Print edition : January 16, 2009

CPI(M) members led by the party State Secretary, N. Varadarajan, in Dindigul on November 2, 2007, demanding a committee to look into exclusive reservation for Arunthathiyars.-G. KARTHIKEYAN

ON November 28, 2008, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi announced that the State Cabinet had accepted in principle the report of the one-man commission headed by M.S. Janardhanam, a retired judge of the Madras High Court, recommending a separate 3 per cent reservation for Arunthathiyar, Chakkiliyar and a few other sub-sects within the existing quota (18 per cent) for the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs). The announcement was made after an all-party meeting in Chennai.

Janardhanam, who was invited to brief the Cabinet about the commissions recommendations, said the Arunthathiyar community and others chosen for separate reservation were in the most backward state of development. A Cabinet committee later decided the modalities to implement the recommendations. The Chief Minister said the recommendations would be implemented immediately as the basic objective of his government was to uplift the oppressed.

Leaders of almost all political parties hailed the decision. All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam general secretary J. Jayalalithaa, who initially termed the decision on separate reservation a political fraud on the grounds that the State government had no power to create reservation within the reservation for the S.Cs., changed her stance the next day and welcomed the proposal. Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi president Thol. Thirumavalavan, who welcomed the decision, wanted the Chief Minister to convene a meeting of Dalit leaders to discuss the successful implementation of the 3 per cent reservation for Arunthathiyars.

N. Varadarajan, general secretary of the State Committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and R. Athiyamaan, the founder of Adhi Thamizhar Peravai, an organisation of Arunthathiyars, which spearheaded the struggle for separate reservation, demanded the early implementation of the recommendations. Athiyamaan also wanted the quota to be increased to 6 per cent corresponding to their share in the States population.

Arunthathiyars, along with Chakkiliyars and a few other sub-castes, belong to the lowest strata of the caste-based social hierarchy and are the worst sufferers of untouchability. A significant section of these people is still used for removing night soil and cleaning underground sewers (see separate story). The traditional occupation of Arunthathiyars is making leather goods. They have played a notable role as makers and menders of kamalai, a leather bag used to draw water from wells to irrigate dryland. A significant number of them have been engaged in agriculture-related activities too.

The famines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the State forced them to migrate to towns and take up odd jobs as sweepers and manual scavengers.

Arunthathiyars and Chakkiliyars have been included in the list of S.Cs, who are entitled to 18 per cent reservation in education and employment and reservation in political positions. Together, the two communities account for about 15.5 lakh (13.1 per cent) of the Dalit population (1.18 crore) in Tamil Nadu. Dalits account for 19 per cent of the States total population (6.2 crore), according to Census 2001.

Among Dalits, the literacy rate of Arunthathiyars is 53.7 per cent and that of Chakkiliyars is 50.9 per cent. The corresponding figures for others are Paraiyars 65.9, Adi Dravidars 65.3 and Pallars 65. The overall Dalit literacy rate is 63.2 per cent against the States 73.5 per cent. The dropout rates among Arunthathiyar and Chakkiliyar children after the primary level are much higher than in Adi Dravidar, Pallar and Paraiyar communities (see table).

One of the reasons attributed to the relative backwardness of Arunthathiyars and Chakkiliyars in education is that they were late starters. During the British period, sections of the Adi Dravidar, Pallar and Paraiyar communities had the benefit of school education thanks to Christian missionaries. According to a researcher, missionaries did not show any interest in Arunthathiyars and Chakkiliyars because caste Hindus thwarted the conversion of these people as their services were indispensable to them.

Attempts to improve the lot of Arunthathiyars and Chakkiliyars were made by community leaders such as L.C. Gurusami, who founded the Arunthathiyar Mahasabha in 1920, and H.M. Jaganathan. They started schools for Arunthathiyar children. However, these schools closed down soon for want of government aid.

The Tamil Nadu Arunthathiyar Sangam, formed in 1958, organised the people in the community to assert their rights. An organisation named Youth Guidance Service, formed in 1984 by first-generation beneficiaries of the statutory reservation system, was the first to demand separate reservation for Arunthathiyars. The Adhi Thamizhar Peravai has also been fighting for the cause of the Arunthathiyars for over a decade now.

The struggle for reservation within reservation was intensified in 2007 with a rally organised by the CPI(M) in Chennai, in which over 30,000 Arunthathiyar people participated. The Adhi Thamizhar Peravai, together with the CPI(M), later held many demonstrations and meetings to press their demands for separate reservation.

The State government responded with the formation of a welfare board for Arunthathiyars and convened an all-party meeting in Chennai on March 12, 2008, to discuss the sub-quota demand. The consensus at the meeting was in favour of granting the demand, and the government appointed the Janardhanam Commission.

The issue of imbalance among the different Dalit sub-sects and the need to take corrective steps have been highlighted by an advisory committee on the revision of lists of the S. Cs and the S.Ts as early as 1965.

The committee, headed by B.N. Lokur, the then Secretary of the Union Ministry of Law, observed: It has been in evidence for some time now that a lions share of the various benefits and concessions earmarked for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes is appropriated by the numerically larger and politically well-organised communities. The smaller and more backward communities [among the S.Cs] have tended to get lost in the democratic process, though more deserving of special aid. He said the time has come when the question of de-scheduling of relatively advanced communities should receive serious and urgent consideration (Caste card by Jagdeep S. Chhokar, Frontline, August 15, 2008).

The judiciary also had occasion to look into the impact of reservation on the communities concerned and the steps to protect the weaker sections. In November 2004, the Supreme Court quashed an Andhra Pradesh Act that categorised the S.Cs into four groups for the purpose of admission to educational institutions and for employment. The Act, which came into being in 2000 replacing an ordinance, was based on the report of a commission the Telugu Desam government led by N. Chandrababu Naidu had appointed in response to a struggle by the Madiga Reservation Porata Samiti.

The samitis demand was to fix a sub-quota for Madigas, who constitute 40.99 per cent (3,263,675) of the S.C. population in the State. The demand was made on the grounds that Malas, whose share in the S.C. population was only slightly higher than theirs, at 46.94 per cent (3,737,609), had been cornering the benefits of reservation in larger proportions.

The commission agreed that there was a disparity and recommended corrective steps. The government accepted the findings and the Assembly passed the Andhra Pradesh Scheduled Castes (Rationalisation of Reservation) Act, 2000, to remove the disparity. The Act provided for dividing the listed castes into four categories for reservation.

The law was challenged in the High Court and the Full Bench upheld the legislation by four to one. When the issue came up before the Supreme Court on appeal, a five-judge Constitution Bench held that micro-classification of S.Cs into sub-groups and fixing different percentages of reservation for them within the overall S.C. quota was unconstitutional. The Bench said that reservation must be considered from the social objective angle, having regard to the constitutional scheme, and not as a political issue.

The court held that in the context of members of the S.Cs being the most backward among the backward classes, it was not permissible for the government to further classify them into sub-groups. The Bench, headed by Justice N. Santosh Hegde, therefore, quashed the Act holding that such micro-classification was in violation of the right to equality guaranteed under Article 14 of the Constitution. The Constitution Bench ruled that such classification of members of different classes of people on the basis of their respective castes would be in violation of the doctrine of reasonableness.

It said: Article 341 of the Constitution provides that exclusion of even of a part or group of castes from the Presidential List can be done only by Parliament. State legislatures are forbidden from doing that. The court further held that a uniform yardstick must be adopted for giving benefits to the members of [the] Scheduled Castes for the purpose of the Constitution. The impugned legislation, being contrary to the above constitutional scheme, cannot, therefore, be sustained.

The Supreme Court decision on the Andhra Act had far-reaching consequences. The Punjab and Haryana High Court held as void the sub-categorisation of S.Cs that was in operation in Punjab since 1975 and in Haryana since 1995. The Andhra Pradesh Assembly and the Punjab government then appealed to the Union government to enact a law to facilitate recategorisation. Soon it was noticed that the problem was not confined to these three States. There were complaints from more States that reservation had led to disproportionate benefits to certain sections of S.Cs at the cost of other sections. Accordingly, the Union government appointed a commission headed by Justice Usha Mehra to go into the issue.

The Usha Mehra Commission, in its report submitted to the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in May 2008, reportedly favoured the classification of the S.Cs into sub-groups with a view to uplifting the status of the deprived lot among them and recommended that the Constitution be amended suitably for the purpose. The commission did not agree with the contention that the S.Cs as envisaged in the Constitution constitute a homogeneous group. It said that in terms of traditional occupation, caste practices and the physical structure of the villages, these castes differed from each other and as such there was apparently no homogeneity among them. The commission also said that its studies had shown that under the existing system there was no possibility of the benefits reaching those at the bottom in due proportion.

The Usha Mehra Commissions recommendation has received mixed reaction from Dalit leaders. Ram Vilas Paswan, the Union Minister of Chemicals, Fertilizers and Steel, said that sub-categorisation would damage Dalit unity. He said there would not be any consensus on the proposal in the ruling United Progressive Alliance or its major component, the Congress.

While leaders of the disadvantaged Dalit sub-sects across the country have hailed the recommendation, others see it as a threat to Dalit unity. C.P. Prabakara Rao, president of the Andhra Pradesh Mala Mahanadu, said the commissions recommendation suggesting sub-categorisation of S.Cs would not stand legal scrutiny.

The Union Social Justice Ministry has sent the Usha Mehra Commissions report to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) for its comments. The Tamil Nadu proposal also has come up before the NCSC for clearance. NCSC Chairman Buta Singh has reportedly promised Union Minister for Shipping, Road Transport and Highways T.R. Baalu to place the proposal, which had been approved by the State government in principle, before the commission. (Under Article 338 (9) of the Constitution, the governments at the Centre and in the States have to consult the commission whenever they take policy decisions relating to the S.Cs.)

Some sections among the Dalit activists and political parties, however, are sceptical about the early implementation of the proposal. Puthiya Thamizhagam president K. Krishnasamy said the proposal would be in a legal tangle inasmuch as an Andhra Pradesh Act on the subject has been quashed by the Supreme Court.

Dalit activist and member of the State Assembly D. Ravikumar pointed out a technical problem. He said that in the absence of a caste-wise census, the present reservation to Dalits was calculated on the basis of Census 1971, whereas the 3 per cent reservation for Arunthathiyars had been mooted on the basis of Census 2001. He wanted the government to increase the reservation for the S.Cs. from 18 per cent to 19 per cent on the basis of Census 2001 and also clear the backlog of vacancies in government departments.

P. Sampath, State convener of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front, hoped that the government would resolve the legal tangles and implement the proposal soon. He said that until manual scavenging and the deployment of Dalits for underground sewerage cleaning were ended, the liberation of Arunthathiyars would be incomplete.

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