Print edition : October 23, 1999

Organisations representing the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes have chalked out a programme of agitation aimed at protecting their constitutional right to reservation.

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in New Delhi

THE failure of the executive and the judiciary in recent years to uphold in its entirety the constitutional right of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes to reservation in educational institutions and in employment has led to intense resentment among these disadvantaged social groups. The movement seeking to protect this right is set to intensify, and moves are afoot in this context to forge a broad unity of members of Parliament belonging to the S.Cs and the S.Ts, who will participate in agita tions both inside Parliament and outside.

In the past two years, the reservation issue has sparked off mass struggles by various organisations representing the S.Cs and the S.Ts. These were rooted in the perception that the executive was denying the S.Cs and the S.Ts opportunities under their en titlement for reservation under various pretexts, including the pretext that judicial orders were being implemented (Frontline, January 29, 1999).

Ram Raj, chairman of the All India Confederation of S.C. and S.T. Organisations, told Frontline that the mass struggles that had been planned had two objectives. "On the one hand, we have to expose and oppose the apathy and indifference of and dec eption by the government in the light of its failure to fulfil its promises in respect of reservation for the S.Cs and the S.Ts." On the other hand, he said, the agitations would draw attention to the fact that some recent rulings by the Supreme Court ha d had the effect of "depriving " the S.Cs and the S.Ts of their right to reservation.

Office-bearers of organisations representing the S.Cs and the S.Ts point to the August 10 judgment of the Supreme Court, which struck down reservation for the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in "super speciality" courses in medical a nd engineering colleges. The organisations petitioned the President of India and sought his intervention in the matter; on September 1 they also staged a protest demonstration in front of the Supreme Court.

Leaders of these organisations complain that the S.Cs and the S.Ts continue to be discriminated against. Ram Raj said: "Speciality and super speciality posts in government have been kept beyond the purview of reservation in a large number of departments such as defence, space and nuclear science, science and technology and engineering. All this is done by reasoning that reservation militates against merit. Now that argument is being advanced to deny us reservation in higher education too."

Office-bearers of the Confederation of S.C.-S.T. Organisations say that developments on the reservation front in recent years have been particularly disheartening for the disadvantaged social groups. The Supreme Court's judgment on the Mandal Commission recommendations; the issue of controversial Office Memorandums (O.Ms) by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) between January 30, 1997 and August 1, 1998, when the United Front was in power; and the failure of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led co alition government to honour its assurance that it would withdraw these O.Ms - all of these, in the perception of these representatives, conform to a pattern of discrimination.

The O.Ms issued by the United Front Government violated not only the overall guidelines governing reservation for the S.Cs and the S.Ts but also a constitutional amendment that was aimed to overcome the adverse effect of the Supreme Court judgment on the Mandal Commission recommendations.

When the Mandal Commission recommendations reserving 27 per cent of Central government jobs for OBCs were adopted in August 1990 and later in September 1991, the move was challenged in the Supreme Court by a group of activists opposed to the recommendati ons. The Supreme Court ruled that reservations did not go against the principle of merit but held that the recommendations were applicable only for the initial appointment, not for promotions. It also held that reserved posts that were not filled in a p articular year would not be carried forward. The apex court further ruled that reservations would not apply to technical posts in research and development organisations as also specialities and super specialities in medicine, engineering, defence service s and nuclear and space applications.

Although the petitioners in the case had referred only to reservation for the OBCs, the Supreme Court suo motu made the judgment applicable to reservation for the S.Cs and the S.Ts.

The judgment triggered widespread protests, and in June 1995 the government was compelled to bring forward a constitutional amendment bill to remedy the situation. That legislative measure, the Constitution (77th Amendment) Bill, stipulated that reservat ions for the S.Cs and the S.Ts would be applicable even for promotions and at all classes and levels of employment.

However, on January 30, 1997, the DoPT came out with the first of its controversial O.Ms: it stated that a person who had secured a promotion under the quota for the S.Cs and the S.Ts would lose his seniority to a candidate in the general category even i f the latter was promoted in a particular grade at a later date. The second O.M., issued on July 2, 1997, changed the system of roster maintenance from a vacancy-based one to a post-based one; this had the effect of slowing down the process of filling up reserved posts. The third O.M., of July 22, 1997, withdrew certain concessions and relaxations that had been provided to the S.Cs and the S.Ts to enhance their promotional opportunities. This too was seen to be in violation of the provisions of the Cons titution.

Three other O.Ms, issued on August 13 and August 29, 1997 and July 1, 1998, were equally discriminatory. The first of these had the effect of barring government departments from extending reservation to all classes and posts; this was a blatant transgres sion of the provisions of the 77th Amendment. The second had the effect of discontinuing the special recruitment drive for the S.Cs and the S.Ts. The third laid down that S.C. and S.T. candidates who qualified on merit would be considered as candidates i n the reserved category, not in the general category.

As with the Supreme Court ruling on the Mandal Commission recommendations, the O.Ms led to protests by the organisations representing the S.Cs and the S.Ts. The O.Ms of January 30 and August 13, 1997 were challenged in court. Members of Parliament belong ing to the S.Cs and the S.Ts raised the issue in the House. In response to these representations and demands, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee stated in the Lok Sabha on March 18, 1999 that the government would take steps to withdraw the controversial O.Ms.

Vajpayee gave a more specific assurance to a delegation comprising Ram Raj, former Union Health Minister Dalit Ezhilmalai and Dalit Voice Editor V.T. Rajashekhar. He told them that the O.Ms of July 2, July 22 and August 29, 1997 would be withdrawn and that the O.Ms that had been challenged in court would be abrogated after complying with the legal formalities. The government did file an affidavit in the Supreme Court in the cases relating to the O.Ms but did not deliver on its assurance.

According to Ram Raj, organisations representing the S.Cs and the S.Ts had hoped that all political parties would address in their election manifestoes the problem arising from the failure of the executive and the judiciary to uphold the constitutional r ight to reservation of underprivileged sections. "However," he said, "apart from the Congress(I) none of the parties has raised the issue." Disheartened, representatives of the organisations have resolved to step up their agitation. The leadership and ra nk and file believe that only through an intense campaign can they force the "high class rulers" and leaders of various parties to take note of their just demands.

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