Politics in Dalit quota

Although the A.J. Sadashiva Commission, in its report submitted in 2012, has recommended internal reservation within the 15 per cent Dalit quota in Karnataka, no party wants to implement it for fear of estranging certain sub-caste groups.

Published : Oct 02, 2020 06:00 IST

Members of the Madiga Meesalati Horata Samiti launch a “postcard campaign” demanding the implementation of the Justice A.J. Sadashiva Commission report, in Mandya on January 7.

Members of the Madiga Meesalati Horata Samiti launch a “postcard campaign” demanding the implementation of the Justice A.J. Sadashiva Commission report, in Mandya on January 7.

O n August 27, a five-member bench of the Supreme Court headed by Justice Arun Mishra ruled that State governments had the right to sub-classify Scheduled Caste categories in order to ensure equitable distribution of socio-economic benefits under reservation (“For Equity Within Castes”, Frontline , September 25, 2020). While the bench also referred the matter to the Chief Justice of India requesting him to post it to a larger seven-member bench, the judgment puts the focus back on the long-pending demand of the Madiga movement in Karnataka to implement the recommendations of the A.J. Sadashiva Commission of Inquiry which submitted its report in 2012. The commission has recommended internal reservation within the 15 per cent Dalit quota in Karnataka.

Dalits in Karnataka, who are classified into 101 castes, are historically divided into two broad agglomerations: the left-hand, or the Madiga, and the right-hand, or the Holeya. Added to this are “touchable” castes such as Lambani and Bhovi who do not belong to either agglomeration but have benefited the most from reservation. According to informal assessments by Madiga community leaders, and as confirmed by the Sadashiva Commission report, Madigas are, relatively, the most backward among the Dalit castes in Karnataka. This is borne out by the traditional caste occupations of the two groups: Madigas have historically worked with the polluting item, leather, while Holeyas have been involved on the periphery of agricultural production as labourers.

Madigas have been agitating for internal reservation since the 1970s. Taking inspiration from a similar movement in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, they launched the Karnataka Madiga Dandora Movement in 1997 as a forum to give vent to this grievance. Around 20 years ago, when S.M. Krishna was the Chief Minister, the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti (DSS) organised several rallies, including a massive one in front of the Chief Minister’s residence on February 10, 2000, for internal reservation. Its main demand, according to a letter submitted to the Chief Minister at the time, was that certain castes like “Jalagaara, Bhangi, Madiga, etc. who are in the worst condition among Dalit castes should be given reservation on the basis of their population”. The DSS demand at the time was buoyed by the Punjab government legislation that provided for internal reservation for Balmikis and Mazhabi Sikhs.

In 2005, the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition government, led by Dharam Singh, appointed the commission headed by retired High Court justice A.J. Sadashiva to look into the issue and give its recommendations. The commission submitted its report in 2012 when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in power. The report and its recommendations have not been made public or tabled in the Legislative Assembly.

Commission’s classifications

However, sections of the report have been leaked over the years, spurring the Madiga demand for internal reservation. The report emphasises the backwardness of Madigas (and associated castes) after examining various indices such as the number of government jobs held, proportion of agricultural land owned, and political representation by members of different Dalit caste groups. For this purpose the commission divided them into four caste groups: Madigas and 29 associated caste groups that account for 33.47 per cent of the Dalit population in Karnataka, Holeyas and 24 associated caste groups that account for 32.01 per cent of the population, “touchable” Dalit castes (Lambani, Bhovi, Korama, Koracha, etc.) that account for 23.64 per cent of the population, and other “untouchable” Dalit castes that cannot be incorporated into the left- or right-hand caste groups, accounting for 4.65 per cent of the population. (The remaining 6.23 per cent of the Dalit population did not state their specific caste.)

The report’s chief recommendation was that there should be internal reservation, with the largest share, that is, 6 per cent, going to Madigas (and associated castes) within the 15 per cent quota for the Scheduled Castes. Of the remaining 9 per cent, the commission recommended that 5 per cent be reserved for Holeyas (and associated castes), 3 per cent for “touchable” Dalits, and 1 per cent for other Dalits.

During elections all political parties assure Madigas that the recommendations of the report will be implemented, but these assurances are invariably forgotten when they come to power. Considering that Madigas along with allied castes are the largest Dalit agglomeration, it is a constituency that cannot be ignored in political calculations. But their relative backwardness and lower political representation compared with Holeyas and the “touchable” Dalit castes are the main reasons for political parties not honouring the promises made to them.

In a recent interview with The Hindu, Justice Sadashiva expressed his disappointment over successive State governments in delaying action on the recommendations. “It seems nobody has genuine concern for providing benefits of internal reservation for deprived castes within the Scheduled Castes. They all talk much about it, but remain silent when they come to power,” he said. For instance, Sadananda Gowda of the BJP, who was the Chief Minister when the report was submitted in 2012, did not take any step to implement the report for fear that it would estrange Holeyas and the “touchable” castes.

At that time, Siddaramaiah, who was the Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, endorsed the findings of the Sadashiva Commission, but after he came to power in 2013 he postponed a decision regarding its implementation. While he convened several discussions with Dalit leaders in an effort to find a solution to the quagmire, differences between Dalit factions in the Congress ensured that no decision was taken. In an interview a few days ago, H. Anjaneya, Social Welfare Minister in the Siddaramaiah government and the only Madiga in the Cabinet, acknowledged that the Congress was reluctant to implement the Sadashiva report fearing the reaction of the “touchable” castes.

On the more contentious issue of opposition from prominent Holeya colleagues in the State Cabinet, Anjaneya enigmatically stated: “It is not appropriate to divulge the proceedings of the discussions of the Cabinet.” The fact that Siddaramaiah did not follow up on this promise is cited as one of the factors for the Congress’ loss in 2018 as the Madiga community rallied against the party and supported the BJP instead. The Janata Dal (Secular) too included implementation of the Sadashiva Commission recommendations in its manifesto, but it did not bother to act after its leader H.D. Kumaraswamy became the Chief Minister of a coalition government with the Congress. The Karnataka Madiga Dandora protested against all the three parties in the State in 2018. The B.S. Yediyurappa-led BJP government, which has been in power in the State from last year, has not taken any decision on the issue so far.

For Equitable share

Mavalli Shankar, chief convener of the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti (Ambedkar Vaada), told Frontline : “We demand that the A.J. Sadashiva Commission Report be made public, discussed in the Cabinet and the Legislative Assembly and implemented. An equitable share of reservation benefits among different Dalit castes is necessary for the true implementation of social justice. At the same time, we also demand that the quantum of reservation in Karnataka should be increased as the population of Dalits and tribal people has grown in the State as the Justice Nagamohan Das Committee has recommended.” (While the report of the Nagamohan Das Committee, submitted to the State government in July this year, has not been made public, informed sources reveal that it has recommended an increase in the Scheduled Caste share of reservation from 15 to 17 per cent and the Scheduled Tribe share from 3 to 7 per cent.)

S. Balan, an advocate who is also president of the Municipal Contract Workers Union in Bengaluru, said, “I have worked with pourakarmikas [sweepers] for 40 years who are all Madigas. Many of them are manual scavengers who clean sewers. Leave aside a senior bureaucrat such as an IAS or IPS [Indian Administrative Service or Indian Police Service] officer, I have not seen a doctor or engineer from this community. This community has never benefited from reservation and desperately needs internal reservation. There is no role model for this community and now with increasing privatisation, they will only be pushed back.”

While the BJP has benefited from the support of the Madiga community, it is unlikely that the party will take any action on the Sadashiva Commission report as well. In a recent interview, Deputy Chief Minister Govind M. Karjol, who is a Madiga himself, refused to give any assurance on its implementation and stated: “The five-member Supreme Court bench [headed by Justice Arun Mishra] has referred the issue to a seven-member bench. Our government will heed whatever decision this larger bench takes.”

Kannada journalist Shivasundar sees a certain political adroitness in the BJP’s response to the whole issue. He said: “The BJP and its ideology are rooted in Manuvada [the philosophy of Manusmriti] and is against social equality and justice. Hence, it has been opposed to the reservation policy but electoral compulsions have made it shrewder about the issue. While it uses merit-based nationalism to delegitimise the demand for reservation, the emergence of the demand for internal reclassification of Scheduled Caste reservation has provided an opportunity for the party to divide the erstwhile support base of the Congress and other parties on sub-caste lines.”

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