The idea of quotas, reservation, or preferential treatment for the socially disadvantaged, is very old in India. It is frequently believed that the US pioneered affirmative action in the 1960s; in fact, India had recognised social disadvantage much earlier.
The recognition of ‘backwardness’ as a social condition of discrimination — something that sometimes can’t be transcended even through upward class mobility — is important. And efforts to provide for representation to “non-Brahmin” castes predates the Mandal report; in some cases, even India’s independence.
While broader rules on Indiawide class/caste reservations in jobs can be said to have been framed in 1993, when the Supreme Court heard petitions against the implementation of the Second Backward Castes (or “Mandal”) Commission, the experience of states, especially in southern and western India, dates to the 1800s, and involves social movements, princely states and the Raj.
Tamil Nadu, with its history and context of caste movements, is special, and has had reservation since 1831 — when, under pressure, the Raj initiated the idea of quotas. The social justice movement against the repression of non-Brahmin castes peaked between 1910 and 1920 and, by 1921, reservation for BCs (backward castes), SCs and STs was initiated. In the 1930s, pressure for reserving more for the BCs increased, and governments responded. By 1990, there was 30% reservation for BCs, 20% for MBCs, and 18% and 1% for SCs and STs respectively.
Around the same time, the Mysore state and princely states of Travancore and Kochi took note of popular support for the idea of reserving places in education, and the pressure from the backward communities and Dalits ensured they acted on it.
In 1919, the king of Mysore formed a committee headed by a judge to study the feasibility of reservations, and a plan was under way. In Kerala too, reservation for Ezhavas, Muslims, Other Backward Hindus, Latin Catholic and Anglo-Indians, and backward Christians were in effect for years before independence.
The state of Kolhapur introduced reservations in 1902 — for backward castes in education.
Ideas about reservation in independent India were shaped significantly by the so-called Poona Pact between B R Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi had vehemently opposed as divisive the communal award of August 1932, which separated Dalits (then called the “untouchables”) from Hindus, while Ambedkar was for it.
Gandhi went on a fast in jail, but eventually, though initially reluctantly, agreed to a compromise with Ambedkar in September 1932, under which a higher number of seats was promised for Dalits under the Hindu umbrella.
The Constituent Assembly for independent India’s Constitution carried forward the commitment to reservations for Scheduled Castes and Tribes as part of this promise — and quotas for SCs and STs is, therefore, the only explicit reservation that was written in.
According to some scholars, when some SC members of the Drafting Committee, apprehensive about the stance Sardar Patel (who was known to oppose reservations) might adopt, approached Ambedkar, he asked them to speak to Gandhi — and to remind the Mahatma of the commitment to Hindus at the bottom of the heap. And that is what ensured SC/ST reservations found a place in the Constitution.
Later, a debate ensued on this, as a Government Order in 1950 excluded converts (except four Sikh Dalit caste groups) from this reservation.
Slowly, by the 1990s, Sikh and Buddhist castes were included, but Christian and Muslim Dalits remain excluded.
Among North Indian states, Bihar adopted reservation for backward castes in 1978, when the socialist leader Karpoori Thakur was at the helm. He implemented the report of the Mungeri Lal panel, which was set up in 1971. Like Mandal, which came in later, this report said backward castes irrespective of faith needed reservation.
The Mandal Commission presented its report in 1980, but was dusted up by the National Front Prime Minister V P Singh for implementation in 1990.
The rest, as they say, is history.