Reservations in perspective

Published : Mar 07, 1998 00:00 IST

The Politics of Backwardness: Reservation Policy in India by V.A. Pai Panandiker (ed.); Konark Publishers (for the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi); 1997; Rs. 450.

A VOLUME of essays that is introduced to the reader with the assertion that the principle of reservations in public employment is "pernicious" for a variety of reasons cannot be expected to be a model of dispassionate objectivity. But the essays that follow reveal a more complex and analytical attitude, which add up in the aggregate to a valuable contribution to the literature on the subject. The editor of this volume defaults on his conventional duty of leading the reader into the various motifs dealt with, in preference to ventilating his own predilections on the issue - and these are rather strong. This is a hurdle the reader has to overcome while approaching this book, but from Pran Chopra's 'Overview', which performs the function of the editorial introduction, the volume does succeed in establishing a tone of serious and sensitive social comment.

In any approach to the study of affirmative action, questions arise at several levels. Does it have an ethical basis that can stand scrutiny? Does it have a practical efficacy that justifies the ethical pleas that are advanced on its behalf? Are the gains for society as a whole commensurate with the sacrifices that are perceived to be made by sections of it for the sustenance of the policy of reservations?

In India, the policy of reservations has often proceeded independently of these questions, in response to contingent political compulsions. Assured political representation became an element of state policy in the 1930s for the "scheduled" castes, so called because of their inclusion in a certain schedule of the Government of India Act. The principle was not so much the outcome of prolonged debate and deliberation, as a contingent response to the moral pressure of Mahatma Gandhi's "epic fast" and B.R. Ambedkar's insistence on separate electorates for the "untouchable" sections. The task of identifying the beneficiaries of this policy was relatively uncomplicated, since they were almost entirely the sufferers of the social stigma of untouchability.

Reservations as a principle were not confined to these sections. A larger criterion of "social and educational backwardness" was also beginning to evolve out of the clash of sectional interests under the colonial Raj. The initial construction of the term, in the Madras Presidency, was largely in negative terms - all sections apart from Brahmins were, by definition, considered backward. As Shri Prakash points out in one of two contributions to this volume, the first effort to evolve a technical definition of backwardness came in Mysore State in the 1920s, though it again failed to escape from the rather arid notion of non-Brahmanism.

Efforts to put some substance into the notion of backwardness began after Independence. The first decision to extend reservations pertained only to the Scheduled Castes and ScheduledTribes, and essentially repromulgated the 1936 list for the former. Alterations and additions were of course continually being made for the tribal populations, though these were not considered to belong to the core of the process of reservations. Articles 15(4) and 16(4) of the Constitution were inserted as early as 1950, almost as a symbolic statement of political priorities. The first two amendments to the Constitution were directed towards enabling a policy of reservations, and protecting it from the threat of legal challenge on grounds of equality of treatment and opportunity.

Four full decades lapsed between the laying of the constitutional underpinnings and the notification of reservations in public employment as an element of national policy. In that period, a number of States put in place their own systems of reservation, based upon often divergent perceptions and criteria of backwardness. Both the Kaka Kalelkar Commission in 1955 and the Mandal Commission in 1980 utilised the findings of the last detailed community-based Census of 1931 to extrapolate on the population of backward classes. The Mandal Commission also utilised a sample survey to identify the social attributes of backwardness. Yet, these two exercises remain contradictory in many crucial respects, and also inconsistent with many of the findings of the backward class commissions appointed by various State governments.

Suma Chitnis details the "crisis of ambivalence" that besets the identification of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes themselves. Her arguments have a certain plausibility, since the pertinence of a 1936 schedule to current social realities needs to be justified, rather than reaffirmed at ten-yearly intervals almost as a political ritual. The conclusion is almost irresistible: that the policy of reservations has become the stamping ground for several types of vested interests. Castes and tribes have been lumped together into a homogeneous mass for purposes of public policy, without considering the specific social debilities they suffered. Reservations have thus become a surrogate for a truly enlightened approach of social reform.

Essays on the policy of reservations policy as it is practised in a number of States - Bihar, Karnataka, Gujarat and West Bengal - flesh out this point in several substantive details. D.L. Sheth provides a synoptic overview which seeks, among other things, to debunk the notion that reservations for the disadvantaged necessarily entail a dilution of standards. He does, however, concede the case for a "disaggregation" of the lists of backward classes and a "rationalisation" of the scheduled lists. In the process, he makes a strong plea not to apply the criteria of exclusion based on economic criteria to the Scheduled Castes, for at least as long as "status debility" comes in the way of "social mobility".

Ghanshyam Shah provides an assessment of the impact of reservations that points to its inherently self-limiting character in a context where it is not accompanied by reform measures across a broad front. Mohit Bhattacharya tackles the conflict between efficiency and social justice in a novel way - by making a distinction between the formulation and implementation of policy, and arguing that implementation could be improved by broad-basing the social representation of the administrative rungs concerned.

Rajeev Dhavan's contribution draws attention to the problem-solving role played by the Supreme Court. The mass of issues involved in the reservations policy was finally unamenable to resolution through political debate and consensus. When called in to arbitrate, the Supreme Court pronounced itself on the matter in several separate but concurring judgments. Some aspects of the jurisprudence of reservations were significantly advanced in the Mandal ruling delivered in 1992. But, concludes Dhavan, the "more lasting impact of the Mandal controversy was on electoral politics". It galvanised some sections, "provoking them out of their political stupor" and drawing them into vigorous electoral contestation.

Current political realities point towards an involution of backward class politics. The broad coalitions of the disadvantaged that came in the wake of the Mandal controversy have now been fragmented and fractured. This points to the limited political relevance of reservations as a mass agitational issue, and the need to underwrite it with a more substantive set of socio-economic commitments. The political scene today seems to indicate that the sections that have resolutely fought to own up to the appellation of "backwardness" cannot quite agree on the details of that socio-economic programme. That, finally, is the fundamental debility that the politics of backwardness would have to contend with.

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