The basis of reservations in Government jobs and in State-run educational institutions after the country attained independence was because of the historical marginalisation of scheduled castes and tribes and of backward classes in the country under alien rule.
It was conjectured then that these underprivileged communities would overcome the handicap through reservations in a few years and then the need for such reservations could be obviated.
But the reservations have been perpetuated over time with these groups acting as vote banks for politicians of all hues. The politicians, indeed, have milked them for their own vote-catching ends and developed a vested interest in perpetuating them.
The existing reservation for SCs, STs, and Other Backward Classes is 15 per cent, 7.5 per cent and 27 per cent while the population of these groups is 16.6 per cent, 8.6 per cent and 52 per cent respectively.
Significantly, seeing the benefits accruing from reservations, even upper castes in some states, have grouped themselves to demand their classification as backwards. These include the Rajputs in Rajasthan, the Marathas in Maharashtra, the Jats in Haryana, the Patidars or Patels in Gujarat and the Brahmins spread across various states.
Since they constitute important and sizeable vote banks, they are asserting themselves strongly with elections round the corner in some states and also across the country to the Lok Sabha.Left to themselves the political parties would go berserk pandering to such demands but mercifully, there is the watchdog of the judiciary which has set limits to reservations and acts as a check on indiscriminate reservation demands.
A nine-judge 1992 judgement of the Supreme Court had laid down a limit of 50 per cent of reservations in total which is being followed to this day, barring the exception of Tamil Nadu which managed to circumvent the ceiling in a roundabout way through a central law by inclusion in the 9th schedule of the Constitution which is non-justiciable.
Now, Dalit leader and Minister of State for Social Justice Ramdas Athalvale has fired a new salvo, demanding reservation for those in the upper castes who have an income of less than Rs 6 lakh per annum and consequently increasing the percentage of reservations to 75 per cent. Whether this would come through in due course only time will tell.
But the fact of the matter is that it would leave a mere 25 per cent for competition among non-reserved categories. Where will all this leave merit as a criterion is anybody’s guess. Also, how the judiciary will respond to such a legislation is a moot point if the matter comes before it.
Take individual states for instance. In Haryana, the agitation by Jats, an agrarian middle caste that has been clamouring for OBC status since the late 1990s, took a violent turn in 2016. Their protests included the blockade of the capital city of Delhi which is surrounded by Haryana on three sides.
Gujarat was rocked by violent anti-quota agitations in the mid-1980s, and the Patels, a dominant caste, were at the forefront of this agitation, demanding that the quotas for SCs/STs be scrapped; they labelled quotas as anti-merit and unfair.
Since 2015, the Patels or Patidars have been time and again on the streets, demanding to be classified as OBC; the movement has occasionally turned violent with damage to public property. The spearhead of the movement in recent times has been youth leader Hardik Patel who is a rabble-rouse.
Marathas, a predominantly landowning caste and a politically and economically dominant group in Maharashtra, have been demanding to be included in the OBC category since the 1990s.
Identified as a forward caste by the Mandal Commission, the Marathas have now been accepted in principle as backward by the Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP government evidently for fear that the party would lose out on the crucial Maratha vote in a State where Marathas arguably account for a whopping 31 per cent of the population.
Yet, if the Fadnavis government is suddenly in support of Maratha reservation, it is essentially because any rejection can be blamed on the court while the government acts innocent. The agitations by some forward castes to be included among beneficiaries by forcing governments to classify them as backward is a new dimension that is making a virtual mockery of the original purpose of reservations. As of now, it seems inconceivable that any government would have the courage to cry a half to reservations to honour the spirit of the limited period reservations envisaged originally.
A great deal now rests on the shoulders of the apex court. But even with the existing ceiling of 50 per cent in Government jobs and educational institutions, there is the issue of the diminishing scale of accountability of caste groups that are taking the benefit of reservations. There is, indeed, no dearth of talent but with rewards in terms of educational opportunities and jobs coming relatively easily, there is a general lack of effort to excel. That is bound to have affected efficiency standards.
In general, there is a dire need to enforce higher degree of accountability in all walks of life and that is as much true in regard to the steel frame which is a crucial element in implementation of government policies.
kamlendra kanwaris a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.