In the past year, many communities in India have flexed their political muscles on the streets to demand reservations in educational institutions and government jobs. The Marathas in Maharashtra, Patels in Gujarat and Jats in Haryana have cornered their respective state governments into including them in the quota system. The judiciary, however, has struck down numerous such actions of these state governments to grant reservations. In the famous Indira Sawhney versus Union of India– popularly known as the Mandal case –the Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that reservations cannot exceed 50 percent. These state governments have been unable to convince the courts to change their position. The latest entrant into the cauldron of reservations is Karnataka. Earlier this week, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah said that his government would take all initiatives to increase reservation for SC/STs and other backwards classes from 50 to 70 percent. This announcement is a clear response to the massive rally by members of the other backwards classes that the Bharatiya Janata Party organised in Bengaluru. Led by BS Yeddyurappa, the Karnataka BJP has promised to bring in laws to nullify the 50 percent cap on reservations if voted to power in the next assembly elections slated to be held in 2018. Our founders first envisaged reservations as a model of social justice for communities that have been subject to historical discrimination. “Caste laws specifically excluded Dalits and Adivasis from membership of the society, so this had to be remedied in our Constitution by legally enforced inclusion, that is, reservation,” according to noted academic Satish Deshpande. “This model of reservation addressed social exclusion rather than economic deprivation, even though the former almost always produced the latter.” In the 1990s, the Mandal reforms sought to address “castes that suffered milder forms of social exclusion than Dalits or Adivasis, but were, on the whole, clearly disadvantaged in economic and educational terms,” according to Deshpande. The Mandal model, which created the Other Backward Classes (OBC) segment, had the unfortunate effect of laying down the use of caste-based quotas as the only State response to social and economic disadvantage. What’s worse, it failed to expand the criteria for social justice beyond caste. One could argue that recent agitations by historically-affluent communities are down to a combination of the reservation policy’s failure to broaden the scope of social justice beyond caste, inadequate job creation under the current economic model in India and a poor higher education system, which creates millions of poorly skilled graduates.
What is of greater significance in the Karnataka government’s recent decision is the questions it has raised on the rationale behind the cap established by the Mandal case. Many political parties, especially in South India, have claimed that the apex court’s decision was arbitrary. In response to the Mandal judgment, the Tamil Nadu government enacted the Tamil Nadu Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act, 1993, under the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution. By placing this piece of legislation under the Ninth Schedule, the Tamil Nadu government found a way to give it immunity from judicial review and continue with its 69 percent reservation. Despite attempts to overturn Tamil Nadu’s quota law for apparent violations of the basic structure of the Constitution, there has been no final outcome. In its bid to challenge government orders on extending reservation benefits for various communities, the apex court has time and again questioned the empirical basis of any alteration to the quota laws. On that basis, the Karnataka government’s move may stand on firmer ground. The state government is scheduled to table its Caste census of Karnataka State Commission for Backward Classes in two months. Based on these findings, the state is hoping to accomplish the task of increasing the quota limit. In trying to placate historically affluent communities demanding quotas, governments must act with greater caution so that it does not endanger the very idea of social justice that the reservation system seeks to establish. In its judgment striking down the decision to give Other Backward Class status to Jats, the apex court said: "An affirmative action policy that keeps in mind only historical injustice would certainly result in under-protection of the most deserving backwards class of citizens, which is constitutionally mandated. It is the identification of these new emerging groups that must engage the attention of the State and the constitutional power and duty must be concentrated to discover such groups rather than to enable groups of citizens to recover “lost ground” in claiming preference and benefits on the basis of historical prejudice." In other words, numerical strength and the political heft of individual communities cannot be allowed to dominate the discourse on reservations. Since the days of the British Raj, many Indians have placed a great premium on government jobs. Liberalisation has not changed this dynamic. Broad segments of the rural and urban populace have not received its benefits. An analysis of the recent protests suggests that they coincided with landmark events in the agriculture sector. The agrarian crisis in India has a played its part in pushing once-dominant communities to demand reservations.