Editorial: More Debate Needed On Overcoming Caste Inequalities

Editorial: More Debate Needed On Overcoming Caste Inequalities

FPJ EditorialUpdated: Sunday, June 23, 2024, 09:57 PM IST
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The quandary in which the Nitish Kumar government finds itself after the Bihar High Court struck down the decision to raise the reservation cap from 50% to 65% is not easily resolved. Unless the entire political class reaches a consensus on this sensitive issue which of late has acquired a further stridency it may not be possible to insulate the higher courts from an avoidable controversy. Despite the Bihar Government asserting that the increase in government jobs and educational institutions was effected after the State-wide caste survey the high court voided the increase due to the old apex court-prescribed 50% ceiling on such reservations. The argument that the increase in reservations was called for given that the Bihar caste survey revealed that the OBCs, SCs, STs and EBC (Extremely Backward Castes) together numbered 85% of the state’s population. The court faulted the government for relying on the number of these caste groups in the population rather than on their number in government services and educational institutions. Following the High Court decision the Opposition leader in Bihar Tejeshswi Yadav has blamed the Nitish government for not representing the government’ s case well. Nitish Kumar was one of the first leaders to demand a caste survey at the national level, and had dutifully followed up on the state survey to expand the reservation percentage well above the 50% ceiling, The onus is now on him to take corrective steps to ensure that the increase is validated by the apex court. In an earlier case, the Supreme Court had pointedly maintained that the 50% ceiling applied only to reservations for the SCs, STs and OBCs whereas the reservations for the economically weaker sections were outside the ambit of the 50-percent ceiling. How the expanded Bihar reservations will pass muster under the above-mentioned SC ruling remains to be seen. One way out for the Bihar government could be to include the law increasing reservations in the Ninth Schedule. Since only Parliament can put laws in the Ninth Schedule, the JD (U)-BJP Bihar Government may not find it difficult to persuade the Centre to do so. But this will open a Pandora’s box, inviting other state governments to follow suit. To avoid the potentially chaotic situation it will be immensely helpful if the political parties reached a consensus on tackling the issue of expanding the reservation pie. Were the central government to appeal against the old 50-percent ceiling, armed with an all-party consensus for increasing it reasonably higher in the light of a caste survey, the apex court might consider revision in the light of fresh developments. After all, not only Nitish Kumar but even the Congress party had most stridently demanded a nation-wide caste survey. Of course, this was an opportunistic move by the Congress party which had sat on the report of the Mandal Commission for years until the V P Singh government enforced the OBC reservations. Due to its diminished pull with the voters, the Congrerss party had now embraced caste reservations. Significantly, Tamil Nadu had long ago got around the 50-percent cap on reservations. It suggests that a relook at the old judicial cap on reservations is urgently called for.

Meanwhile, the ever-rising caste consciousness following the Mandal reservations has fragmented the society into separate caste groups seeking the benefit of reservations. It is now hard to put the genie of caste back into the bottle. With small and not-so-small caste- and community-based political groups bargaining with major political parties for tickets in return of their support in elections, expansion of caste reservations in government jobs and educational institutions may now have become inevitable. Even if the ruling BJP is not fully in agreement with the demand for a caste survey, it will face increased pressure from the Opposition to order one in the coming months. The percentage of economically poor among the high castes is not insignificant and the proposed nation-wide caste survey needs to count them as well. Lifting them out of poverty could be one of the objectives of the proposed enhanced reservations as also to reduce income and social inequalities among the traditionally weaker castes. A thorough debate on the issue is essential before determining the next course of action to reduce traditional inequalities in the society.

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