Reservations in India: A Resource Kit


Reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in educational institutions and government jobs have been a matter of contention in India over three decades. As recently as March 2020, an expert committee recommended redefining, simplifying and streamlining the concept of “creamy layer” (those with a higher income who may be excluded from reservations).

While assertions from various caste-groups seeking reservations have been common in the last few years, those occupying positions of caste privilege have gone on to assert their castelessness.

Caste shapes the social, cultural, economic and political life of India’s population.

It is utilised by the propertied classes to maintain and reproduce their status and to acquire political power. Those who belong to the forward castes, but do not have property, use their caste status to acquire political favours, jobs, and loans and then climb up the class hierarchy. Dalits, tribes and backward castes (and classes) face discrimination in access to spaces, resources, and opportunities on the basis of their caste, and do not have these advantages of mobility.

Living standards in SC, ST and OBC households are much lower than in the rest of the population. Studies have found that the roots of economic disadvantage for OBCs are not very different from those for SCs and STs, and that OBCs deserve recognition by the Indian government for targeted welfare and affirmative action programmes.

In this debate kit, we have used over 130 articles, published in the Economic & Political Weekly in the last 35 years, to put together 8 facets of the debate on the Mandal Commission and OBC reservations.

Click on each box to read more.

What Are Reservations?
What was the Mandal Commission?
Was the Reservations Scheme Based on Unscientific Data?
The question of merit
The Nature of Reservations - Rights, Concessions or Appeasement?
Can backwardness be addressed differently?
What About Economic Criteria for Backwardness?

What Are Reservations?

Deprivation is only one measure of caste discrimination in India. Reservations for the SCs and STs were put in place in the Indian constitution, immediately after independence, as a means to recognise the historical injustice meted out to these groups and to implement provisions by which groups would have better access to resources and opportunities that were hitherto denied to them.

Scholars over the years have not been in agreement over the scope and implication of the term “reservations” itself. Some believe that B R Ambedkar had a larger social programme of enhancing fraternity among citizens in a free, sovereign, republic. They believe that instead of holding the current generation responsible for what their ancestors and forebears did, the Indian constitution advocates positive discrimination and reservations in the spirit of “fraternity.” According to this vision, castes would gradually cease to make any difference in public life.

Critics of reservation, or affirmative action, complain that such policies create permanent schisms in society besides directly harming the case of the meritorious.

There are still others who advocate that one cannot address discrimination by addressing deprivation alone through reservations in education, jobs, and politics and that a combination of reservation and affirmative action is needed to address historical injustice.


What Was the Mandal Commission?

In the years after Independence, it was felt by policymakers, civil society, and the public at large that while some headway had been made with the upliftment of the SC and ST populations in the country, the existing framework of reservations had not taken into account a large section of the population, that remained backward, owing to a combination of caste and class factors. The rise in the political consciousness of these groups pushed discussions regarding the need for extension of the scheme of reservations to this section of the population.

In 1979, a commission under the chairmanship of B P Mandal––popularly known as the Mandal Commission––was established by the ruling Janata Party under the prime ministership of Morarji Desai with the objective of identifying these Other Backward Classes (OBCs).

For determining backwardness among the Hindus, the Mandal commission considered caste-based social backwardness as the crucial element, educational backwardness as the linked element, and economic backwardness as the derived element.

In 1980, it published its findings, placing a total of 3,428 communities in the OBC category, comprising 54.4% of the country’s population (Bayly 1999).

The Mandal Commission recommended that there should be: Employment quotas in public sector organisations (including nationalised banks and private sector undertakings which received financial assistance from the government in one form or the other). Reserved places in higher educational institutions of 27% for the OBC in addition to 22.5% job quotas and seats in higher educational institutions that were already in place for SCs and STs (Ramaiah 1992).

Due to a change in the government in 1979, the Mandal Commission’s report was shelved. In 1989, a successor to the Janata Party––the Janata Dal––came to power under the prime ministership of V P Singh. It announced plans to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations, significantly increasing quotas in public sector employment and in university admissions for the communities which had been classified as OBC by the Mandal Commission.

The post-Mandal scenario brought a remarkable change in the assertion of subaltern politics in the country. The forging of caste based solidarities and the realisation of their numeric strength led the hitherto marginalised groups to openly challenge upper-caste Hindus, both in terms of calling out discrimination and asserting their voice in electoral politics.


Why Was It Opposed?

Unlike reservation policies for the SCs and STs that were implemented in the period post-independence and were seen to be justified, there was vociferous criticism of the Mandal Commission findings and recommendations.

The announcement of the recommendations led to violent protests and agitations by upper caste students across several prominent universities as well as the “general category” population across states. This also included a series of widely publicised self-immolations by high-caste students (Bayly 1999). While making claims of deprivation, unfairness and struggle with a stagnant job market, the anti-reservationists also used a number of symbolic acts that were casteist in nature, in the course of their protests. These included boot-polishing, sweeping the roads, and selling vegetables. Instead of demanding full employment and better wages for such jobs, the “meritorious” students tried to denigrate these jobs by saying that upper castes would never do such jobs otherwise, except as protest.

One of the worries of tribal groups was that the OBCs would now fall under the jurisdiction of the Commission for Scheduled Castes and Tribes. This would mean that nearly 75% of India’s population would fall under the commission, of which scheduled tribes would be a minuscule percentage and as a consequence, their interests would suffer.

Many national parties opposed the announcement on the grounds that they had not been consulted before the announcement of the Mandal Commission recommendations. This was despite the fact that all major parties had the implementation of these recommendations as part of their election manifestos. Scholars also questioned whether Janata Dal leaders who were opposing the implementation, had recorded their dissent at the time this was incorporated in the Janata Dal manifesto and whether they had no intention of ever implementing the report.


What About Merit?

The main grievance of the critics of reservation was that such policies would create permanent fissures in society, besides directly harming the case of the “meritorious.” They opined that these provisions went against the essence and spirit of liberalism and of the free individual, and instead created reverse discriminations. One of the examples often cited in defence of the anti-reservationist position was that, especially for essential professions like doctors and engineers, reservations would give entry to ill-qualified candidates from the OBC category who would go on to “endanger lives of patients and build faulty infrastructure such as dams and bridges.”

Those opposed to this argument of merit said that anti-reservationists were treating “merit” as something that had been in the possession of the Indian elite for countless years, and which was now being destroyed by the OBCs. They compared the argument for merit to the colonial mindset, where Indians were not seen as having enough “merit” to occupy any judicial or administrative positions or even be incorruptible enough to try a white person. The case against merit went on to hold accountable all the forward caste Hindus who had dominated every aspect of public life in post-independence India, and with their “merit,” had managed to cause double-digit inflation, sluggish economic growth, political crises, corruption, paucity of resources, and inefficiency in administration.

Other commentators spoke about the necessity of reservations for the skill-building of the OBC population, specifically in education and employment, in order to become active, contributing, and even meritorious members of public life. There have also been arguments for how reservations would widen the available talent pool (as against merit) because talent is distributed in society and cannot be claimed to be concentrated among the forward castes alone.


The Nature of Reservations- Rights, Concessions or Appeasement?

The concept of reservations in the Indian constitution was formulated as one which would help restore the rights to groups of people who had been historically denied fundamental human rights on the basis of their caste. Reservations were not to be seen as putting the groups of reserved and the unreserved in competition but were meant to ensure that the social and educational empowerment of the marginalised would take place in a system which otherwise disadvantaged them. However, in the discourse of the agitations that followed the Mandal recommendations, reservations increasingly began to be seen as concessions made by the “meritorious” upper castes to “accommodate” those who did not possess this merit.

The second important point regarding the nature of reservations is the distinction from affirmative action. Scholars have opined that in India, reservations were imagined as part of the constitution at the time of the nation coming into existence. They were the foundation of what the new nation would look like for the masses. Affirmative action, as in the American context, was for the amelioration of the conditions of a formerly enslaved population. It was a measure introduced after the nation had come into existence, as a way of responding to social crisis. And it is because of this difference in the historicity of the two, while the success or failure of affirmative action can and has to be evaluated statistically, the same cannot be said for reservations.

Finally, what is the end goal of reservations, remains a much-debated question. Many commentators were, and still are, concerned about whether political parties would be able to refrain from grand gestures directed towards appeasing certain constituencies. Even public discourse on the issue has been that reservations would be plumbed in perpetuity by the political class, with no concern for fairness to all groups, especially in the light of renewed demands from dominant castes.


Was the Reservations Scheme Based on Unscientific Data?

A section of the press tried to prove that the Mandal Commission report was based on unscientific collection of data. Doubts were raised by various people, including some eminent scholars regarding the methods and criteria followed by the commission to define backward classes. There were said to be anomalies in the actual lists of OBCs in different states. It was suggested that several undeserving castes had been classified as backward for the sole purpose of political gains as these castes formed important vote banks for parties.


The fact that some castes are dominant in one area and backward in others; that bogus caste certificates could be produced; and that these certificates had no correlation with income levels were other concerns raised regarding the commission. Another issue raised was that of the possibility of the existence of backward elements within the forward castes and that the commission did not address these.


On the other hand, those in support of the methodology employed by the commission highlighted that it had taken into consideration various levels of backwardness in society, by defining it along the social, educational and economic axes. They argued that the recommendation had aimed to address all indicators of backwardness––perceived backwardness by others, dependence on manual labour for livelihood, low age of marriage, female workforce participation, education levels of children, poor living conditions, low property and asset ownership, poor access to basic resources like drinking water, and high indebtedness, among others––and had given appropriate weightage to each of these indicators.



What About Economic Criteria for Backwardness?

An important part of the debate on reservations has been the need to make a distinction between backward castes and backward classes. Scholars have often invoked the constitution to suggest that advocacy of reservation solely on the basis of economic criteria does not have constitutional sanction. Others have suggested that in many parts of the country brahmins and upper castes live in abject poverty. Therefore, if the rich among the backward castes are deemed worthy of reservation, so should the poor brahmins and the upper castes.


Several village studies show that there is a close correspondence between the caste hierarchy and the economic hierarchy. The castes which are low in the caste hierarchy are also found to be low in the economic hierarchy. In other words, by and large, and barring a few exceptions, the backward castes also constitute the backward classes. Moreover, caste is a multidimensional social problem and overall, members of the upper castes are still better off than those of the lower castes. The tendency to make clear distinctions between class and caste has been refuted by scholars who highlight that class, especially in the Indian context, is not a category that can be arrived at without accounting for caste. This point of view is supplemented by others who suggest that while reservations may be a desirable goal for the elite among the backward classes/castes, it is only with a combination of reservations and thorough land reforms that the conditions of those who are backward and oppressed in terms of both caste and class, can be addressed.

Some scholars have argued that OBCs do not have the same reality as the SCs and STs and that a large portion of the OBC population in many parts of the country is made up of the rural rich such as the Yadavs, Ahirs and Kurmis. Economic viability provides these groups with the capacity to acquire socially valuable assets. Following this school of thought, it is commonly held that by giving reservations to “dominant castes,” caste will become a resource to be “plumbed in perpetuity.” There is, therefore, an argument to exclude economically well off OBCs from reservations.

However, this would mean that only the poor and ill-educated, underqualified or uneducated section would remain to take advantage of the provisions of reservation. And in practice, they would not be able to do so precisely because of their educational backwardness, with the result that jobs reserved for the OBCs would largely lie unfilled.

The “creamy layer” ceiling has been introduced and revised over the years taking into account the financial status of those seeking reservations.


Can Backwardness Be Addressed Differently?

There was widespread recognition of the fact that the really depressed backward classes remained at the most deplorable levels of existence and it was the powerful, dominant OBCs who tended to keep benefiting from the system of reservations. Many recommended that reservations in the realm of education must precede job reservations.


Others opined that reservations in government and education institutions would remain palliatives unless backwardness was tackled at its root, that is, the transformation of relations of production at the village level. This would require radical land reforms that would break the monopoly of the dominant castes even among the OBCs on the means of production. It was suggested that among the OBCs, those from the upper and middle castes in terms of control over economic and political resources and those from the lower castes, in terms of large landholdings, could be excluded from the benefits of reservations. An allied point raised in this regard was the transformation of relations of production even at the level of industries, wherein structural changes needed to be made to the management and ownership.


One of the recommendations with regard to the implementation of a system of reservations was to look at the local context of caste. Commentators suggested that the inclusion or exclusion of groups should not be determined at the state level, but at the sub-regional level, so that the social status of a group could be more accurately determined.


Some others suggested a system of compensatory discrimination, which would consist of special measures of assistant for enhancing educational levels and employability of disadvantaged groups, a weighted-comparison system at the point of recruitment, supplemented, if necessary, by a very limited number of reserved posts.



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Curated by Sohnee Harshey

Editorial inputs: Nachiket Kulkarni, Tejas Harad, Vikram Mukka, and Yashashwani Srinivas

Design inputs: Vishnupriya Bhandaram and Gulal Salil