The agitation of Patels in Gujarat has once again brought attention to the infuriating business of reservations in education and jobs. It may be instructive to recap the last two decades of the reservation imbroglio. On November 16, 1992, the Supreme Court by a majority of 6:3 upheld 27 per cent reservation for the socially and educationally backward classes (read Other Backward Castes) provided by the V.P. Singh government while striking down the 10 per cent reservation for economically backward sections of society provided by the successor Narasimha Rao government. This decision came in the wake of violent protests across the country that claimed the lives of hundreds of innocent students and brought the phenomena of self-immolations to university campuses in the year 1990.
Though the judgement did not re-ignite the anti-reservation fires, the discontent against caste being the basis for determining backwardness still stirs passions. Quixotically, it has provided a spur for economically affluent, socially influential and politically powerful caste groups to agitate for entering the OBC domain. Why did 10 per cent reservation for the economically backward cutting across communities not covered by the existing quota architecture not find favour with the Supreme Court? For the simple reason that the Rao government was only paying lip service to the cause of economic reservation. The only reason why the economic formulation was inserted into the equation was because Prime Minister Rao was petrified of another wave of self-immolations.
When his government informed a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court on August 8, 1991, that they too intended to implement the decision of the V.P. Singh government, the agitation recommenced and he held out reservation on an economic basis as a sop for future agitators. While the Rao government amended the Office Memorandum of V.P. Singh’s government on September 25, 1991, to provide for 10 per cent of vacancies in the civil services for other economically backward sections, it did not, despite repeated exhortations by the Supreme Court, evolve the economic criterion critical to actioning the amendment. His minister for social justice, Sitaram Kesri, who later succeeded him as Congress president, was virulently opposed to this concession.
Kesri ensured that despite the amendment to the earlier Office Memorandum, no economic criterion was ever evolved and presented to the Supreme Court and no enabling constitutional amendment was carried out. The philosophy of affirmative action in India rests on the plank that economic fillip leads to social mobility and political impetus. It is also anchored in the theory of generational guilt. Since the ancestors of the present day upper castes had committed atrocities and had ostracised the lower castes, therefore their progeny must be subjected to negative discrimination to carry the proverbial cross eternally for the sins of their forefathers.
This is distinct and opposed to the theory of positive affirmative action for the underprivileged, deprived and persecuted in most parts of the world. Positive affirmative action means that if there is one seat in an university or one job in the civil services and two people are identically situated then the one who is the beneficiary of an affirmative action paradigm would get it as opposed to the one who is not. It does not contemplate different benchmarks and qualifying criterion for different people for the same educational and job opportunity.
The Indian template of affirmative action also leaves out of its ambit religious minorities. There is empirical evidence to demonstrate that they are victims of the most extreme forms of socio-economic marginalisation. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made the most eloquent critique of caste-based reservation in a seminal two-and-a-half hour address to the Lok Sabha on September 6, 1990. He pointed out that the data that constituted the foundation of the Mandal Commission report, that in turn underpinned the V.P. Singh Office Memoran-dum, was extrapolated from censuses that were between 70 years to a century old then. He observed that the commission had surveyed only 810 villages out of 5.5 lakh across the country and one urban block in each district to reach its conclusions.
The former PM had prophetically warned his successors: “We have problems if caste is defined to enshrine casteism in our country. We have problems if the weakest amongst the classes are not helped and if the weakest among the minority religions are not helped. The Congress cannot stand by and watch this nation being divided for the political convenience of one individual.”
The time has come to start an open debate. Is reservation in jobs and education required in the 21st century? If the answer is yes, then has the time come to move affirmative action to an economic platform cutting across caste, creed, region, religion and all the vivisections that bedevil the Indian experiment? Though Justice Kuldip Singh was in a minority on the Indira Sawhney bench and failed to persuade his brethren to his point of view, his dissent is still relevant.
He said, “Poverty has a direct nexus to social backwardness. It is an essential and dominant characteristic of poverty. A rich belonging to backward caste — depending upon his disposition — may be or may not be socially backward, but a poor Brahmin struggling for his livelihood invariably suffers from social backwardness. The reality of present-day life is that the economic standards confer social status on individuals. A poor person, however honest, has no social status around him whereas a rich smuggler moves in a high society. No statistics can hide the fact that there are millions of people, who belong to the so-called elite castes, are as poor as often a great deal poorer than a very large proportion of the backward classes. It is a fallacy to think that a person, though earning thousands of rupees or holding higher posts is till backward simply because he happens to belong to a particular caste or community whereas millions of people living below poverty line are forward because they were born in some other caste, or communities”
The paradox is that India is perhaps the only country where castes and communities want to be backward to move forward. Regression for progression has become the mantra of a new India.
The writer is a lawyer and a former Union minister. The views expressed are personal. Twitter handle @manishtewari