Opinion: Why the Vanniyar quota doesn’t transcend but perpetuates the caste system

The EPS government’s nod for 10.5% reservation for Vanniyars, before the caste-based Census results were out, has been done with an eye on electoral gains.
Collage of Edappadi Palaniswami and S Ramadoss
Collage of Edappadi Palaniswami and S Ramadoss
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The primary rule in a society brimming with historical injustices is that judicial principles should be beyond politics and corruption. On that basis, it's a rule that the caste-based reservation policy in India should maintain the purity of justice at any cost. But ever since the policy was formed, it has been facing enormous challenges from all sides. Reservation as a policy was meant to set right the injustices meted out to the majority of this country in terms of denial of education and oppression. By making reservation available to the forward communities too, the BJP started the process of corrupting the policy. On these lines, the reservation to Vanniyars in Tamil Nadu, which is hailed as the soil of social justice, has made a mockery of the policy. 

The Edappadi Palaniswami-led government, which offered 10.5% reservation for Vanniyars without a debate or discussion, or before the caste-based Census results were out, and with an eye on electoral gains, has brought disrepute to the very idea of reservation. Besides, it destroyed the purpose of reservation which was to transcend limitations imposed by caste. Instead, the Vanniyar reservation is a tool to perpetuate caste hegemony. To understand how the reservation for Vanniyars distorts the idea of representation, we need to understand the purpose of reservation. 

The Hindu caste system has vertically split its people. Varnasrama Dharma is a hierarchical, graded inequality that reaffirms the places of human beings based on their birth. As per Varnasrama, 97% of people are slaves to Brahmins, who call themselves twice-born. The former group’s self-respect, education, economy and welfare have been religiously banned. To undo this hierarchical injustice which had remained rooted for hundreds of years, Ambedkar brought the reservation policy, based on social justice, into the Constitution. In a brilliant speech made on December 16, 1946, he says: “Our difficulty is not about the ultimate future. Our difficulty is how to make the heterogeneous mass that we have today take a decision in common and march in a co-operative way on that road which is bound to lead us to unity. Our difficulty is not with regard to the ultimate. Our difficulty is with regard to the beginning.” This is the basis for the representation policy – to bring equality among the people who are divided. But today, reservation has become a political tool to further strengthen caste.

The noble idea of reservation is to bring equality among those who remain oppressed because of the Brahmanical order, against Varnashrama that placed Brahmins on the top and the 97% of people as their slaves in an ascending order. The representation policy aimed to make the vertical social structure into horizontal. Therefore, the social groups that are affected by the caste system, the Shudras and Panchamas, were categorised as backward classes. The beneficiaries of the caste system, the so-called upper castes, are categorised as other castes. So, according to the Constitution there are only two categories: BCs and OCs. To pay special attention to the Panchamas, who were victims of untouchability, they were brought into a special category under the Backward Classes. They were given representation in education and employment opportunities. Later based on Mandal Commission recommendation, the reservation was extended to Other Backward Classes (OBCs). But without understanding this basic truth, being part of the OBC list was considered higher and better than being in the separate, Scheduled lists among the BCs. Such is the power of a caste-driven society. 

Dividing communities in the MBC list

Reservation is the name given to the essential but huge duty of the government to bring together the indigenous citizens of this country divided into hundreds of castes and to set their spine straight. If changes are brought to it, it should be done without distorting the basic ideas of reservation – the social justice policy and the goal of equality. But in changes that are happening today, what we see are conspiracies against the essential idea of reservation.

The direct reason behind offering reservation for Vanniyars just minutes before the poll announcement was made obviously to collect the Vanniyar votes. The AIADMK government has dangerously used reservation for perpetuating caste and getting electoral gains through it. On the surface it may appear that there is nothing wrong with Vanniyar reservation. But there are both superficial and deeper dangers in it.

Reservation is generally given on the basis of caste-based Census. The committee appointed by the state government in December 2020 and headed by Justice Kulasekaran to undertake caste-based Census has still not given its findings.  What is the need to give 10.5% reservation to Vanniyars within the Most Backward Classes category so hastily? How did the government arrive at 10.5% when the Vanniyars had demanded 20%? This has also led to huge disappointment for the other communities in the Backward Classes list.

According to the Bill passed by the government, 10.5% reservation is given to Vanniyakula Kshatriars (comprising seven sects - Vanniyar, Vanniya, Vannia Gounder, Gounder or Kander, Padayachi, Palli, Agnikula Kshatriya). It gives 7% reservation to 93 castes that include the 68 communities in Denotified Tribes (including Aappanaatumaravar, Kallar, Piralimalaikallar) and 25 other castes including Paravar, fishermen and Vetuva Gounder. The remaining 26 castes including Isai Vellalar have been given 2.5% reservation. This atrocious act of the Tamil Nadu government has shocked the Most Backward Classes immensely. 

The communities have started protesting the reservation to Vanniyars without any basis and have started demanding the rightful representation for their communities. In a case filed in Madras High Court, Ganesan, founder of Thennaadu Makkal Katchi has asked how the Bill was passed before the caste-based Census could get over. The Maravar Federation has been conducting demonstrations demanding that the Vanniyar reservation be scrapped. The Tamil Nadu government is doing the irresponsible act of dividing the communities in the Most Backward Classes list.

Ruling class vs socially disadvantaged 

The Vanniyars have been fighting for reservation for 40 years now. S Ramadoss, founder of Pattali Makkal Katchi and his son Anbumani Ramadoss, shed tears calling the reservation a victory to a 40-year-old struggle. However, the number of years alone don’t make a struggle valid. A struggle assumes importance only if it is justified and is out of concern for public welfare. 

In the 1980s, when the Vanniyars held demonstrations demanding reservation, the then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, unlike Edappadi Palaniswami, did not offer it to just one caste. He categorised the 108 castes with similar social status as Most Backward Class, gave them 20% reservation out of the 50% reservation for OBCs and set a national precedent. But that was not enough to satisfy PMK and other Vanniyar groups. They continued to demand a separate 20% reservation as part of their vote bank politics. Even now, Ramadoss and Anbumani say that they have got 10.5% and the remaining reservation percentage can be achieved later. While they demand reservation on the basis of social justice, it is ironic that they try to rob the reservation of other castes that are in equal status or worse.

In Tamil Nadu, the Backward Classes are dominant in different areas. Gounders populate the Kongu region while Kallars and Nadars are dominant in southern districts. Vanniyars have a great presence in northern districts. In their respective areas, the communities continue to exercise influence and dominate other communities socially and economically. They are responsible for caste crimes and oppression that are rampant in those regions. The castes call themselves the 'ruling class' and commit violence against the Dalits living in those regions.

Vanniyars are among the castes that continue to oppress and harass the Dalits. Nobody can forget the fate met by Ilavarasan for falling in love with and marrying a Vanniyar woman. Nobody can forget how the Dalit residences were burnt and plundered in the ensuing attack. They are the ruling class when attacking the Dalits and cry hoarse about being socially disadvantaged when demanding reservations. Why should they do this drama? Vanniyars, actually Shudras according to Varnasrama, call themselves Kshatriyas. Not just them, the rest of the OBCs too call themselves Kshatriyas which is technically wrong. According to Varnasrama, excluding the twice born classes, all the others are only Shudras. If the backward classes of Tamil Nadu are really Kshatriyas, why should they be seeking reservation under BC quota?  

Question Vanniyar quota and some people might poke their nose into Arundhathiyar quota. In truth, Arundhathiyars as a community  are most deserving for the reservation, its idea and goal. In truth, Arundathiyars have been oppressed socially and in terms of education. They see the indignity forced on them by caste as indignity. They don’t exhibit caste pride or call themselves the ruling clan. They do not go around oppressing in the name of caste. They are prepared to let go off the caste identity and transgress caste as an idea. They are in fact most eligible for reservation. 

The Backward Classes should understand one truth clearly. Reservation is not meant for ruling classes. The real rulers, the real ruling class of this country are Brahmins. That is why they have been left out of reservation. Reservation gives social justice to those who face the oppression of caste. The Mandal Commission found that the OBCs too were socially marginalised and paved the way for 27% reservation. Tamil Nadu, which had done away with Brahminical hegemony, had followed social justice in BC reservation much before that. But the OBCs who had a 50% reservation in the state were not willing to give up their caste hegemony. The Constitution says that Backward Classes are those that are oppressed by the caste system. Why should those who carry the caste names as a matter of hereditary pride be called backward? The OBCs believe that they are backward only in education, employment and economy. Ask them about caste and they will speak volumes about it proudly. The OBCs hang on to the Varnasrama system and its benefits on one side, and enjoy Constitutional rights on the other as victims.

No solution has been found to dismantle this conspiracy. There could be restrictions like a) those who practice untouchability and caste-based atrocity cannot avail reservation b) those who want reservation should only mention that they are either Backwards or Scheduled list in their caste certificates (which should ideally be changed to Social (Status) certificates). If the idea of reservation is to transcend the caste system, why should there be caste certificates and caste names in it? Wouldn’t it suffice to have community names that indicate their social status? Or maybe identify all castes as numbers: Terms like BC (1), MBC (1)(A) could be given similar to the sections of law. Unless such an alternative is created, caste will not face any crisis. What is the way forward to do away with caste names like Kallar, Gounder, Maravar, Paravar, Pallar, Paraiyar, Nadar, Chakkiliyar, Nayakar and Chettiyar? Why should the names be reaffirmed through caste certificates? It is important to bring about changes that would stop reservation from being made into an idea of mockery. It is sad that social movements do not think of incorporating such changes in the reservation policy.

If Vanniyars or any other caste truly believes that they are the ruling class – that there is research, historical evidence and current social status to support their claim – they should get out of reservation. Or if they accept the truth that they are Shudras in the caste hierarchy, that they are backward socially and in terms of education, they should get rid of their ruling class crown, do away with caste and get ready to lead an equal life. This applies to all backward communities availing reservation. They cannot demand that they need both caste pride and reservation. The two cannot co-exist together. But unfortunately, that is happening in this country. The society, judicial system and the government remain mute witnesses.

The people availing reservation should realise that reservation is meant for throwing caste away, not perpetuating it. The communities that consider reservation their right should do away with all their caste identities. That remains its primary goal. But in the 70 years of reservation, this has not been achieved. Just as the society is divided into castes, there are attempts to divide on the basis of reservation too. Vanniyar reservation sets a bad precedent. Those that should stay together as Backward Class will now remain divided as castes even in reservation. Like Vanniyars, the other communities would also demand their share of reservation. Would caste be annihilated because of this? No. Will solidarity be possible because of this? No. It is sadly true that like Ambedkar feared, it has been impossible for even reservation to bring the people divided as different caste groups together.  

Ever since the BJP came to power at the Centre, attempts to revive the politically inactive caste system are on. It has begun to work on the fragmentation of this society by rekindling the feelings of caste hegemony that have remained buried in the minds of people, at least fearing the law. Social justice is a term loathed by the Brahmanical order. That is why BJP pays special attention to Tamil Nadu. It targets caste-based associations, parties, and gives them power. It changed the name of Pallars into Devendra Kula Vellalars. It granted Vanniyar reservation. It's working with Nadar, Yadavar, Reddiyar, Naidu, Pillaimar, Saurashtra, Chettiyar and many more non-dominant backward class associations. Thus, it is keen to fulfill the demands of different castes. Its idea is to perpetuate the Brahmanical conspiracy by giving power to each caste. After the Devendra Kula Vellalar Bill, the Paraiyars have started demanding that they be called Adi Dravidars. After the Vanniyar reservation, the castes under the MBC list have begun to consolidate themselves. The Brahmanical conspiracy that Indians should identify themselves on the basis of their castes and not as citizens is being revived. Literally, no one seems to fully comprehend this danger.

Ambedkar’s every attempt was to consolidate the divided people as one nation. He wanted people to get out of their caste membership and feel themselves as citizens. He kept pointing out how we couldn’t become one nation and how it was important to dismantle the caste system that stopped us from it.   

“I am of the opinion that in believing that we are a nation we are cherishing a great delusion. How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation? The sooner we realise that we are not as yet a nation in the social and psychological sense of the word, the better for us. For then only we shall realise the necessity of becoming a nation and seriously think of a way and means of realising the goal. The castes are anti- national. In the first place because they bring about separation in social life. They are anti-national also because they generate jealousy and antipathy between caste and caste.”

How alive are these words from Ambedkar’s speech on presenting the Constitution to this country. The Vanniyar reservation and other caste dramas only reaffirm what Ambedkar feared years ago. We have not even begun what we must have done long back - becoming one and equal.  

Ambedkar and Periyar fought and got the representational rights for the indigenous people of this country hoping that they would annihilate caste after achieving the same social status. To go against the very tenets of reservation, to use the policy and strengthen Varnasrama is nothing but an act of treachery to those who fought hard for it.  At least Tamil Nadu should have succeeded in eradicating caste names from all walks of life and made the people use the term ‘backward’ alone. Not only has it failed, it ditched the noble vision - annihilation of caste.  

Jeyarani is a Chennai-based journalist with two decades of experience. Views are author’s own.

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