The history of reservation for OBCs underscores a strong political commitment to the policy of positive discrimination in their favour.
HUMAN Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh's revelation that the Centre is considering a proposal to extend reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in Central educational institutions has stirred a huge debate, as if it is for the first time that the Union government is considering reservation for OBCs in educational institutions.
The first Backward Classes Commission, constituted on January 29, 1953, and headed by Kaka Saheb Kalelkar, then a Member of Parliament, recommended 70 per cent seats in all technical and professional institutions for qualified students from the Backward Classes, besides a minimum reservation of vacancies in all government services and local bodies for OBCs on a three-fold scale, namely 25 per cent for Class I posts; 33.5 per cent for Class II posts; and 40 per cent for Class III and IV posts.
The Commission, comprising 11 Members, had submitted its report to the Central government on March 30, 1955, with five of them voicing dissent on various grounds. The then government said it was disappointed with the Commission's criteria and conclusions. The government expressed the fear that the recognition of specified castes as backward might serve to maintain and perpetuate the existing distinction on the basis of caste. In 1962, the Centre advised the States that in its view it was better to apply economic tests than to go by caste.
The Union Home Ministry had two objections to the Kaka Kalelkar Commission Report. First, if the bulk of the country's millions were to be regarded as coming within the category of Backward Classes, no useful purpose could be served by separate enumeration of such classes. Second, the caste criterion was seen as a remedy worse than the evil of backwardness itself - even though the Commission itself had suggested, citing the proverb `use the thorn to remove a thorn', that the evils of caste could be removed by measures considered in terms of caste. Therefore, the Centre did not find any merit in drawing a national list of OBCs and said that it would be left to the State governments to draw up their own OBC lists.
It was left to the Second Backward Classes Commission, constituted on December 20, 1978, during the Janata Party rule at the Centre, to examine the desirability or otherwise of making a provision for the reservation of posts in favour of such backward classes of citizens that are not adequately represented in public services and posts in connection with the affairs of the Union or of any State, and to make such recommendations as they think proper. The Commission, headed by Bindeshwari Prasad Mandal, estimated the population of OBCs in the country to be around 52 per cent of the total population. However, in view of the ceiling imposed by the Supreme Court that the total quantum of reservations should be below 50 per cent, the Commission recommended a reservation of 27 per cent only for OBCs, considering the 22.5 per cent reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes already existing in all services and public sector undertakings (PSUs).
The Commission recommended that all universities and affiliated colleges be covered by this scheme of reservation. Besides, it sought 27 per cent reservation for OBC students in all scientific, technical and professional institutions run by the Central as well as State governments, as in its view, they would not be able to compete on an equal footing with others in securing admission to these institutions.
On August 7, 1990, the then Prime Minister V.P. Singh announced the government's acceptance of the Mandal Report in Parliament, reminding the nation that the Constitution envisaged that socially and educationally backward classes (SEBCs) be identified, their difficulties removed and their conditions improved in terms of Article 340 (1) read with Article 14(4) as well as Article 16(4) of the Constitution. The government decided to adopt, in the first phase, the castes common to both the Mandal list and lists prepared by a number of States, and introduced 27 per cent reservation for the SEBCs (the constitutional term for OBCs) in services under the Government of India and PSUs.
The reservation policy of 27 per cent for OBCs, V.P. Singh announced, would not be extended to educational institutions, and that it would continue for 10 years at the end of which it would be reviewed, even though the Mandal Commission had recommended reservation in educational institutions and a 20-year duration for the policy.
Why did V.P. Singh depart from the Mandal report? Was it aimed to stop the snowballing of the popular agitation against his announcement? Or did he think it was more important to consolidate the gains of reservation in public services than introduce reservation in educational institutions, which were likely to fuel students' protests?
An answer to this may perhaps be found in the Mandal report itself: "An essential part of the battle against social backwardness is to be fought in the minds of the backward people. In India, government service has always been looked upon as a symbol of prestige and power. By increasing the representation of OBCs in government services, we give them an immediate feeling of participation in the governance of this country."
With the onset of the era of liberalisation and minimal governance, the erstwhile symbol of prestige and power might have lost its sheen; hence the increased stakes in the seats in professional educational institutions which offer opportunities for a successful career in the private sector.
The complete absence of street protests - replaced mainly by critical reports and articles in the media and on the Internet - in the wake of Arjun Singh's announcement has raised interesting questions about the nature of the widespread opposition to V.P. Singh's announcement in 1990. There is reason to believe that the students' protests in 1990 would not have been so ferocious if it were not for the covert support extended to them by certain political parties, such as the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
This became obvious in 1992 when the Supreme Court gave its seal of approval to the legitimacy of the Mandal announcement, and vacated its stay on the operation of the Office Memorandum issued by the V.P. Singh government to implement the Mandal report, subject to the exclusion of the "creamy layer" or the socially advanced sections from the notified Backward Classes. The spontaneous agitation against the judgment fizzled out owing to a lack of political support, effective direction, and mobilisation of students. The student wings of the Congress and the BJP backed out from the agitation in the wake of the 1992 ruling.
Studies of the 1990 agitation have revealed that the agitators were neither troubled by any fear of dwindling job opportunities nor had any overriding concern for merit or egalitarianism. Indeed, Rajiv Goswami, the hero of the 1990 movement, who survived an attempt at self-immolation, threatened to burn himself when in 1991 the then Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, announced an improved Mandal package (with reservation for economically weaker sections). But nothing of that sort happened, and Goswami went into oblivion subsequently. (He died unsung last year, owing partly to the injuries he suffered upon his self-immolation attempt in 1990.) Reservation for OBCs in Central services took effect from September 8, 1993, after an Expert Committee appointed by the Centre evolved criteria to identify the "creamy layer" among the OBCs insofar as the Government of India was concerned.
There is no credible explanation on why successive governments have avoided steps to extend the reservation for OBCs to Central educational institutions, as recommended by the Mandal Commission, even though they faced no political, administrative or legal constraints.
Whatever the governments' compulsions, the experience in implementing reservation for OBCs in Central services since 1993 should be an eye-opener. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice, in its eighth report on the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes (Reservation in posts and services) Bill, 2004, found that many of the castes, races and tribes among the S.C.s, S.T.s, and OBCs had been deprived of the benefits of reservation in services/jobs as these were restricted to certain `upper' castes among the weaker sections. "Exclusion of some castes from the benefit of reservation has pushed them far behind, which is violation of the principles of social harmony and social equality as embodied in the constitutional provisions," it said.
For instance, the committee report revealed that the Valmiki Majhabi caste, despite its large population in Punjab, had received scant representation in government jobs; the community also feared that it might be merged with other categories, which would only make its lot worse. The committee felt that a particular sub-caste or group of a homogeneous class may enjoy the benefit of reservation while other, more backward and less aware groups may have been passed by.
The Committee also pointed out that the induction of more categories, castes, groups, tribes and classes in the lists of S.C.s, S.T.s and OBCs might make it difficult to implement reservation because fresh entrants reduce opportunities for benefiting from reservation. It impressed upon the government the need to identify sub-castes or categories of a homogeneous class which were unable to reap the benefit of reservation.
More important, the Committee opposed the inclusion of the creamy layer concept, based on the economic status of OBCs, in the Bill. It felt that the concept came in the way of ensuring adequate representation of backward classes in the services of the state.
The Bill, introduced in the Rajya Sabha on December 22, 2004, with the objective of codifying the executive orders and instructions issued from time to time by the government and providing statutory backing to the policy of reservation, is yet to see the light of day after that. It has been referred for further scrutiny to a Group of Ministers, headed by Arjun Singh.
The evolution of reservation for OBCs in Central services implies an inherent commitment by the entire political class to the policy of positive discrimination in favour of the SEBCs, irrespective of the aberrations that have come to the fore.