Caste or Economic Status: What Should We Base Reservations On?

From the debates generated by the Mandal Commission recommendations, we examine criticisms and the underlying principles for caste-based reservations. 

The NDA-led government has passed a gazette notification securing reservations for 10% of the economically weaker sections. This decision has been criticised soundly as an electoral gimmick ahead of the 2019 general elections.

Reservations have always been a contentious issue in India, especially after the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations which advocated that 27% of the jobs under the Central government and public sector undertakings should be reserved for Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The debate over what the basis of reservations should be has been a particularly polarising point in the discourse. The government's latest notification has sparked this debate once again by offering reservations based on economic status. 

Through the Economic and Political Weekly’s archive, we revisit this debate.

1) A Longer History of Reservations in India

The idea of caste-based reservations has always been vociferously resisted by the dominant social forces in the country, right from colonial times. It was suggested that reservations were a British machination to “divide and rule” India. In his article, discussing the history of reservations in India, Bhagwan Das highlighted the importance of English being instituted as the official language which served to further insulate Dalits and backward castes from employment and educational opportunities. With the Poona Pact, 1932, the disprivilege faced by Dalits was accentuated once again as their identity was subsumed under the Hindu fold.

“The Poona Pact had far-reaching effects and obstructed their progress in other fields also. The government issued orders regarding reservation in services vide resolution No F 14/17-B 33 dated July 4, 1934 (Gazette of India, part I, July 7, 1934). Reservation in public services was provided for all minorities excepting the depressed classes:

In regard to the depressed classes, it is common ground that all reasonable steps should be taken to secure for them a fair degree of representation in the public services. The intention of the caste Hindus in this respect was formally stated in the Poona Agreement of 1932 and His Majesty's government in accepting that agreement took due note of this point. In the present state of general education in these classes the government of India considers that no useful purpose will be served by reserving for them a definite percentage of vacancies out of the number available for Hindus as a whole, but they hope to ensure that duly qualified candidates from the depressed classes are not deprived of their opportunities of appointment merely because they cannot succeed in open competition.”

2) The Mandal Commission’s Recommendations

Violent protests erupted against OBC reservations that were suggested by the Mandal Commission, the implementation of which would mean a 7 percentage point increase in reservations for the backward classes over the existing level of 20%. Indu Bharti, writing in 1990, said that anti-reservationists demanded that the system of reservations be done away with altogether, even though increasing quotas would hardly erode upper-caste dominance in the bureaucracy.

“The B P Mandal Commission, set up in 1978, had submitted its report in 1982 to the then Indira Gandhi government. The commission listed 3,743 communities as Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and placed their proportion in the country's population at 52 per cent. While allowing the scheduled castes and tribes, who form reservation equal to their proportion in the population (22.5 per cent), the commission recommended only 27 per cent reservation for the OBC even though these constitute 52 per cent of the population because the Supreme Court, in its judgment in the famous Balaji case, had ruled that more than 50 per cent reservation was unconstitutional. The Mandal Commission report was put in cold storage by the then government.”

3) Disputing Principles

One of the primary criticism against reservations has been that they should not be caste-based, and should be based on economic status instead. Dipankar Gupta makes an argument about socially valuable assets being the basis for reservations and argues that OBC reservations were not justified on the grounds that they were dominant agrarian castes who were not entirely alienated from assets.

“Reservations for the ex-untouchables and tribes were instituted because of the fact that they lacked those assets which a market-oriented liberal society values. They had neither wealth, nor land, nor education. To romanticise the labours of hereditary cobblers, scavengers, agrestic serfs, and other menials is certainly a view taken safely from the outside. Why else is it that it is nobody's ambitions to be a scavenger or an agrestic serf? Regardless of the intrinsic worth or dignity of such labours the moot point is that such skills that the historically disprivileged possess are not acknowledged as social assets worth acquiring. Only an apologist of the caste system and of the estates order can argue otherwise. It cannot, however, be said that the OBCs are without socially valuable assets as their initial point of departure. Large sections of the OBCs are made up of castes and caste clusters of the rural rich.”

4) Encouraging Inefficiency

One of the primary criticisms that caste-based reservations faced, even from liberal quarters, was that it would lead to an inefficient bureaucracy. During the Mandal Commission debates, it was impossible for critics to separate caste from party-politics and it was often seen as a populist measure that would not yield any benefits for the nation.

“The most popular argument against reservation is that it would encourage inefficiency which already is high in our system. Irrespective of how the states with and without reservations for other backward classes (OBC) have performed with regard to their levels of efficiency in public management, it must be granted that any reservation based on social or historical criteria affects efficiency adversely. However, this is a cost our society must pay for a few years, perhaps a few decades if it has to have any pretence of undoing the effects of social and economic exploitation of the masses by a handful minority for over thousands of years. Unless one believes in a genetic theory of inefficiency and corruption linking these. to the backward classes only, there is no reason, why our society should not be able to get over this transitionary problem.”

5) Propagating Sub-nationalism

Another charge against caste-based reservation and its implementation was that it would be against national unity. Granting quotas by caste, it was argued, would escalate caste-based divisiveness and encourage sub-nationalisms by allowing them to be articulated in electoral politics. This was despite the fact that in 43 years of independence then, backward castes who comprised 52% of the population only had 4.5% share of government jobs, as Balraj Puri had pointed out.

“The Mandal Commission is being condemned by the intelligentsia, above all, for what is being called its divisive role. It is in keeping with the current elite thinking that distrusts all anti-national identities as indicated by the contemptuous sense in which terms like regionalism, communalism, casteism and tribalism are used. In practice, sub-national identities are becoming more and more assertive and all those who are in the business of politics recognise and cultivate them. Even in the advanced democracies of the west, parties make conscious efforts to carve out their respective constituencies among different ethnic groups. This practice is sanctioned by what are called post-modern theories of politics which recognise ethnic identity as a basic human urge.” ​​

6) Why Reservations NEED to be Caste-Based

Despite the flood of resistance from several quarters, what could be the logic behind caste-based reservations? Gail Omvedt argues that the objective of caste-based reservations is to remove caste-monopoly in access to social resources. She suggests that the discourse of reservation is forcibly turned towards economic criteria because upper-castes want to “avoid dealing with caste”. Furthermore, she lays out the specific outcome that can be expected from caste-based reservations.

“Caste-based reservations cannot remove poverty, cannot end economic exploitation; they cannot "uplift the poor”. They can only make some of the poor, non-poor. (It has to be stressed that this is also true for reservations based on economic criteria, which is why the class organisations of the poor have never demanded them). What they can do is end the caste- monopoly of organised sector jobs, especially of the public sector. This is a caste monopoly of the twice-born, most predominantly Brahmans, and as many have pointed out, including S S Gill, secretary of the Mandal Commission, it is a caste monopoly that has arisen out of a heritage of thousands of years of caste reservation in India in which Shudras and ati-Shudras were forbidden access to power, wealth and status. Destroying or lessening this caste-monopoly helps to create a middle class section among castes that are largely poor - a fact that is sometimes used as a charge against caste reservations, but in fact it is inevitable and progressive to the extent that it breaks up the correlation of 'caste and class'. This itself will not end casteism but it may be a necessary condition for doing so.”



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