The recent move of Union Government introducing 10 per cent reservation for economically weaker sections of general category in higher education and government jobs is an attempt to correct the historic wrong by fundamentally rethinking on the principles and nature of social justice
After the passing of the 124th Constitutional Amendment by the upper house of the Indian Parliament through a thumping majority, there is a palpable amount of enthusiasm in the air across the country. Prime Minister and his infectious enthusiasm to create a level-playing field for everyone might have surprised the Opposition but has brought a smile on the face of poor across caste, creed and religion divide.
The Union Government’s move to introduce 10 per cent reservation for economically disadvantaged upper castes in higher education and employment will potentially redefine the contours of affirmative action in India. It was none other than Ambedkar who in his definition of ‘Depressed Classes’, a term largely used for erstwhile untouchables included upper castes around a century ago. In a speech delivered in Marathi to social workers on March 9, 1924 he said, “I would certainly not limit the use of the power of my intellect to my family and my caste. I will render them to the benefit of entire Depressed Classes, to help them build their social movement and struggle. I have been thinking of numerous schemes. If they are successful, then both the untouchable as well as the upper caste would benefit.”
Ambedkar is revered among the Dalits across the length and breadth of the country today. Unfortunately, the intellectual colossus has been restricted as a hero of the Dalits only. The man was clearly ahead of his times in vision and imagination. I am reminded of him today as I read about the Central Government’s move to expand the ambit of reservation to the economically disadvantaged upper castes. As an eternal optimist, I believe God and not devil is in the details. Once this idea is presented before the Parliament for discussion more of its content would be available for mass consumption and public scrutiny.
“The move is a big step towards government's resolve Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas and would not be a cause for social confrontation…This Bill does not disturb the existing 50 per cent reservation for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes” — Ram Vilas Paswan, Union Minister
The ruling party is set to benefit with this move. In an attempt to placate the traditional stronghold of the party, the government has taken a much broader and comprehensive approach. In the political history of independent India, the reservation was never envisioned as a tool to empower the disadvantaged on an economic basis. The policy of affirmative action in the Constitution was imagined for bringing prestige and repute to the people who were historically disenfranchised of dignity and thereby dignified existence. Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas will be realistically analysed if the government is successful in giving this move a constitutional sanction. It requires an immense amount of political will and courage to float an idea that is set to have electoral ramifications.
Who all will benefit?
Family income should be less than "8 lakh per annum
Farm land should be less than that of 5 acres
Residential house should be less than 1000 sq ft.
Residential plot should be below 100 yards in a notified municipality
In case of non-notified municipality area, the residential plot should be below 200 yards
Much of the punditry on the issue is still premature and speculative. Social interactions have become extremely dynamic these days with the advent of social media. Dalit organisations are still contemplative and ambivalent on this issue. The trickle-down effect of this move will not harm the Dalits as the report says that the 10 per cent would be additional and over and above the earmarked quota for the Dalits, tribal communities and other backward classes. Dalits are happy with this move as it nowhere touches the earmarked quota for them and they think this move would also help in the destigmatising reservation and its beneficiaries as it would generate positive empathy once it is benefiting the larger section of society. The move was endorsed and supported by various national level Dalit leaders at different stages like Ramdas Athawale, Mayawati and Ram Vilas Paswan.
The sudden announcement has left the Opposition listless. It is precisely moments like these when the Opposition misses the precision of a leader like Lalu Yadav. Lalu who single-handedly reversed the 2015 Assembly elections in Bihar by making it a forward vs backward battle has an infectious grasp on caste issues. Tejaswi Yadav was seen posing random questions without taking a definitive stand on the issue.
If we have a closer look, we will realise that the upper castes somewhat reconciled with the idea of reservation to the Dalits and tribal communities, problems emerged with the findings of the Mandal Commission that earmarked 27 per cent quota for other backward classes. Castes in the OBC segment were traditionally rich and landholding communities like Yadavs in Bihar and Marathas in Maharashtra. The present move by the Central Government will be an attempt to correct this historic wrong by fundamentally rethinking on the principles and nature of social justice in India.
(The writer is a fellow at India Foundation and Assistant Professor, Patna University)