Do we need to rethink caste-centric reservations? An insider's critique

Do we need to rethink caste-centric reservations? An insider's critique
Do we need to rethink caste-centric reservations? An insider's critique
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It is harder to crack a prejudice than an atom. - Albert Einstein

A recent judgment of the Supreme Court of India has struck down the inclusion of Jats into OBC reservation orbit by then UPA government. The apex judiciary made the following observation: “new practices, methods and yardsticks have to be continuously evolved moving away from caste-centric definition of backwardness”. One could even infer from the judgment that caste-centric reservation has to be done away with at the earliest. It is seen to be imperative to find alternative criterion to determine peoples’ backwardness for any state provision which runs contrary to a study released by the Institute of Economic Growth and the University of Michigan, USA on efficiency of reserved (SCs/STs) candidates in the Indian Railways in February. Indeed, the significant observation of apex judiciary and research findings had once again brought the caste based reservation debate to limelight. Followed by Socio-Economic Caste Census 2011 and latest Gujarat’s Patel upheaval have brought back the reservation debate.  

Thus, both in academic realm and in the intelligentsia, it is taken for granted that the SCs/STs, as if unanimously approved, have a progressive view on the caste-centric reservation policy without any critical understanding. In fact, there are many dissent voices to the caste-centric reservation. It is time for an insider's critique of caste centric reservation policy.

The policy had been challenged and criticised on basis of merit, efficiency, detrimental for development and vote-bank politics as well as retaining caste rather than annihilate it. I do not completely agree with argument of meritocracy, but I must place an insider’s viewpoints as critique. Here I would like to argue against the policy of positive discrimination based on caste. At the same time I argue for reservation or state intervention towards providing equal opportunities for lower-class people who are being subjected to certain socio-economic and cultural discrimination and disadvantages.

The caste-system is a vast complex institution and a contagious problem which has plagued the Indian subcontinent for ages. We are yet to resolve it even after sixty five years of independence. The fulcrum of Indian polity is that the country is envisaged as a democratic social transformation. Our constitution embodies a preamble of liberty, equality, fraternity and justice in political, social, economic and cultural spheres for all. The most contested constitutional provisions have been in the fundamental rights of the citizen; a) equality of opportunities with positive discrimination; and b) protection of religious minorities.

Here I argue for a review or reconsideration of provision for caste-centric reservation for the following reasons:

Firstly, feeling of humiliation among the SCs and STs is rampant, which they consciously refuse to arrogate. Their merits have not been recognised and they are often stigmatised as 'quota people'. One could verify this fact by scrutinizing the past records of both at central and state governments showing how many SCs and STs have been selected in open/general category in educational institutions and employments. In fact, in quite a few cases, those selected on quota were better qualified than open category candidates. Despite being better qualified the SCs and STs continue to be positioned in the quota and humiliated, wherever they lived or worked. The society refuses to accept and acknowledge their merits.  Therefore, reservation for SCs and STs should not be viewed as charity or compensation for historic injustice but as constitutional safeguard against persistence of caste prejudices.

Just to illustrate my argument, in early 1990’s, a candidate with a gold medal in M.Sc. Zoology from University of Madras applied for the M.Phil./ Ph.D. programme in one of the premier universities in Delhi, and he wrote the entrance exam in which he topped at all India level, but in the interview he was humiliated and was given admission in the SC/ST quota, not in open category. When he requested that his candidature be open category, he was not only denied the right but he also continued to face harassment. Finally, he was made to discontinue his studies, and he ended up working as a scientist in CSIR. Similarly, a reputed social science research institute in south India did not have reservation policy for more than 35 years of its existence. When a faculty member made efforts to adopt reservation policy into the institute statute, he was told, “Even though we do not have a policy, we still have an SC person here”. The SC person they referred to had topped in the merit list of selection. Likewise there are several cases one could cite where SC's and ST's merit has been consistently negated and degraded.

Secondly, prevalence of numerous fraud caste certificates and manipulation of obtaining caste certificates are yet another predicament of the existing caste-centric reservation. We may cite numerous instances to this effect. For instance, every year during the professional degrees course like engineering, medical admissions, the concerned authorities find over thousand fraud caste certificates. This fact had been acknowledged by the National Commission for SCs and STs Reports time and again. However, action to address those caste frauds is merely negligible, except from some associations which were functioning within respective organisations.  Further, P. Sainath has reported this fact while covering deprivation of rural India. Particularly, how a mere change of spelling could lead to a person belonging in forward caste becoming one from a reserved category. In Tamil Nadu for instance, Vellala Gounder is a forward community. If one prefixed ‘Kongu’ Vellala Gounder, then they become OBC. The word 'Kongu' denotes geographical location of western region of Tamil Nadu, where numerous caste and communities live. Except ‘Vellala’ Gounders, none have used this prefix to corner the state provisions. Hence, prevalence of fraud caste certificates and manipulation, spellings and use of prefixes or suffixes to caste name etc., are a serious concern of our time.

Thirdly, the ruling class’s implicit resistance to implement or adhere to SCs and STs Reservation Policy is yet another problem. Former chairperson of the National Commission for SCs and STs Buta Singh made a public statement that the constitutionally mandatory amount of reservation in public education and employment is 22.5 (15% for SCs and 7.5 % for STs in central level) of which only 6.5 was fulfilled after more than 60 years of its implementation. If one disaggregates even this 6.5% into different grades of employment most of them are in group three and group four levels only. The SC's and ST's representation in higher education in general and teaching positions in universities is just around 3.5%.  Anand Teltumbde emphatically analysed this fact in his “Persistence of Caste in India”. Of total SC and ST population hardly 1% of their population benefitted from the existing reservation policy. 

Tamil Nadu is a state where tall claims are made and the so called ‘progress’ in social reforms in valorised. In mid 1990s, Dr. Krishnaswamy, President Puthiya Tamizhagam Katchi, demanded a whitepaper on implementation of SCs and STs reservation policy. Both the dominant Dravidian political parties refused to publish it. The state has a 69% reservation policy which overcame the 50 % quota through legislation.  Instead of fulfilling the mandatory amount of reserved quota, the state resorted to dividing the Scheduled caste on sub-caste lines. The irony is that if a dalit converts to Christianity or Islam he loses his status as an SC and becomes a BC, but if a non-dalit converts, his position remains the same. By the same logic, non-Dalit converts should have been positioned in the Forward category.   

The onslaught of a process where the state continues to become market-centric and growth centric development, the role of the state as an instrument of democratic social transformation which embodies welfare, equity, fairness and justice has changed into a mere facilitator for market, trade and corporates. As a result, reduction of organised employment today is just 7%. If we disaggregate that, it turns into private 4% and public 3%. Hence, there is no reservation of jobs in private sectors and it is only applicable for 3% of organised employment, then imagine how much of the population actually benefits from this caste centric policy?

In order to get benefits, one needs bare minimum resources or assets to access quality education and then be able to compete in job market. Considering, the state of affairs of government schools, welfare hostels and amenities available to SCs and STs at colleges or universities, it is better to annihilate the constitutional categories and statutory bodies that exist and function only for lucrative jobs and positions to non-SCs and STs.

The generalization of SCs, STs, OBCs and other reserved categories is futile without addressing their specificities and structural differences, and not doing so is in a way aggravating the injustice.

In southern states, the OBCs do not just look upon down upon SCs and STs, but they also perpetrate violence and dominance.  For the OBCs, 27% central government reservation came to exist only after the Mandal Commission implementation in 1992 with caveat of creamy layer. But many state governments (at least in southern states) have adopted the backward class/ caste reservation even before India’s independence, through which they were able to empower and excel themselves in political economy and become more dominant than the traditional Brahmins. This transition has made reservation possible not just in education and employment alone, but also in many other state interventions like land reform, rural co-operative society, minimum price for agricultural produce and agricultural subsidies and cultural resources. As Andre Betteille rightly observed, reservation to SCs and STs is social justice but for the OBCs its political power. It is an irony that neither those who oppose the reservation policy nor those who support the reservation policy talk about this.


1. Quotas do not hurt Efficiency, The Hindu, 5 February, 2015.

2. Deepak Nayyar, 2006, Cambridge Journal of Political Economy; EPW:1998 ; Jan Breman, 2010, EPW 

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