Print edition : January 15, 2010

A PROTEST BY medical students in New Delhi in May 2006 against the government proposal to make 50 per cent reservation for backward classes in the education sector and in government jobs. The anti-reservation protests that year went on for weeks, but the government came up with the Central Educational Institution (Reservation in Admission) Act, 2006, which provided reservation in the institutions of higher learning.-KAMAL NARANG A PROTEST BY medical students in New Delhi in May 2006 against the government proposal to make 50 per cent reservation for backward classes in the education sector and in government jobs. The anti-reservation protests that year went on for weeks, but the government came up with the Central Educational Institution (Reservation in Admission) Act, 2006, which provided reservation in the institutions of higher learning.

THE first 25 years of Frontline covered a turbulent period in the political, economic and social histories of the country. The period witnessed several incidents and events of far-reaching consequences. These include the brutal assassination of Rajiv Gandhi; Indias adoption of neoliberal economic policies; the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the consolidation of Hindutva forces; the growing assertion of Dalits inspired by the Ambedkar centenary celebrations; the extension of quota benefits to larger sections as recommended by the Mandal Commission, the Sachar Committee, and so on; a spurt in incidents of violence against Dalits and tribal people; and attempts to empower Dalits and women under the panchayat raj system. The last three are considered significant in terms of social justice.


In a large country ridden with poverty, unemployment and disparities in income, reservation of government jobs and seats in educational institutions is an effective instrument for ensuring social justice. The Constitution provided for reservation in education and employment for the Scheduled Castes (Dalits) and the Scheduled Tribes in proportion to their share in the population. This provision was made as part of positive discrimination in view of the historical discrimination and social injustice faced by these sections. An amendment to the Constitution in the early years of its operation empowered the States to provide reservation for the educationally and socially backward classes in educational institutions and government service.

Gohana attack HARYANA-

The Janata Party government led by Morarji Desai appointed a commission headed by the parliamentarian Brindeshwari Prasad Mandal to identify the socially and educationally backward and consider their case for reservation. (Article 340 of the Constitution enables the President to appoint a commission to investigate the conditions of socially and educationally backward classes and the difficulties under which they labour and to recommend steps that should be taken by the Union and State governments to improve their condition.)

Although Mandal submitted his report as early as 1980, it gathered dust for nearly a decade. It was Prime Minister V.P. Singh who took the initiative in 1990 to implement the commissions recommendations, as promised by the ruling National Front during its election campaign. He announced in Delhi on December 6, just four days after he was sworn in as Prime Minister, that his government would implement the Mandal Commission recommendations and that both Hindu and non-Hindu Other Backward Classes, together accounting for 52 per cent of the population, would be given 27 per cent reservation.

Khagaria killings BIHAR-

The announcement triggered instant protests, mostly from upper caste students. Protesters, who included over 3,000 university students, staged demonstrations and stopped traffic in many places. Violence was reported from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh. The next move from V.P. Singh came only on August 13, 1990, when he issued a notification for the OBC reservation, which was also met with a series of agitations. Notwithstanding legal battles against the scheme on one pretext or another, the system has managed to survive.

The next significant move in respect of reservation came in 2006. It was the Central Educational Institution (Reservation in Admission) Act, 2006. It provided for the extension of reservation to the prestigious institutions of higher learning. The Act is a significant legislative measure for the first time, Parliament recognised, through a law, the need for reserving seats in higher educational institutions as an expedient and necessary measure. The Supreme Court has stayed the operation of the Act in respect of Other Backward Classes pending the final disposal of certain petitions. The court also clarified that the operation of the relevant section to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes had not been stayed. The Mandal Commission report pointed out that mere reservation of seats in educational institutions or government jobs would not solve the problems of OBCs. It recommended many other initiatives, such as the intensification of land reforms, extension of credit facilities to deprived sections, clearance of backlogs in respect of poverty alleviation programmes, development initiatives, and measures to spread education. A notable point in this context is that most of those who come under the OBC category live in villages, something that administrators and political leaders simply ignore.

Khap panchayat HARYANA-

In recent years, some State governments granted separate reservation for Muslims and Christians in the OBC quota. In Tamil Nadu, this has been done by enacting a law, in response to representations from people belonging to these two communities. The law was based on the recommendations of the State Backward Classes Commission. Another reservation-related step taken by some State governments was the creation of sub-quotas for Dalit sub-castes such as Arunthathiyars and Chakkiliyars (in Tamil Nadu), who are the worst sufferers of untouchability, in the 18-20 per cent quota for Dalits. In Tamil Nadu, the State government, through a resolution, has provided for a 3 per cent sub-quota for some sub-sects from the existing 18 per cent reservation for the Scheduled Castes. The percentage, however, changes from State to State depending upon the Dalit share in the population. People belonging to these sub-castes mostly serve as sanitation workers.

Sixty years after Independence, reservation has not done much to elevate these hapless people to any higher position in society. Despite tremendous developments in science and technology, and in violation of a Supreme Court order, the Centre and the State governments have failed to bring an end to the practice of manual scavenging and to rehabilitate those engaged in it in decent jobs elsewhere.

Dalit rally DELHI-

Though reservation has substantially benefited large sections, it must be remembered that with sections of people remaining outside this safety net, ensuring social justice to all will continue to be a distant dream. The disinvestment policy under the neoliberal regime has posed a serious threat to those employed in scores of public sector undertakings (PSUs). The dismantling of PSUs and the steadily falling state investment in employment-generating industries are posing even more serious challenges to the system. More and more people are made to be dependent on jobs in private establishments, which are in no mood to introduce reservation. This has only resulted in increasing the number of the unemployed in the country. Adding to this is the closure of a number of factories and the resultant spurt in the number of the jobless.

In the case of Dalits, the situation is worse, particularly because of what Dalit leaders describe as tardy implementation of reservation. Dalit activists complain of discrimination against Dalits in this policy of positive discrimination. Bureaucrats from the oppressor castes do not show any genuine interest in implementing reservation. A large number of posts under the quota remain unfilled, and upper-caste officials show the least interest in clearing backlogs. This only proves that reservation in employment and education is not enough to bring about any big change in raising the social status of Dalits. Dalits on the payroll of private employers presumably suffer a much worse form of discrimination.

Tribal homes torched by Salwa Judum activists in Dantewada, a file photograph. Tribal residents of the Chhattisgarh forests are the worst victims of the fight between the Salwa Judum and the naxalites.-

A shocking expose in recent years is how Dalits, numbering more than 22 crore in the country, were taken for a ride by the governments at the Centre and in the States in the matter of allotment of funds for improving their lot. The Centre and the State governments failed to implement faithfully the Special Component Plan (SCP), now known as the Scheduled Castes Sub Plan (SCSP). The SCP was supposed to be in operation for the past over 30 years. Because of the failure of the Ministries to allot money for Dalit-related schemes in proportion to their share in the population, Dalits, according to one estimate, could have lost a whopping Rs.3,75,000 crore in the last 25 years. (Plan and prejudice, Frontline, October 19, 2007). This shows that even Ministers and highly placed officials cannot claim to be free from prejudice against Dalits.

It is not surprising that the outlawed practice of untouchability is very much alive in the country, taking several new forms, and atrocities against Dalits have become almost a daily affair in most places. The 1990s saw a steep rise in atrocities against Dalits across the country. The manifestation of upper caste prejudice against Dalits is now more cruel and vulgar than in the past. However, one can also see a qualitative shift in the response of Dalits to the physical and verbal assaults on them. Dalits appeared determined to resist these, apparently inspired by the nationwide celebrations of the birth centenary of Ambedkar in 1991. They began to hit back. The caste-Hindu response to this Dalit assertion has also been manifesting itself in even more cruel ways. The police force, mostly packed with members of non-Dalit castes, often side with the attackers.

Human rights activists and political observers say caste-based violence against Dalits cannot be contained unless the police are impartial and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act is effectively used against the guilty. The situation that Dalits find themselves in has been aggravated by the economic downslide brought about by the policies of an insensitive, market-driven, neoliberal regime in the past 25 years. The period saw the emergence of powerful Dalit leaders in almost all States in which Dalit concentration is substantial, but not all could succeed to any great extent in consolidating their base, maybe because of their need to depend on bigger parties. Also, they did not have an agenda that could radically transform the social and economic condition of Dalits.