Reservations in India: Understanding its History

Reservation system finds its roots in the age old caste system in India. When reservation was done initially it was done for different reasons and it still exists. It has found itself too deeply engulfed in our DNA now, that the thought of no reservations in enough to bring massive unrest. Reservation system in India is the process of reserving a certain percentage of seats (maximum 50%) for a certain class such as scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, backward classes etc. in government jobs and government educational institutions.

But first let’s understand who are SC’s and ST’s:

Scheduled Tribes (ST) - They are about 9% of population and are amongst the poorest Indians living in remote tribal areas, where there are no modern facilities.

Scheduled Castes (SC) - They are about 19% of Indian population. They are the so called untouchable class as they were perceived in the earlier times. They were socially segregated, illiterate, ignorant and poor people of India.

SC/STs are also referred to as Dalits (oppressed).

Other backward classes (OBC) - They are about 41% of Indian population. They were also known as the Shudras and were allowed to farm on the leased land. Eventually they were also allowed to own that land that they tilled. OBC’s are economically, socially and educationally backward people.

The caste system was initially meant to divide people based on their occupation, for eg.

Brahmins: teaching & preaching
Kshatriya: kingship & war
Vaishyas: business
Shudras: labourers and landless

However, it eventually became an instrument to divide the society creating a wall between various sects of the society. Today there are many ways you can bifurcate the society, Hindu vs Muslim, SC’s, ST’s, OBC’s etc. Newer demands for reservations keep springing up from different communities like Christians, Jats, Kashmiris, Kashmiri Pandits, Tribals etc. India is a country with many religions and dialects and hence, it makes it very easy for a certain strata of the society to demand reservation for themselves. Whether reservation is needed or not is something that is a huge debate in itself, however we need to understand that how did this come to being.

Currently, in 15% of government jobs and 15% of students admitted to universities should belong to Scheduled castes and the reservation stands at 7.5% for ST’s. Moreover, an additional 27% seats are reserved for OBC’s. This makes the total reservation 49.5%. Besides this, state governments also do follow their independent reservation policies depending upon the population of that state and need for reservation for a particular community. So we can safely assume that nearly 50% of seats are reserved.

In our constitution it is mentioned that state governments have the power to protect the economically weaker and socially backward people by bringing them under the purview of reservations. So there are also religion based reservations. For eg. Tamil Nadu government has given 3.5% of seats to Christians and Muslims. They have given 69% reservation that applies to 87% of their population. Andhra Pradesh has passed a law to make 4% reservation for Muslims. Kerala Public Service Commission also has about 12% quota for muslims. There is a 50% cap on reservations, yet in some states reservations are done beyond 50% and there are pending cases regarding this in the courts.

group of children nearby house

Timeline of history of reservations:

1932, Poona Pact

In 1932 the Britishers had announced the ‘Communal award’. As per this they had suggested a separate electorate. This means that each community will choose their own candidates, who they will vote for. So elections for that particular community would be separate and not come under general elections. Mahatma Gandhi recognized that this would be very divisive for the society and divide Hindu’s. He therefore, went on a hunger strike against this and took this as an attack on Indian nationalism.

As a resolution and to break his fact, a Poona pact was signed between Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar on 24th September at Yerwada jail. As per this pact, the only solution to ensure each community has a say is by reserving seats for them. Hence, seats were to be reserved for the depressed classes in the electoral process.

1950 - Constitutional provision required reservation of seats in the legislature

Indian Constitution was in the drafting phase and BR Ambedkar was made the chairperson of the constitutional drafting committee. Congress did not want to commit a grave mistake of having a separate electorate for different communities, so the reservation policy was made official. However, it was limited for 10 years.

There has been a 95th amendment in the Indian constitution as per which the reservation for seats for SC’s and ST’s in Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha have been extended till 2060. No timeline has been set for reservation in government jobs and educational institutions.

1951 - Constitutional amendment as per which states could now reserve seats for SC’s and ST’s in educational institutions.

1963, there was a Supreme Court ruling that reservations could not exceed 50%

1978, Mandal Commission was set up to make quota recommendations for other disadvantaged castes. The commission proposed reserving 27% of seats for OBC’s

1989, Prime Minister VP Singh said that Mandal commission recommendations should be applied to government jobs. This was met with much resistance.

1990, Mandal Commission report was adopted

On August 7, Prime Minister VP Singh had announced that they had accepted the Mandal Commission recommendations, as per which there were to be 27% reservation for OBC’s in all levels of service.

Soon after the announcement, there were protests against it in New Delhi, where a Delhi University student also burnt himself in fire. He didn’t die but he sustained 50% burn injuries. Although, the OBC’s had found themselves in the India’s social justice movement, yet there were protests about this decision of the government.

16th November 1992, Apex Court upheld the Mandal Commission recommendations for having a 27% quota for OBC’s
The Supreme Court also stated that the “creamy layer” should be excluded from any such benefits. The creamy layer includes children of class I and II officers, constitutional holders, owners of huge farms and those who have an annual income greater than 1 lakh rupees.

September 1993, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao said he was prepared to implement the Mandal Commission Recommendations

August 2005, Supreme Court abolished caste based reservations in unaided private colleges

2006, UPA government proposed to raise reservations in educational institutions to 49.5%

2019, Modi government approved 10% reservation for economically poor in General category

As per the apex court ruling the unaided institutions had a absolute right to admit students that they prefer in professional courses without any interference from the government. The 7 judge constitutional bench also abolished the state quota in unaided private institutions calling it a serious encroachment of right and autonomy.

Dec 12, 2005 - Lok Sabha passed a 104th constitutional amendment rolling back the Supreme Court judgement of disallowing any quota in private unaided institutions. Hence a new clause in Article 15 made reservations for SC’s, ST’s and OBC’s in private unaided institutions (other than minority institutions) a law.

It has been over 50 years for Mandal Commissions recommendations, which are also based on 1931 census data. They may not hold true today. It has been over 25 years that it has been accepted and implemented. Recently, many communities like Jats in Haryana, Patidars in Gujarat, Marathas in Maharashtra have also been demanding reservations. We can just sit and observe what the future of reservation system is in India, however, for the longest time it is here to stay.

- Tanya Kathpal

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