The Bombay High Court’s staying of the decision of Maharashtra’s erstwhile Congress-NCP government to reserve jobs for Marathas and Muslims should be a lesson for political parties that routinely wield quotas in an attempt to win votes. The move was clearly timed to be a pre-election sop — an ordinance was issued — but it evidently didn’t help the incumbent parties in the assembly election that followed.
And now, the court has rejected the two main claims the government had made to justify its decision — that the Marathas are a socially, economically and educationally backward community and that it had “compelling and quantifiable data” to say so. Predictably, in its own bid to ingratiate itself with an influential community, the newly elected Devendra Fadnavis government is set to appeal against the stay. But it would do well to first make sure that it has the requisite evidence to support the claim.
Reservations were conceived by the Constitution as a tool for addressing and ameliorating conditions of social and educational disprivilege of communities, and to ensure a more level playing field. But down the years, political parties have used the carefully and tentatively framed constitutional provision in cynical ways. Certainly, the Marathas, a politically and economically dominant community of Maharashtra, feel aggrieved today. But is it because of a condition that has roots in a past of oppression and deprivation? Or is their discontent a reflection of the general dwindling of opportunity in the state that affects all groups? Significantly, the Mehmood-ur-Rehman committee that had recommended quotas for Muslims had also emphasised an anti-discrimination law and initiatives to monitor the disproportionately large number of detentions of Muslims in terror cases in the state. Yet, instead of addressing those systemic prejudices, the government opted for the softer option of quotas. To be sure, Muslims suffer deprivation and discrimination that must be acknowledged and addressed, but the state response has mostly been to skirt structural correctives, institute committees and sleep over their recommendations.
Reservations must be judiciously applied in consultation with institutions like the National Commission for Backward Classes and in accordance with the Supreme Court’s directives. When parties act in bad faith and short circuit due process, they end up losing credibility without winning over the groups they seek to target.