The stunning speed with which the current government’s legislation to provide 10% reservation for the economically backward in the general category for the upper castes has passed the test of both Houses of Parliament and has taken many by surprise. This action by the government has also led to several questions being asked about the government’s motive behind the move. Considering the logical inconsistencies that this legislation suffers from, it is likely to face legal challenges from several quarters.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his government’s endeavour was to ensure that every poor person, irrespective of their caste or creed, gets to lead a life of dignity. According to Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar, the 10% reservation for economically weaker sections will be implemented across 40,000 colleges and 900 universities, including private institutions, from the 2019-20 academic year. These provisions would relate to “their admission to educational institutions, including private educational institutions, whether aided or unaided by the State, other than the minority educational institutions”. The act makes it clear that this reservation would be in addition to the existing reservations and subject to a maximum of 10% of the total seats of each category.
The rules of procedure of the Lok Sabha requires every bill to be circulated at least 2 days ahead of its introduction. This is to give time to Members of Parliament and their parties to study the Bill and discuss it or make objections when the vote on this motion to introduce this bill is taken up. As constitutionally mandated this bill was not examined by any committee. Procedural requirements were not followed by the government in the hallowed halls of parliament. The entire bill was literally rail-roaded by the ruling dispensation by using its brute majority in the parliament.
The primary purpose of reservation was to ensure participatory justice and not re-distribution. Six out of nine judges in the Mandal case rejected the economic criteria. The quota system was introduced in the country to give representation to socially and educationally backward people. It wasn’t meant to end poverty. There is a Supreme Court ruling that the basic structure of the Constitution does not permit more than 50% of reservation. The Bill that was passed by parliament on January 9 has already been challenged in the SC.
Political reactions: Communist Party of India (Marxist) chief Sitaram Yechury said the Bill was the Modi government’s attempt to combine caste passions with communal polarisation for the 2019 Lok Sabha assemblies before it can be notified. The Congress, and its youth organisations, said the move was a gimmick since 93 per cent of households in India had annual incomes of less than Rs 2.5 lakh, while the Bill envisaged extending benefits to all who earned less than Rs 8 lakh. Congress welcomed the decision but questioned the timing of the government's decision which it termed as an "election gimmick" to fool people. Asserting that the move was a proof of the BJP's "fear" of losing Lok Sabha polls, the opposition party also said that "without jobs", the creation of reservation in employment may just be a trick. Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati said her party supported the Bill, but called for a review of reservations currently given to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes, or OBCs. Samajwadi Party’s Ram Gopal Yadav was one of those who rightly pointed out that the government had crossed the ‘Lakshman rekha’ of the Supreme Court-mandated 50 per cent cap on reservations. The present reservation policy is violative of the equality principle enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution. An amendment to article 15 and 16 is needed since the constitution does not permit more than 50% reservation.
Understanding reservation: Parliament has a central role to secure the interest of citizens. It is the primary body of accountability that translates the wishes and aspirations of citizens into appropriate laws and policies. Since the day caste-based reservations were implemented in India, there has been simmering disgruntlement among several sections of society. A discontent remains among a large segment of the upper strata of Indian society on why should the reservation policy continue? And if it has to be there it should be on the basis of economic criteria and not on caste. It is pertinent in this context to explain here that caste based reservation policy that is followed in the country is not an anti-poverty programme of the government. Caste based reservation policy is also not a charity that the government bestows on a particular community who live in this country. Those who believe in political democracy must also believe in social and economic democracy or else the goal of establishing an egalitarian society based on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity would remain meaningless.
In conclusion: It appears that the reservation policy has always been used as an electoral weapon; it has proved to be a treacherous terrain and had severe consequences. The prime example is the implementation of Mandal Commission report in 1989 which radically changed the face of Indian politics. In 1990 when VP Singh decided to implement the OBC reservations, the present ruling party fiercely opposed the ‘Mandal politics’. The government’s decision to reserve 10 per cent quota for upper castes is widely seen as an attempt to win back the support of general category voters.
(The writer a social scientist and criminal lawyer is also the manager of an educational institution).