Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav has suggested extending reservation benefits not only to Patels, but to all forward communities as well.
“Do a census and give everyone reservation according to their population. Nobody will be angry,” Yadav said, when asked about how to deal with the current agitation by the Gujarati community seeking greater educational opportunities and chances in government machinery.
India has a system of reservations educational institutions and government jobs that sets apart a certain percentage of seats to the dalit and intermediate castes and communities.
This has been done to prevent them from being excluded from the process of government as was the case earlier.
Reservations in government colleges are supposed to ensure that institutions of higher education are not monopolized by a group of dominant communities.
Under the reservation system, the scheduled castes and tribes are given proportionate reservation, while intermediate groups — termed ‘other backward communities — are given reservation equal to about half of their share in population.
Under the reservation policy, 15% of seats are reserved for scheduled castes, 7.5% of seats for the tribes and 27% for candidates belonging to other backward communities.
Under the system, the OBCs — who comprise about 50% of the population — are guaranteed to get at least half the number of seats they would have got if the all the seats were to be divided according to population share.
Scheduled castes — so called because the caste names are contained in a schedule to the constitution — used to be the most backward as they were almost fully dependent on other communities for their livelihoods, while OBCs were largely independent groups with a background in farming and traditional industries.
The remaining 50% of the seats, which are called ‘general seats’, are open to competition from all castes and communities. However, in some cases, candidates eligible for SC or SC or OBC reservation are not allowed to compete for the ‘general’ seats, and these seats are, in effect, reserved for ‘forward’ communities.
The OBC reservations, which were put in place about thirty years ago, have been the most controversial, as many of the communities included in this group — such as the agriculture-oriented Jats — are quite rich as they are mostly engaged in agriculture or traditional industries.
Despite being relatively rich, some communities were included in the OBC list as it was felt that they continued to face social discrimination as they were tagged ‘Shudra’ (slave caste) or ‘Avarna’ (caste-less) in the traditional Hindu caste system.
According to the Hindu caste system, all communities other than Dvijas or twice-born Hindus — people who follow the Vedas, conduct Upanayana ceremony and wear the sacred thread — are considered to be either Shudras or Avarnas, and therefore to be of ‘lower caste’ than the twice-borns (Dvijas).
Even then, when the OBC reservations were set up, not all non-Dvija communities were included in its scope. Some, like Nairs of Kerala, voluntarily refused admission in the category, while others like the Patels and Reddys were excluded simply because of their higher income levels.
There were also groups like Marathas who were excluded because they were considered ‘forward’ as they enjoyed considerable social and economic power even though they did not observe Vedic rituals such as Upanayana.
However, with the industrialization of the economy and the destruction of traditional, agriculture-based social and economic relationships, these prosperous communities have witnessed a decline in their economic and political fortunes.
Many have realized that to compete in the emerging economy, education and a presence in government jobs will be crucial.
As a result, these communities — including Patels, Maratas, Kammas and Reddys — have now started demanding reservation, pointing out in many cases that their proportion in higher education and government jobs is less than their share of the population.
Secondly, Dvija communities — who form about 25-30% of the population — are facing increasing competitive pressures due to shift to from a feudal, agrarian economy to an industrialized, urban setup.
With the decline of traditional Hindu occupations such as temple priests and astrologers (Brahmins) and local landlords and tax collectors (Kshatriyas), many upper caste communities have fallen on hard times.
In turn, this has led to many of them seeking employment in the government. However, in the government, only a maximum 50% of the jobs can be allocated to these classes as the remaining 50% is set apart for the three reserved categories.
This has forced some states, such as Rajasthan and Kerala, to explore the option of giving reservations to upper castes (Dvijas) as well.
NEW WAY OUT?
However, all efforts aimed at installing new quotas for hitherto excluded groups have been struck down by courts, which claim that doing so will ‘dilute merit’ in admissions.
The courts typically hold the view that measures to ensure diversity and representation in government jobs and educational institutions reduce the efficiency of these organizations.
The courts do not accept the argument that having all communities represented makes the government more effective. As a result, they routinely strike down any new quota that takes the total number of reserved seats above 50%.
To overcome this, the Congress Party and Akhilesh Yadav seem to be looking at an alternative method of overcoming the ‘merit dilution’ argument of the Supreme Court.
To do so, they seem to be planning to make an amendment to the constitution that specifically calls for ensuring just representation for all communities — irrespective of their status in traditional caste structure — in government and higher educational institutions.
The Congress party has unofficially told reporters that if voted to power, it would seek to include ‘forward castes’ in reservation by pushing for a constitutional amendment with the support for allies like Akhilesh Yadav.
Given how sensitive the topic of reservation and jobs is in India, the ruling BJP may find it difficult to oppose such an amendment in Parliament.
Being a constitutional provision, the Courts cannot overturn such a law as it could a regular law.
Under the legal doctrine prevalent in India, the Parliament has the full authority to amend any part of the Constitution as long as it does not ‘destroy’ the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution.
An amendment to the constitution that guarantees representation to all communities — irrespective of whether they are ‘lower’ or ‘higher’ castes — could therefore only be struck down if it is either found to violate the fundamental rights or to alter the basic structure of the Constitution.