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India is a plural society and a democratic State and, from time to time, faces
demands from various caste, tribal religious and gender groups for social justice.
The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SCs & STs) are regarded as deserving
for historical reasons, and by national consensus accorded positive or affirmative
discrimi-nation. The Constitution provides for special quota or reservations in
education, employment and other State-granted benefits.

There is no agreement about other categories but the demands for their inclusion
in the affirmative action (positive discrimination in Indian parlance) list are
assuming serious dimensions and the State is under pressure to respond to bitter
agitations or compulsions that are purely political. Major categories now are SCs
and STs, the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), the Minorities, and Women at the
federal level. Individual States too have faced demands and most recent is the
case of the Gujjars in Rajasthan.

It is ironical that the Indian State is increasingly withdrawing from the social
sectors under the garb of liberalisation and globalisation of the economy, yet it
has been yielding to the demands for widening the scope of Reservation and
enlarging the list of State-supported categories/castes/ communities.

Concomitant with the demands for concessions and special benefits is the
challenge of harmonizing the society and justifying the economic costs of such
lop-sided distribution of social benefits in the larger context of the poverty
removal goals of the Indian State.

Constitutionally, contradictory political concept of equality before the law,

irrespective of religion, caste, creed, race, and gender, and that of social justice at
the cost of equality before the law continue to strain India’s socio-political
structure. Other democracies too face similar counter claims within their
constitutional framework. In the United States, for example, the State has taken
recourse to affirmative action to ensure justice for the less privileged sections at
the cost of individual merit and equality of all citizens before the law.

In India, large numbers of people have faced social discrimination through

centuries on account of Indian society’s peculiar caste system. After
Independence, the Indian State has provided redress to these under-privileged,
socially and economically depressed sections through “the policy of reservations
or quotas for them in jobs, seats in educational institutions and legislatures, and
in governmental aid, loans and other developmental assistance”.

Mahatma Gandhi, while leading the nationalist movement, recognised the need
for positive discrimination for undoing the wrongs done to the depressed castes
and outcast communities. Surprisingly, the Mahatma as a devout Hindu was a
believer in the caste system, but as modern political activists, he also advanced
human rights and claims of individual dignity. He awakened the conscience of the
so-called upper castes to reform the society and remove “untouchability” and
other humanly degrading practices. He also brought the depressed castes and
backward communities into the political mainstream and broadened the base of
the freedom movement. He renamed untouchables as Harijans (people of God) so
as to bring them into the traditional fold of caste Hindus and give his policy of
human equality a religious sanction.

Gandhi’s political logic was not without dissenting voices. Most notable among
them being B.R. Ambedkar, who resented the patronising attitude of the upper
castes toward the exploited castes and outcasts. Ambedkar saw in the political
conflict between the Congress and the Muslim League an opportunity to demand
separate electorates for the untouchables, like the Muslims enjoyed under the

The British government, on August 17, 1932, announced the Communal Award
granting separate electorates for the depressed classes by treating them as a
minority. Gandhi protested and went on a hunger strike. The issue was resolved
by the Poona Pact of September 1932. The pact provided for 148 reserved seats
instead of the 78 separately elected members under the Communal Award. It also
granted certain privileges to the Harijans, such as educational opportunities,
representation in services, and the franchise. A schedule of depressed castes was
prepared in 1936 under the government of India Act, 1935. It covered 43.6 million
people or 28.5% of the Hindu population and 19% of the total population of
British India. The Constituent Assembly later adopted this very list.
Similarly, tribes too got officially listed; the British had treated them separately
for administrative purposes. At the 1991 census they were about 66 million—
7.75% of India’s population.
This policy of positive discrimination has resulted in improvement among the
scheduled castes and tribes. In 1957, the percentage of SCs in the Class I Central
Government services was a mere 0.7. By 1971 it had risen to 2.58%. For Class II
and III services the rise was from 2.01% to 4.6% and 7.3% to 9.59%, respectively.
In 1947-48, only 650 scholarships were awarded to the SC students for post-
school studies, costing the State Rs 540,000. By 1973-74, the number of such
scholarships had gone up to 270,420, costing the Indian exchequer over Rs 120
million. Improvements were recorded amongst the STs as well.

Social discrimination has, however, not disappeared in spite of economic rise

through reservation. Casteism has surely received a boost in the midst process of
modernization going on apace in India after Independence. The quotas earmarked
for the SCs and STs are often not filled on account of the indifference of the heads
of departments. Non-availability of qualified candidates could be a genuine
reason, though.

While the OBCs and intermediate castes fight for their rights vis-à-vis the upper
castes, they are unwilling to support castes lower than theirs. The noted social
anthropologist M.N. Srinivas aptly observed: “I am equal to those who think of
themselves as my betters, I am better than those who regard themselves as my
equals, and how dare my inferiors claim equality with me?”

Politics of Reservation has acquired the worst kind of caste-orientation. Politicians

distort and bend the public policies for personal or party ends. The landlessness
of certain groups keeps them perpetually poor which also prohibits them from
learning new skills. Dalits in predominantly Dalit villages are the worst off. Dalit
leaders, who got it made in politics, have become thoroughly corrupt and
arrogantly exhibit ill-gotten wealth, callously ignoring community interests.

Certain inherent flaws also mar government policies. Mushrooming private

schools, far better than the State-funded schools, are under no obligation to
reserve seats and undermine the policy regarding education and employability of
the depressed castes and tribes in an increasingly competitive socio-economic

Reservation is a double-edged weapon. If the situation is altered in favour of the

SCs/STs/OBCs, for each category of jobs there is the risk of positive discrimination
going to the exclusive benefit of the élites amongst the SCs/STs/OBCs and sharper
divisions and inter-caste conflicts would come to the fore. Therefore, the
Supreme Court has ruled that creamy layers or the well-off among the reserve
categories shall be excluded from State benefits. But this rule is being flouted by
raising the income norm, so that legislators, bureaucrats and power elites
continue to corner State-granted benefits at the cost of the poorer SC/ST/OBCs.

Flaring caste fury marked the recent Gujjar agitation in Rajasthan. The Rajasthan
government finally yielded and passed a Bill providing 5 per cent quota to Gujjars
under the ‘’special backward class’‘ and 14 per cent to poor among the
‘’economically backwards’‘ (EBC).
Other communities could also rise in agitation in other States to gain similar
advantages. A backlash among the economically poor among the so-called upper
castes could also sweep the nation if the violent agitations by rival castes are
allowed to gain an upper hand repeatedly.

Reservation was to be a talisman for creating an egalitarian, harmonious,

casteless society but is turning modern India into a conflict-ridden society with
ultra caste-orientations of another kind.