Pandora’s box of reservations was opened long ago. The history of affirmative action in India goes back may be a couple of centuries, but given the caste system inherited from time immemorial, such action was always seen as socially relevant, and justifiably so. Quotas for dalits and adivasis were fixed some 65 years ago and their success may have emboldened the Mandal Commission to order more of the same for others.
And despite the social upheaval caused by the Mandal panel’s recommendations, the system of reservations has worked wonders for a majority of the people who benefited from being given a push to make up for centuries of discrimination. However, what it has led to is the present when relatively well-off communities are demanding their pound of flesh.
Fast-forward from 1920s in the Madras Presidency when the first quota was decreed for dalits, Christians and Muslims, and 1932 when Ramsay MacDonald, the British PM, introduced the Communal Award in India, to 2016 and the qualitative and quantitative progression of reservations makes clear the success of affirmative action as social reform, which is why no one can stop the quota agitation from spiralling out of control.
Haryana’s Jats, a community of prosperous landowners, the Kapus in Andhra-Telangana, a not-so-badly-off, middle-level agrarian community, and the Patidars in Gujarat, known for their enterprise and “height” in the social ladder, have held the administration to ransom with violent demands for quotas. Playing up to such demands is to be thought of as essentially political activity, with a greedy eye cast on the ballot box more than the intention of rendering justice to those who really deserve the breaks to climb out of poverty or general backwardness through education and jobs.
There are states like Tamil Nadu and AP where the reservation in education is already as high as 69 per cent and 66.5 per cent, respectively, and there is an insatiable demand for more. The Supreme Court had ruled in 2015 that the Jats could not be included among OBCs, with a clear direction that “caste alone” cannot be the criterion for backwardness. The Gujarat government’s clever ordinance making the Patidar quota of 10 per cent as one for economically backward classes introduced another element, although such a move appears logical because the poor deserve quotas on grounds of poverty.
Religion is also returning as a focal point in reservation demands, as witnessed in the UP Chief Minister’s resolution urging the Centre to amend the Constitution to permit 13.5 per cent reservation for Muslims. The scene calls for a complete review of the criteria for reservations. The question is will politics ever allow caste to be taken out of the equation of quota demands and look primarily at economic criteria now....