Nearly three decades after PM V.P. Singh tabled the Mandal Commission report in Parliament, the debates over its recommendations granting 27 per cent reservation to the other backward classes (OBCs) are only getting louder. The violent anti-Mandal protests that rocked the country in the summer of 1990 changed the course of Indian politics and further muddled the complexities of caste. Since then, the purpose of affirmative action—to end centuries of caste discrimination—has been consistently diluted with various politically dominant groups demanding preferential treatment despite having always opposed it in the case of those who need it the most. Now, two recent development threaten to stir the caste cauldron—the Bombay High Court judgment on Maratha reservation and Uttar Pradesh government’s move to bring 17 OBC communities under the scheduled caste (SC) category.
The Bombay High Court’s order of granting 12 per cent quota in jobs and 13 per cent in education for Marathas, who comprise a third of Maharashtra’s population, have thrown up questions on several constitutional issues. Many lawyers argue that the inclusion of influential Marathas into the ‘socially and educationally backward communities’ (SEBC) may unsettle the fundamental premises of reservation policies. Calling the judgment unconstitutional, senior Supreme Court lawyer Shekhar Naphade says it breaches the 50 per cent ceiling on reservation fixed by the apex court. The Supreme Court had put a 50 per cent cap on reservations in its landmark judgment in the 1992 Indira Sawhney case, also known as the Mandal verdict.
“It clearly crosses the boundary set by the Supreme Court in several judgments, beginning with the M.R. Balaji vs State of Mysore that 50 per cent is the limit for reservation. Now the high court seems to have held that there are exceptional reasons. Constitutional principles do not recognise such exceptional and extraordinary grounds,” says Naphade.
Taking exception to the validity of the “extraordinary” circumstances in which the State Backward Class Commission determined Marathas as backward class, senior lawyer Vikas Singh asks, “If the Marathas can have their own CM, how can they call themselves backward? This is a flawed judgment and I am sure the Supreme Court will stay the order.” Senior advocate K.T.S. Tulsi adds that the purpose of reservation is lost by extending it to dominant castes. “In the case of Marathas, there is no social backwardness as they are the ruling class. The Supreme Court has laid down clear rules that there should be contemporary evidence to show backwardness,” he says.
The high court order has come as a shot in the arm for the Patidars in Gujarat, Jats and Gujjars in Haryana and Rajasthan, and Kapus in Andhra Pradesh—all socially and politically influential communities that have been clamouring for OBC status to get quotas in jobs and educational institutions. Various state governments granted reservation to these groups, but such moves have mostly been struck down by the judiciary in the past, on the grounds of exceeding the ceiling on reservation. And when the central government introduced 10 per cent reservation for ‘economically weaker sections’ (EWS) just before the general elections, it was panned as pandering to votebank politics by diluting the purpose of reservation.
Opposing economic criteria for quotas, P.S. Krishnan, who signed the Mandal notification as social welfare secretary in 1990, says reservation is not an anti-poverty programme. “When the Karnataka government imposed economic criteria from 1962 to 1973, 90 per cent of the jobs went to Brahmins,” says Krishnan, adding that affirmative action is meant for eliminating the social imbalance in government services.
Unsurprisingly, Patidar leader Hardik Patel, who has been spearheading the community’s agitation for a quota in Gujarat, feels vindicated by the Bombay High Court order. “Just like the Marathas, the Patel community should also get benefits. Why can’t Gujarat include Patels in the OBC list, like some other states? We are planning to approach the high court soon in this regard,” says Patel, who joined the Congress in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections.
Reiterating his demand for a survey to prove the social and economic backwardness of the Patidar community, Patel also calls for a review of the reservation policy and the 50 per cent ceiling. In 2016, the Gujarat High Court had struck down an ordinance granting 10 per cent quota to Patidars. “Former CM Anandiben Patel granted us 10 per cent reservation, but the court struck it down saying the government hasn’t done any survey,” says Patel.
As the Bombay High Court order has opened the floodgates of reservation, members of the Gujjar community in Rajasthan are also upbeat about their demand for 5 per cent reservation under the ‘special backwards category’ (SBC). “Reservation for Marathas is justified. We will also go on the path of agitation soon,” says Kirori Singh Bainsla, the face of the Gujjar protests in Rajasthan since 2006. The widespread agitation had forced the Rajasthan government to grant 5 per cent reservation to Gujjars in 2015. However, the move was thwarted by the high court as it breached the 50 per cent cap on reservation.
In the wake of renewed protests this February, the Rajasthan assembly passed a bill allowing 5 per cent reservation to Gujjars and four other communities after raising the OBC quota from 21 to 26 per cent. However, the bill has hit a roadblock in the high court. “Our demand is very old and we are the most backward. Gujjars don’t have any representation at the Centre,” says Bainsla, adding that the 1992 judgment on the ceiling needs to be reviewed.
As the idea of revisiting the reservation policy and the 1992 judgment gains currency among certain sections, Krishnan says the purpose of affirmative action is yet to be accomplished. “Revisiting the reservation policy is the dream of the dominant castes who would like to go back to the pre-Ambedkar and pre-Mandal days. The purpose of reservation along with other welfare measures was to bring the sidelined groups into the mainstream by ending socio-political marginalisation. It has not been implemented properly, but here we are saying that it’s time to rethink the policy itself,” says Krishnan, who was also a member-secretary of the National Commission for Backward Classes.
Along with the Marathas and the Gujjars, the high court order is expected to bolster the demand of Jats in Haryana for OBC status with 10 per cent reservation in jobs and education. For over a decade, the politically influential community comprising 30 per cent of the state’s population has been on the war path for a quota. The large-scale violence and agitation prompted Haryana to enact a law in 2016, providing 10 per cent reservation to Jats and five other communities. Though the Punjab and Haryana High Court upheld the reservation in 2017, it stayed the order until 2018.
On the validity of the claim made by the agitating communities about their backwardness, Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in Delhi says the socio-economic indicators suggest that the Patels, Marathas and Jats are as affluent as the elite castes in their respective states. Citing an analysis of a CSDS survey in 2018, he says, “The Marathas, Jats and Patels cannot be termed as backward like the Dalits, adivasis and OBCs. Their aggressive demand for reservation or inclusion in the OBC list could be a result of agrarian distress experienced by these farming communities and the desire for a secure income from government jobs.”
The reverberations of the Bombay High Court order are felt in the south too. The politically influential Kapus of Andhra Pradesh, also known as Balija, Ontari and Telaga in various parts of the state, had been enjoying reservations since 1915 during British rule. “After independence, the rulers conspired to take away the reservation,” says Kapu leader and former minister Mudragada Padmanabham. “It’s time for the Centre and the state governments to take another look at all reservations and convince the Supreme Court.”
As the Supreme Court is yet to pronounce its verdict on EWS and Maratha reservation, one can expect more communities jumping onto the quota bandwagon. Reservation experts point out that the identification of backward communities turns out to be a tough task without proper data. The Centre is yet to publish the socio-economic caste census conducted in 2011. “No census on the socially backward was published after 1931,” says Krishnan. Now that the BJP government is going ahead with a plan to count the OBCs in the 2021 census, the community leaders are just waiting for the new figures to demand their share of the pie—reservation in proportion to their population.
By Preetha Nair with inputs from M.S. Shanker in Hyderabad