Gained in translation: Reservation, Constitution and Democracy

Gained in translation: Reservation, Constitution and Democracy

Modern India and its democratic values did not evolve merely from the anti-British nationalist mobilisations. The many great rebellions for justice by different communities in the society shaped the democratic principles that underline modern India

Modern India, Democratic Values, Reservation, Constitution, Democracy, Indian Constitution, Opinion News, Indian Express, Indian Express News
Modern India and its democratic values did not evolve merely from the anti-British nationalist mobilisations (C R Sasikumar)

India does not debate reservations at times of peace and amity. It is when anti-reservation stirs gain ground that the nation and civil society worry about reservations. Such debates, which take place in the concrete context of opposition to reservations, do not engage with issues that concern people who avail of reservations or discuss it as a constitutional mechanism but address the anti-reservationists. That they don’t examine reservations as a constitutional mechanism is a limitation of the reservation debates. If the debates are to become more inclusive, they will have to discuss how reservations evolved as a constitutional mechanism, the socio-political forces behind it and its importance in a democratic society. What is being discussed here is: how the concept of reservation was formulated in the Indian historical backdrop; how the concept became a binding principle when the constitution was drafted and its significance in India’s context.

Modern India and its democratic values did not evolve merely from the anti-British nationalist mobilisations. The many great rebellions for justice by different communities in the society shaped the democratic principles that underline modern India. Democratic values were unknown to India. Indians have never thought it necessary to respect the rights of others. Violation of the rights of the other was considered as a moral duty and a body-self constituted by this ethic, which found the proximity of the other disturbing, were essential features of the Indian society.

Caste system and its rituals were responsible for the creation of this anti-human condition. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar rightly observes that caste is a hierarchical system that he used the simile of a pyramid to describe it. That pyramid attributes reverence for those who are going higher to the top and imposes contempt for those going down to the bottom.1 That is, unlike in other societies, inequality in the Indian society is graded inequality. To confine individuals to silos they can’t escape from is what constitutes graded inequality. The morals of those who exist within such a hierarchical system will also be a graded morality. India existed as a society in which a multi-layered mechanics resisted the disbursal of natural justice among its entire people. Since this mechanics had religious sanction, it also found ethical justification.

The many mobilisations for internal democracy I mentioned earlier had sought to address this particular social context, which has no parallels elsewhere in the world. From Jyotirao Phule (1827-1890) in Maharashtra, Babu Mangu Ram Chaudhary (1886-1980) in Punjab, the Namasudra Movement in Bengal, E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker (1879-1973) in Tamil Nadu, Sree Narayana Guru (1856-1928), Ayyankali (1863-1941), Poykayil Appachan (1879-1939), Pambadi John Joseph (1887-1940) in Kerala to finally Baba Saheb Ambedkar (1891-1956), who tried to cohere these mobilisations in a historic and political framework, the struggle for internal democracy was extensive and multi-faceted. The common intent of all these mobilisations was to explore how best justice can be ensured for all those discriminated against and excluded from a graded social order. The rights-based claims rose from the 19th century onwards for representation is what congealed into the system of reservation. Reservations did not address inequality, but the graded inequality inherent in the Indian society.

That is why the Indian Constitution considers social and educational backwardness, and not economic backwardness, as the criterion for reservations. A primary aspect of this vision is wealth disparities alone are unlikely to end graded inequality. The understanding that disbursal of justice is unlikely in India where graded inequality rules, made it possible for reservations to be a part of modern democratic governance.

It is in this context that sections of the Constitution that underlie reservations, Articles 15 (4) and 16 (4), need to be understood. According to Article 15 (4), “Nothing in this article or in clause (2) of Article 29 shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.” Reservations constitute this “special provision.” Income is not included as a criterion here because the roots of the forward/backward divide in India lie in the value system of the Brahmanical social order. Article 16 (4) says, “Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any provision for the reservation of appointments or posts in favour of any backward class of citizens which, in the opinion of the State, is not adequately represented in the services under the State.” This provision declares the democratic principle that all communities have the right to participate in all areas of the Government. Hence it is argued that reservations is both a democratic political right and guarantees the right to participate in governance. In short, Indian Constitution puts forth two criteria for reservations: One, social and educational backwardness; two, insufficient representation.

When examined in the light of these criteria, it becomes clear that the recent decision of the Left Government in Kerala to institute 10 percent reservation for the economically backward among the Forward Castes is unconstitutional. The first question that, this decision raises is whether the poor among the Forward Castes are subject to social discrimination and exclusion. No will be the answer of those in their right sense. Second, do the poor among the forward have adequate representation. The State Government is yet to release any data that indicates that the poor among upper castes are under-represented in the Government. However, available data indicate that the forward communities in Kerala are represented in the public sector in excess of their share in the population. Data regarding a caste-wise break-up of teachers in four colleges under the Devaswom board, the autonomous body that runs Hindu religious institutions, was made available under an RTI application in 2010.

There are 182 teachers in the four colleges under the Devaswom board. Out of these, 135 are Nairs and eight are Namboodiri Brahmins. That is, the Upper Castes have a 79 percent share of these jobs whereas SC/ST representation is zero. Upper Castes who are just 13 percent of Kerala’s population have cornered 79 percent of the jobs! This gives a clear indication of the structure of the Devaswom board. It is obviously clear that representation of Upper Castes in temples and other institutions under the Devaswom board is 96 percent.

Clearly, the Kerala Government has proposed a 10 percent economic reservation in a sector where Upper Castes are over-represented, seriously undermining the right to opportunity and the principle of social justice. Things are very evident. The Left Government perceives reservations as a poverty alleviation scheme. The illiteracy about the Constitution evident in this understanding has to be questioned. There are poor people among the rich, no doubt. If the Left Government’s intention is to solve the poverty among them, it ought to do so by including them in the poverty alleviation schemes. After all, there are many schemes including employment guarantee scheme, free rations, loan for self-employment, aid for housing and education etc. It is irrefutable that the strange logic of the Left Government, which advocates such schemes for the uplift of the poor among non-upper castes, that reservation could be the solution to remove poverty among the Upper Castes stems from India’s eternal curse of being beholden to savarna values.


The questions raised here are: Who is the backward among the forwards? What characteristic makes him a forward? In which aspect is he a backward? If he is a forward in terms of socio-cultural-symbolic capital, it means he has access to social status. His crisis is only an economic one. So he deserves financial aid. Do not smuggle economic criteria into reservations by listing sob stories of Upper Caste poverty.