In India, It’s OK to Hate Reserved Quotas – Until It Benefits Your Community

Politics

In India, It’s OK to Hate Reserved Quotas – Until It Benefits Your Community

Illustration: Akshita Monga

When I was a teenager seeking admission to Mumbai’s colleges, the one word on everyone’s lips was “quota”. Xaviers College had a Catholic quota, Jai Hind had a Sindhi quota, and almost every institute had a sports quota. And then there was me, an average student with average marks, ineligible for special treatment of any kind – except my privilege – praying that my name would make it onto one of the accepted lists. Luckily for me, my grades were good enough to get me into the college I wanted to attend, but I remember wishing I could have had the safety net of a quota to rely on during the waiting period.

Yesterday, far too late to quell my admission anxiety, the Cabinet announced 10 per cent reservation in government jobs and educational institutes for the economically backward from the upper-castes, who have traditionally been excluded from India’s many reservation programmes across the country. Apart from being a transparently populist move from a BJP government gearing up for election year, the announcement has also had the effect of turning a demographic that has been traditionally critical of reservation policies into supporters of the same overnight.

Since India came into being, upper castes have been spectators as the Schedule Castes and Tribes, followed by OBCs, became beneficiaries of reservation policies. The resentment at being left out from the affirmative action programmes sometimes boiled over in the form of protests, like those against the Mandal Commission in 1990, and the student protests that took place in 2006, or more recently, the Patidar, Jat, and Maratha agitations across the country. Perhaps the seeds for yesterday’s announcement were sown during those protests; in 2006, the BJP and their student wing ABVP were in support of reservation, but wanted it to be extended to the poor among upper-castes as well.

Not only does this move have no precedent, it probably won’t be passed in the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP doesn’t enjoy a majority.

The Cabinet’s decision was met with a round of support from BJP faithful online, with the hashtag #SaavarnoKoSammaan trending on Twitter, as the BJP’s traditional vote bank lapped up the latest PR stunt. And yes, despite all the furore the announcement has created, at this point it remains just a publicity stunt. Not only does this move have no precedent, it probably won’t be passed in the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP doesn’t enjoy a majority.

It is also likely that the Supreme Court will strike down any proposition to create 10 per cent reservation for upper-castes, since such a move would mean more than 50 per cent of the seats in government institutions are blocked on the basis of reservations. Crossing the 50 per cent limit would require an amendment to the Constitution, as well as completely reimagining the concept of reservations and how they’re implemented in the Indian context.

According to the father of the Indian Constitution BR Ambedkar, reservations were a measure to be used only for “communities which have not had so far representation in the State.” By this definition, the upper-castes currently in a position to benefit from the Cabinet’s latest reservation proposal would be ineligible due to having been adequately represented in state bodies and institutions. Also, in 1992, in the landmark Indira Sawhney, Etc VS Union of India and Other, Etc case, wherein the Supreme Court analysed the legality of quotas and the concept of backwardness in detail, the court stated that “a backward class cannot be determined only and exclusively with reference to economic criterion. It may be a consideration or basis along with and in addition to social backwardness, but it can never be the sole criterion.” If the Supreme Court is to follow its own precedent, it will have to reject the Modi government’s latest proposal as unconstitutional.

The real irony here is that the predominantly right-wing supporters of the BJP have often been vocal critics of reservation in the past.

Even though these might not seem like the best conditions to announce such a radical reservation programme, there was no better time than now for the Modi government to take this decision. Promising jobs to upper-castes via reservation is an act of magician-level misdirection, that detracts attention from the fact that this government’s record of providing employment – a crucial plank for the BJP’s 2014 campaign – has been unsatisfactory. So badly has that affected the electorate, that unemployment played a key role in the party’s defeat in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh state assembly elections last month. As political commentator Dhruv Rathee pointed out, “10 per cent of zero is still zero.”

Despite these obvious shortcomings, the BJP’s upper-caste Hindu voter base has celebrated the announcement of the reservations for upper-castes like a victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The real irony here is that the predominantly right-wing supporters of the BJP have often been vocal critics of reservation in the past. When particular communities have agitated for reservations in their name, for example, the Patidar agitation in Gujarat or Maratha agitation in Maharashtra, both BJP-ruled states, arguments were made against reservation being a political stunt to undermine the government and thwart meritocracy. In 2015, at the height of the Patidar protests, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat weighed in on the issue, saying that India’s reservation policy needed a review.

It is unclear if Bhagwat meant an arbitrary announcement that brings yet another group of citizens under the already expansive umbrella of India’s reservation quotas, but that appears to be how his ideological disciples in the government have chosen to implement his words. The BJP’s recent defeat in the state assembly elections is sure to have set alarm bells ringing, and it has been reported that the RSS feels like the BJP is losing its appeal to its core demographic, upper-caste Hindus. This move might be a last-ditch effort to lure back disenchanted supporters.

We view reservations as an unfair practice, right up until it becomes fair in our favour.

As the debate over whether these reservations can even be effectively implemented rages on, it will be amusing to watch previous critics of reservation defend the policy just because it can suddenly benefit them.

Which takes me back to the time I was seeking admission to college. The students eligible for any of the multitudinous quotas were gleeful about the inherent advantage they possessed, while the have-nots grumbled about having the deck stacked against them. I’d be hard pressed to come up with a better analogy for India’s relationship with the reservation system on a national level – we view it as an unfair practice, right up until it becomes fair in our favour. After which it is taken as something completely routine, and praiseworthy even. The debate over the Cabinet’s latest decision regarding reservations is just another example of the same attitude.

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