MBC reservation

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

Print edition : March 26, 2021

Edappadi K. Palaniswami, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. Photo: JOTHI RAMALINGAM B

Dr S. Ramadoss, founder and leader of the PMK. Photo: M. PRABHU

The AIADMK fast-tracks a Bill providing exclusive reservation for the Vanniyar community in Tamil Nadu with an eye on electoral gains, but the decision has angered other caste groups and may backfire on the ruling party.

Rarely has a government passed an important Bill that has serious socio-political implications in such a hurry as the Tamil Nadu government did recently in the case of giving the Vanniyar community, a powerful caste group in Tamil Nadu, 10.5 per cent internal reservation within the 20 per cent reservation already in place for Most Backward Classes (MBCs) in education and employment.

The Bill was passed in the penultimate session of the Tamil Nadu State Legislative Assembly on February 26, just an hour before Election Commission of India (ECI) announced the next round of Assembly election. Governor Banwarilal Purohit swiftly gave his assent to it and the government wasted no time in gazetting it as a law, shortly called the Special Reservation Act of 2021. The move triggered an intense debate in Tamil Nadu. However, those for and against the Bill did not have a clear idea of how or whether it would benefit the targeted group or how many would be directly affected by it.

Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, who is also the joint coordinator of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), remains confident that the passing of the Bill will brighten his party’s chances in the Assembly election scheduled for April 6 because it meets the demand of the Pattali Makkal Katchi, a party with a strong base among Vanniyars, which is part of the AIADMK-led coalition.

AIADMK supporters were apprehensive and jubilant in equal measure. While some leaders, who need Vanniyars’ support to boost their political prospects in the areas where the caste group is predominant, said that the timing of the Bill was masterly, there were others who were apprehensive of its impact in other regions of the State.

Also read: AIADMK concedes PMK demand for 10.5 per cent reservation, gets Bill passed in Tamil Nadu Assembly

The Chief Minister’s haste in fast-tracking the Bill showed his desperation. He took a political gamble despite knowing that the move would have serious repercussions for the party in the southern and central districts where Vanniyars are numerically weak. Palaniswami was worried that any erosion in the AIADMK-led coalition would be a disaster for him as a leader and his party, which is already under strain owing to internal tension.

The upcoming election is crucial for Palaniswami since he is the party’s chief ministerial candidate and shoulders the responsibility of spearheading the campaign for the AIADMK, which is weighed down by its alliance partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Hence, he had a compulsion to retain the Pattali Makkal Katchi in the alliance by acceding to its demand.

Sources told Frontline that a series of parleys were held between the AIADMK and the PMK by senior functionaries and Ministers on the issue of internal reservation before the Bill was passed and the alliance clinched almost simultaneously. The AIADMK had asked PMK founder Dr. Ramadoss to keep the demand at bay until the election was over. The party leaders were of the opinion that if Vanniyars were given importance in reservation, a very sensitive subject in the State, it would anger other major caste groups such as the Maravas, the Ambalathars and the Piramalai Kallars, who are powerful in the southern and central districts. 

While tabling the Bill, the Chief Minister had, in fact, told the Assembly that the Bill was based on the recommendations of the Justice Janarthanan Committee, and was temporary. He said that the Justice Kulasekaran Committee, appointed by his government to undertake a caste survey, was working on it and that, after getting the latest data, the reservation slab could be re-modified. But Ramadoss was steadfast in his demand. It was obvious that the Chief Minister had no option but to give in to the pressure mounted by the PMK leader w who had set internal reservation for Vanniyars as a pre-condition for remaining in the alliance. Fearing the electoral implications of the PMK waking out of the alliance, Palaniswami acceded to the demand, which had been rejected even by former Chief Ministers M.G. Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa.

Karunanidhi’s formula

About 30 years ago, under similar pressure from the PMK, Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi split the OBC reservation into two blocks: BC (Backward Caste) and MBC. But he wisely avoided providing an exclusive quota for the Vanniyars as demanded by them. Instead, he brought the Vanniyars and their sub-castes, Denotified Communities such as Maravas, Ambalakarars and Piramalai Kallars, besides a few other BCs, under the MBC category, thus minimising the damage the split would have caused to the sociopolitical fabric of the State.

Ramadoss was not happy with Karunanidhi’s decision even though he conferred on him the title “Custodian of Social Justice”, at a meeting organised by the PMK. He maintained that the Vanniyars had been ‘betrayed’ and denied their due share in reservation. He said that the MBC category was too crowded to share 20 per cent reservation. Ever since, he has been demanding exclusive reservation for Vanniyars on the grounds that they constituted 24 per cent of the State’s population and accounted for 80 per cent of the MBC population. The PMK also organised Statewide stirs in support of its demand. “I have been demanding separate 20 per cent reservation for us for 40 years. I met M.G. Ramachandran, Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi and urged them that Vanniyars should be given separate reservation. We are not against any caste group getting their due. Now I have compromised for internal reservation with a scaled down percentage within the MBC grouping,” Ramadoss said.

He also claimed that no Vanniyar had been appointed in the Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission in the past 15 years, adding that no Vanniyar was a Director of any department in government services or among the vice chancellors in the State’s 23 universities, or among the High Court judges. Besides, no one from the Vanniyar community could become the Chief Minister in the past seven decades. He said: “We have seen many commissions upon our request— led by Sattanathan, Janarthanan, Ambashankar, Natarajan and now Kulasekaran. But we are yet to get our social justice.” The PMK leader also said that no one would oppose the demand of the Vanniyars. Although many observers, including political leaders, had refrained from openly criticising the move, privately the issue had become a talking point. As expected, it led to a flurry of activities among various caste groups, which started demanding exclusive reservations for their respective castes in Tamil Nadu’s total reservation of 69 per cent.

Resentment of other castes

The development also led to a strong resentment among DNCs, which powerful groups such as the Maravas, Ambalathars and Piramalai Kallars. The other castes in the MBC category were also unhappy. A social activist who wished to remain anonymous said: “When there is no quantifiable data available on caste groups, why should you rush through the Bill for such an internal reservation favouring one particular caste?”

D. Ravikumar, the Member of Parliament from Villupuram and general secretary of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), said: “It’s just an election exercise.” He demanded that reservation slabs should be fixed on the basis of the Census data of caste groups. Ravikumar said that in 2010 the Madras High Court had ruled that caste-based Census was essential to fix reservation. The court, he pointed out, had said that reservation could be made possible once the Census of OBCs and Scheduled Castes was done. The Supreme Court’s 50 per cent cap on reservation became redundant when the BJP government at the Centre announced 10 per cent reservation for the Economically Weaker Section (EWS). Ravikumar said: “This cap has been eroded today. Hence, the OBCs and SCs and STs must demand enhanced reservation in today’s situation.”

He further said that pampering powerful caste groups would destroy smaller communities. He urged the State to get the details of the 2011 Census from the Central government as that Census also focused on the economic and social status of all castes across the country. He said: “Reservation slabs should be fixed based on this.”

Also read: Reservation for Vanniyars ‘only a temporary measure’ until caste census report becomes available, says Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami

The Vanniyar caste grouping, with a few sub-castes such as Padayachi, Palli, and Agnikula Kshatriya, is mostly confined to the northern districts and a few parts in the western districts of Tamil Nadu, including Edappadi, Palaniswami’s home constituency.

The present slab of MBC reservation for 109 castes has been divided into three categories: 10.5 per cent for Vanniyars, 7 per cent for DNCs (68 castes) and 2.5 per cent for other castes. Ambalakarars, Maravas, Kallars, Punnan Vettuva Gounder Telungapatti Chettis, Thottiya Naickers, Urail Gounders, Valayars, and Vettaikarars are among the major castes among DNCs, which contain a total of 68 castes. The other 41 castes have to share 2.5 per cent. A total of 252 castes are grouped in the OBC list in Tamil Nadu.  In 1990, the Supreme Court ruled that reservation should not exceed 50 per cent. But the Tamil Nadu government, under the then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, passed the Tamil Nadu Act of 1994 in the Assembly and received constitutional protection for the same by including it under the Ninth Schedule. The 69 per cent of reservation after the present split in the MBC category has the following composition: BC 30 per cent (26.5 per cent + 3.5 per cent internal reservation for Muslims) MBC 20 per cent (Vanniyars 10.5 per cent, DNCs 7 per cent, other castes 2.5 per cent); Scheduled Castes 18 per cent (S.Cs 15 per cent, Arunthathiyars 3 per cent); and Scheduled Tribes 1 per cent.

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