ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Reservations: ​A Project of Nation-building

The history of reservations in India shows that it was an outcome of a long process of struggle to gain recognition and representation for the minorities, especially Dalits. It also shows that the Dalits as an important third force in politics, apart from the Hindus and Muslims, had to compromise and even sacrifice their legitimate demands in this process. Any tinkering with reservations, therefore, is in bad faith and an assault to the Indian nationhood.


Thanks are due to Gopal Guru for reading and commenting on an earlier draft of the article.

A discussion on reservations in India often proves to be the Achilles heel of progressive and liberal social activists, politicians, and academics. This is because caste is a living reality that produces its own common sense. This common sense is pervasive, and it disregards historical context, contemporary evidence, and everyday experience around us. This acute and widespread nature of caste-informed opi­nions on especially reservations is clear when one finds that there is not much difference between what is said on the street corner, in middle-class drawing rooms, in top echelons of the government and now, even in the judiciary. And the essence of most of what is said is that reservations are undesirable and if provided under democratic pressure, a necessary evil. This common sense is hege­monic because of the power of the ideology on which it is built and because the public sphere in India is homogeneous and undemocratic—­­largely populated by castes deemed higher in the ritual hierarchy. Here, the concerns of the majority (Bahujan) population are often reduced to a minority voice in this caste-ridden public sphere.

The entire discussion around reservations—and more so the creamy layer— in the casteist common sense, occurs in the framework of “vote-bank politics.” In more politically correct settings, anti-reservation positions take the form of an argument for equality. To which the counterargument often posed asserts historical wrongs and how reservations represent their compensation in the present era. I argue that the reservation policy, as it emerged in the 1920s and later, was never about the past, rather it was a project about the future—of reasonable distribution of political power to all the sections of the population during the process of nation-building, in particular, the minorities that “voluntarily” became part of the Indian nation. In fact, political reservations and later the reservation policy, as it stands now, were a forced compromise in the process of nation-building between the Hindu majority and the “untouchable” minority.

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Updated On : 13th Nov, 2021
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