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BRP Bhaskar: Bid to placate a caste group
January 15, 2019
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to provide reservation on economic grounds to poor persons belonging to the so-called upper castes is aimed at boosting his Bharatiya Janata Party’s prospects in the approaching general election.

The bill to amend the Constitution for the purpose had a smooth passage because few parties were willing to invite the hostility of a powerful social group which constitutes about 15 per cent of the population.

Reservation is the Indian form of affirmative action. It was introduced in the colonial period by the British in the Madras Presidency and by a few princes in their States in the wake of agitations by socially disadvantaged groups.

The Constitution, promulgated in 1950, provided for reservation only for Dalits and Adivasis, the most disadvantaged groups officially classified as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes respectively.

When a member of a forward community challenged the reservation enjoyed by other backward communities in Madras on the ground that it violated the Constitutional guarantee of equality, the court struck them down.

To protect the pre-existing reservations the government amended the Constitution to permit the making of special provisions for socially and educationally backward classes.

The amendment opened the door to extend the benefit of reservation to socially and educationally backward groups across the country. However, neither the Centre nor any of the States did any such thing.

In 1979 the Janata Party government set up a commission headed by BP Mandal to identify socially and educationally backward classes and go into the question of introducing reservation for them to mitigate the effects of caste determination.

Since there was no data on the representation of backward classes other than SCs and STs in the services, the Commission gathered information from a few Central government offices. It found that they were poorly represented.

The Commission recognised a caste or class as backward if the average value of assets of its families was 25 per cent below the State average and the number of families living in hutments and the number of households with consumption loans were 25 per cent above the State average.

It recommended that 27 per cent of the jobs in the Central services and public undertakings be reserved for them.

By the time the Commission concluded its labours the Janata government had fallen and Indira Gandhi was back at the helm. She and her son and successor Rajiv Gandhi did not act on its report.

The National Front government headed by VP Singh, which was supported from outside by the BJP and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), decided to implement its recommendations.

The BJP, which was against extension of reservation to more sections, immediately withdrew its support to the government. Its student wing launched a violent agitation which paralysed educational institutions in Delhi and the Hindi States. But implementation of the report, which survived judicial scrutiny, could not be stopped.

The idea of reservation for the poor belonging to the forward castes was first mooted by CPI(M) ideologue EMS Namboodiripad. Many saw it as an attempt to undermine the concept of reservation as a social justice measure.

Modi’s motive in pushing through economic reservation is to placate the BJP’s ‘upper’ caste constituency which has been adversely affected by his government’s failure to create jobs in adequate numbers.

The criteria the government has laid down to identify the ‘upper’ caste poor are a clear giveaway. While the per capita annual income is Rs 113,000, it has decided to treat those with annual incomes of up to Rs 800,000 and landholdings of up to five acres as poor. The intention clearly is to extend the benefit of reservation to Modi’s ‘upper’ caste urban middle class supporters.

Under a Supreme Court ruling, a backward class person with an annual income of Rs 250,000 belongs to the creamy layer and a second generation member of his family is not entitled to reservation.

As against a job quota of 27 per cent for the backward classes who constitute 52 per cent of the population, the government has proposed a 10 per cent quota for the ‘upper’ castes, who constitute 15 per cent of the population.

Another Supreme Court verdict has put a 50 per cent cap on reservations. The new 10 per cent quota will take reservations above that ceiling. Those who view reservation in terms of social justice are turning to the court to squash reservation based on economic considerations. The court may disappoint them.

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 The author is a political analyst of reckoning

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