficult for Raje by warnings from leaders of the state's powerful Meena community, who were worried that Gujjar inclusion on the ST list would affect their own position, for having to divide their benefits.

It was following the official formation of the state of Rajasthan back in 1949 that the Meenas were declared a Scheduled Tribe. The Gujjars were not, even though the two communities are of comparable socio-economic status. It was in 1993 that the Gujjars were granted OBC status, a category devised to cater to deprived communities that did not make it within the ST and SC categories. The community started jostling for ST status when Atal Bihari Vajpayee granted OBC status to the powerful Jat community in Rajasthan in 1999, and Gujjar leaders realised that they were looking at receiving a smaller share of the OBC reservation pie – hence the proposed shift to ST status, which has generated identical fears among the Meenas.

Though the recent protests were about entitlements in jobs and educational institutions, they were fuelled by the perception that, over the last 50 years, the Meenas had done better for themselves than the Gujjars had, largely due to their ST status. While the former has become well represented in state and service jobs, the latter has largely had to resort to mining and construction or, at best, minor clerical positions.

After six days of agitation, a settlement was arrived at on 4 June, signed by Chief Minister Raje and the Gujjar leader Colonel (Rtd) K S Bainsla. While it has brought temporary peace to Rajasthan, the animosity between the Meena and Gujjar communities continues. Meanwhile, an official committee directed to look into the Gujjar demands will have to work extremely hard if it is to submit its report within the stipulated three-month period. There is no guarantee that its findings will satisfy the Gujjars. And either way, no findings will satisfy both the Gujjars and the Meenas.

The Gujjar-Meena confrontation has prompted a nationwide rethink of India's policy of reservations based solely on caste. Yet, this is not just a story about Gujjars or Meenas wanting to gain more reservation privileges. It is also the story of how politicians are attracted to quotas and reservations as vote banks. Once contemplated as a temporary measure to ensure equality for historically disenfranchised communities, reservations have become a permanent tool for vote-bank politics – and have, in the process, been excessively divisive.

Two-way resentment
The policy of affirmative action in India is based on a rigid reservation system that uses quotas to assure diversity in the educational system and certain sectors of the workforce. While the policy of reservation in favour of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes was implemented very early on in post-Independence India, the same arrangement was not made for the OBCs because the Constituent Assembly could not decide on whether the criteria for defining 'backwardness' in this case should be class or caste.

Though the constitutionality of the use of religion as a criterion in selecting backward classes has not been challenged explicitly, the government has rejected its application in practice in the face of demands made by Muslims and Dalit Christians. Reservations have, however, been extended to more and more groups over time – by state governments during the 1970s and 1980s, and by the central government following the Mandal Commission report in 1980, which affirmed reservation practices for OBCs and STs and SCs.

This has called into question the legitimacy of India's reservation policy in general. For one thing, it has brought benefits to members of groups with considerably weaker cases for preferential treatment than the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. This disconnect has sharpened social tension and political contestation around issues of ethnic identity, against a background in which the demarcation of groups eligible for reservation benefits is already problematic. Furthermore, reservation policies in higher-education admissions encourage inter-group competition for access to seats in elite institutions. This has led to increasing resentment against beneficiary groups by more-advantaged groups, whose members have traditionally enjoyed exclusive access to such positions.

The group-based reservation policies that are currently being proposed for OBCs in higher education have their rationale in three basic premises. The first is that the groups concerned are socially disadvantaged relative to what is known as the 'general' category. Second, the disadvantage is most effectively addressed by directing benefits towards groups, rather than towards disadvantaged individuals or households. And third, among available group-based affirmative-action policies, reservations in education and government jobs are the best choice.

Addressing backwardness 
Is there a case for OBC reservations in higher education? Despite the lack of data, it appears that although OBCs do face some disadvantages vis-à-vis the general category, these differences are small in comparison to the obstacles faced by the Scheduled Castes and Tribes.

Furthermore, the question of relative disadvantage of the OBCs with respect to the general category has remained controversial because there is no recent census data that correlates caste and social status. The last detailed caste enumeration was undertaken by the colonial administration in 1941. Even then, this data was only partially tabulated due to World War II and the political unrest of the last years of British rule. As such, it is data from the 1931 census that is most heavily relied upon. Furthermore, the official definition of 'other backward castes' has varied from state to state. The term does not signify a homogeneous social group and, moreover, splits between upper and lower backward castes have historically occurred in many states. The heterogeneity among broad categories such as the OBCs, together with the fact that some communities – such as the Jatavs amongst the SCs, or the Kammas, Reddys, Jats and Vokkaliggas amongst the OBCs – have been able to corner a disproportionate share of state resources through effective political mobilisation, suggests that reservation policies targeting broad social groups may not be effective tools of social justice. Too many of the disadvantaged lot, including the Gujjars of Rajasthan in the current instance, will be excluded in favour of the more privileged.

The idea of group dignity fervently catches the public imagination when it comes to the reservation of public-sector jobs for disenfranchised groups. Frequently in North India, it is political victories of lower castes that get celebrated as symbolic of defiance and social redemption, rather than committed attempts at changing the economic structure of deprivation. While reservation policies ostensibly serve the function of group upliftment and provide symbols for aspirations of future generations, public quotas generally end up helping only tiny elites within disenfranchised groups. The overwhelming majority of people in these groups stand no real chance of landing the high-level jobs that reservations secure, in large part because they drop out of school.

Beyond the direct consequences of distributive politics are its ramifications for democratic governance. The Indian polity has recently become more representative, with the inclusion of groups hitherto excluded from the state apparatus, and elite control over governance has somewhat diminished. This has led to a welcome expansion of democracy into the lower rungs of the social hierarchy.

These social and political changes have come to North India rather late. South India, where comparable socio-political and economic mobilisation took place several decades ago, has seen significantly better performance in matters of public expenditure – on pro-poor projects in health, education, housing and drinking water. This reflects the fact that, in South India, there has been a long history of social movement against exclusion of lower castes from the public sphere, against their educational deprivation and so on.

The historical disparities between caste groups in India are so great that corrective policy interventions are essential. To a large extent, the reservation policy has succeeded in providing opportunities to people who did not have them. But in judging who should be eligible for reservation, the focus has been only on caste, and this has meant that many of the benefits of reservation have gone to economically well-off groups. Furthermore, little effort has been made to supplement reservation policy with an improvement of basic facilities: good primary schools, better health facilities, and training programmes. Neither the Constitution nor public policy has been able to ensure substantive equality. State intervention, whether in the form of reservation or action against adverse discrimination and a host of welfare policies, has reduced neither the vulnerability suffered by the vast majority of Indian citizens nor the massive inequalities in the country.

Adnan Farooqui is a research scholar at the Centre for Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi

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