The Narendra Modi government’s move to push for reservation in government jobs and higher educational institutions for upper caste poor, by amending the Constitution, raises serious questions. There is, to begin with, a question of propriety — of a government taking up something as consequential as a constitutional amendment in what are its last few months in office before general elections. More substantively, the government, by this move, seems to be redefining the very purpose of the policy instrument called reservation.
So far, the Constitution, and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of its letter and spirit, allow for reservation for groups, classes or castes that are socially and educationally backward, apart from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes — not as exceptions to, or deviations from, the Right to Equality, but to give meaning to that right in a gravely unequal society. And so far, the economic criterion has not been seen to be either the sole or primary determinant of backwardness. When an earlier government in the 1990s tried to bring in a quota for the upper caste poor, therefore, the apex court firmly struck it down and also fixed a 50 per cent ceiling for reservation. Now, by seeking to open up the reservation policy to encompass even the upper castes, on an economic basis, the government can be accused of using what was meant to be an instrument of social justice as an anti-poverty measure like a safety net or a subsidy. This shift, this blurring of the governing principles of two different sets of policies that are intended to serve two different sets of goals, can be said to speak of a lack of imagination, at the very least. It will also have costs. It will take a toll.
Especially in times when the economy does not seem buoyant, when jobs are not being created at the requisite pace in the private sector and are shrinking in the government sector, a quota for upper castes will only deepen existing resentments and create new ones — while not serving its stated purpose. That is, it will promise only a symbolic representation to the caste groups it addresses, while injecting more competition and rancour within upper caste groups as well as between upper and backward castes in the fight for limited resources. It will open up the state to another set of demands that are already making themselves heard — from dominant castes like the Jats, Marathas and Patels, in states where they feel left out of both the rubric of economic development and the system of reservation. If the 50 per cent ceiling can be breached, why not for these groups too? If historical discrimination and disprivilege is not to be the only guiding principle for a policy that seeks to provide social justice through job-education quotas, then why not take into account the claims of proportional representation, or the demands of majoritarianism? The government has made a very fraught move. It must now be debated thoroughly in Parliament and scrutinised carefully by the court. Anything less would be a travesty of due process in a deliberative democracy.
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