Tamil Nadu Election 2021

Vanniyar reservation in Tamil Nadu: problems ahead

Print edition : April 23, 2021
The Tamil Nadu government’s decision to provide exclusive reservation to Vanniyar will sow the seeds of dissatisfaction among other castes within the MBC category, disturbing social harmony.

THE government of Tamil Nadu hastily promulgated an Act on February 26 providing 10.5 per cent reservation in employment and education for members of the Vanniyar caste alone. Earlier, the reservation Acts of 1994 and 2006 provided 20 per cent reservation to the Most Backward Classes (MBCs) and the Denotified Communities (DNCs). The Vanniyar caste is one of the MBCs and the largest in terms of population within that category. Under the new law, the remaining 9.5 per cent in the MBC category is divided between non-Vanniyar MBCs and the DNCs as 7.0 per cent 2.5 per cent respectively.

The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), one of the alliance partners of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in the upcoming Assembly election, demanded exclusive reservation for Vanniyars and organised a violent agitation in December 2020. Soon after that demonstration, the AIADMK government constituted a committee to carry out a caste-based census in order to determine the reservation ratios for the different castes on the basis of the size of population and quantifiable indicators of social and educational backwardness of each caste. However, not satisfied with this development, the PMK continued to exert pressure on the AIADMK and announced that it would take a decision on an electoral alliance only after the announcement of a credible plan for exclusive reservation for Vanniyars.

While the committee for the caste-based census was yet to take the first step towards collecting the data, Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami announced that the Chairman of the Backward Classes Commission in the State had recommended exclusive reservation for Vanniyars, without even placing for discussion the process followed by the Commission to arrive at such a decision.

Also read: Exclusive reservation for Vanniyar Community in Tamil Nadu: Playing with fire

The recklessness of this process may be understood from the fact that this Act (Act No. 8 of 2021) was enacted in the State Assembly without any discussion and barely four hours before the announcement of the State Assembly election and commencement of the model code of conduct. Moreover, the hurried passage of this Act does not mean that it will be implemented immediately; that will happen only when the rules are published in the State Gazette, which may be done well after the new government is formed. Therefore, the expeditious political gain in the election is the only motive for the enactment of this Act.

No other party dared to oppose this Act as a move based on an unscientific approach to reservation, fearing the loss of Vanniyar votes in the northern districts where that caste is dominant. On the contrary, all parties were quick to state that the proportion of reservation for Vanniyars would be increased after the caste-based census. This includes the AIADMK, which announced that the Act was only a temporary measure and that the quota was likely to increase after a thorough census. Therefore, it appears that exclusive reservation for Vanniyars is a settled political issue, with only the proportion of reservation to be fixed based on census data.

This is the starting point of a murky road ahead for caste-based reservation and consequent polarisation in the State.

Caste equability unsettled

The backward castes are regionally concentrated in Tamil Nadu. It is believed that the Vanniyars are dominant in 120 constituencies in northern Tamil Nadu, while the Mukkulathors are present in large numbers in central and southern Tamil Nadu. The Kongu Vellalars are concentrated in the west and the north-west, while the Nadars are concentrated in southern Tamil Nadu. The majority of candidates, cutting across parties, are from these specific castes in their respective strongholds. We can also trace numerically smaller castes to clusters in specific districts and taluks, and that could influence electoral outcomes. But the political outcomes in specific locations cannot dictate State-level policies like reservation.

For instance, in many State-level selections either for admission in higher education or employment, the Vanniyars get more than half of the reserved seats in the MBC category. In decentralised admission in higher education or selection for employment, we find that the dominant castes in each district get a larger share of the assigned quotas. Every caste has a regional profile—that is, castes are regionally concentrated. Assigning quota for a caste at the State level when it is present in significant numbers only in a part of the State is sure to dissatisfy all the castes within a category.

After the enactment of Act No. 8 of 2021, the political debate remains subdued because political parties have sensed that that this Act has unsettled the caste equability. Vanniyars have realised that the new quota is far less than their due in terms of population size. Moreover, the other castes in the MBC category in western and southern Tamil Nadu believe that the dominant Vanniyars would take a larger share in the regional opportunities available for them. Acknowledging this issue, the election discourse today is conspicuously silent on the topic.

Also read: Reservation for Vanniyars ‘only a temporary measure’ until caste census report becomes available: CM Palaniswami

However, this Act has opened a Pandora’s box by providing caste-based reservation for regionally concentrated castes at the State level. Unless this issue is settled, further meaningful progress in reservation-based social justice is going to be tough. The existing system of reservation, a time-tested one, clubs castes in different regions that are similarly placed in terms of social and educational status as a class or community and then provides reservation for the community.

Tinkering with it with finer sub-classification by castes and assigning quota for each caste or a smaller number of castes that are regionally concentrated like the Vanniyars will only disturb social harmony.

The political class perceives reservation as the only social justice tool to emancipate depressed castes. The reservation once assigned to a caste or community cannot be removed or reassigned without running the risk of electoral losses. The total absence of organised social-anthropological studies on castes by the Backward Classes Commission and the comprehensive assessment of relative social and educational backwardness of castes using census surveys are indicators of fear in the political class about the possible outcomes. However, a lasting solution to this issue is the intermittent reclassification of castes between communities on the basis periodical surveys and data on the quantum of beneficiaries from each caste owing to the reservation system.

R. Srinivasan is a professor of econometrics, University of Madras.

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