A major issue that recently bedevilled the nation is that of the agitations by the Patels/Patidars in Gujarat, the Marathas in Maharashtra and the Jats in Haryana and neighbouring states, demanding inclusion in the list of Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEdBCs) and provisions for reservation on that basis. This is in conflict with the Constitution.
These are dominant castes whose members are major landowners in their states. Some of these castes have leveraged their advantageous position in agriculture to diversify and enter business, trade and industry in addition to state services. The national and state backward class commissions have found that these communities are not socially and educationally backward and not inadequately represented in the services. Therefore, their past requests for inclusion in SEdBC lists have been rejected by governments.
Since they do not meet the objective criteria, especially the basic criterion of social backwardness, they are resorting to an exercise of coercive power on governance.
The Constitution provides reservation for three social classes: Scheduled Castes (SCs), victims of “untouchability” under the caste system with all-round deprivation, discrimination and disadvantage; Scheduled Tribes (STs), sufferers of isolation under vulnerable “tribal” conditions with all-round deprivation and disadvantage; Socially and Educationally Backward Classes, victims of “social backwardness”, a low position in the traditional caste hierarchy and linkages with “lowly” traditional occupations. The Constitution provides these three classes reservation as part of comprehensive social justice measures to secure equality for them, because their disadvantages are the outcome of the traditional social structure of the caste system with “untouchability”.
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The Constitution does not provide or permit reservation for the poor belonging to the Socially Advanced Castes (SACs) — or the spurious “economically backward classes”. No such class is recognised by the Constitution because their poverty is not the outcome of the traditionally iniquitous social system.
There must be clarity on why reservation came into existence. Reservation was adopted in the presidencies and princely states of the peninsula well before Independence. Reservation is not a programme for the removal or amelioration of poverty and unemployment. It was instituted to remove the imbalance in governance and administration, the monopoly of a few castes and the exclusion of castes that account for the vast majority of the population. With the Constitution, reservation also became an integral part of the basic structure of measures required for the elimination of inherited inequality, based on caste with “untouchability”, and for social equality, a basic feature of the Constitution.
The motivation for the present demand of some SACs is that they find persons from castes which they once looked down upon coming up through reservation. The SACs find it difficult to stomach the limited progress of Dalits, Adivasis and SEdBCs, in admission to educational institutions and employment, and also in positions such as presidents and chairpersons of panchayats and municipalities.
The demand of the SACs — that if they cannot be given reservation, the existing reservation system should be abolished — reveals their real intent: Preventing further progress of the SCs, STs and SedBCs, pushing them back to status-quo ante. The revival of the pre-Ambedkar, pre-Mandal situation is what misguided members and leaders of the SACs dream of.
Another reason mentioned in support of the SAC demand is the fragmentation of lands and difficulties faced by certain industries like Surat’s diamond trade — these economic exigencies by themselves cannot be the criterion for recognising a caste as socially backward. It is true that there are difficulties in agriculture and cyclical problems in industry; the solution for these must be found through appropriate policies. The genuinely poor among the SACs deserve sympathy and help through an appropriate dispensation — the solution for them is not inclusion in the list of SEdBCs and reservation.
Socially Advanced Castes and Socially Backward Lists are a patent contradiction in terms, but measures like scholarships and education loans, so that no youth has to drop out at any stage due to financial incapacity, can be put into effect.
Governments, ruling and opposition parties are falling into a position versus the nation and its Constitution. Ruling parties have succumbed, in some instances, to such pressures as happened just before the 2014 general elections regarding the Jats and Marathas, knowing that the courts cannot uphold such unconstitutional inclusions in the SEdBC lists. Parties in opposition appear to support these irrational demands. Such dishonest and short-sighted electoral-based gymnastics will bring parties into disrepute and erode confidence in our democratic system. The unconstitutional SAC demands and the dishonest behaviour of parties is resulting in SEdBC and Dalit counter-mobilisations and resistance, leading to social disharmony.
The political class should desist from such behaviour and take an unequivocal stand that SACs cannot be included in the list of Socially Backward Classes — the genuinely poor among them will be given appropriate relief and help, but not reservation. The leaders of the SACs have the duty to guide SACs along these lines.
The writer is a former secretary to the government of India and has been in the field of social justice for SCs, STs and SEdBCs for nearly seven decades
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