Caste-based reservation has made for a way of achieving equality in Indian society. As Arundhati Roy wrote in her introduction titled “The Doctor and the Saint” to Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar’s text Annihilation of Caste, “Dalit aspiration is a breach of peace”. What she means is that Dalit quest for dignity, equality and share in the “wealth of the nation” is perceived as a threat by the dominant, casteist forces. In the Hindu social order, Dalits occupy the lowest and the most degraded position. Their slavery is not only violently produced but it is, shockingly, legitimized and sanctioned. The popular imagination in India continues to be shaped by the Manusmriti. A modern educated savarna Hindu might not believe in untouchability but she/he finds caste or varna functionally important for society. Doesn’t it hint at a civilizational paradox? The Dalitbahujans, who comprise around eighty percent of the population, are not visible in the judiciary, executive, legislature, media and the universities. Without the proportional representation of Dalits, Adivasis and Shudras in the national space, India cannot be a nation.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that caste-based reservation or affirmative action for SCs, STs and OBCs introduced in government-funded educational institutions and government jobs was a revolutionary intervention. These communities were historically excluded and still face structural prejudice in a society dominated by savarna Hindus. The grim irony lies in the fact that these communities constitute the majority of the population in India but they lag behind alarmingly in educational and economic progress. Karl Marx rightly said: “Men and women make history but not in the conditions of their choosing.” Babasaheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar did not know that his fight for emancipating Dalits would produce the diluted dream known as “Poona Pact”. Babasaheb wanted to liberate Dalits from the brahmanical yoke by through a separate electorate but Mahatma Gandhi thwarted his entire aim by sitting on a fast unto death. Babasaheb Ambedkar had deep suspicion about Hindu civil society. Therefore, he made sure that the provision of caste-based reservation for the Untouchables (Scheduled Castes) and Adivasis (Scheduled Tribes) was enshrined in our Constitution. He never left the idea of upliftment of the caste subalterns (Bahujans) on the noble will of the savarna Hindus. He did not believe in the Gandhian idea of a change of heart. His traumatic experience in caste society cemented his faith in the Constitutional, legal framework to redress the grievances of the Dalit and Adivasi communities.
Four decades after the reservation for the Untouchables and Adivasis became a Constitutional provision, India achieved a significant social-justice milestone when the Mandal Commission’s recommendations, which ushered in reservation for the backward castes, classified as OBCs in the Constitution, were implemented. This revolutionary event caused vehement opposition and backlash from the savarna Hindus who earlier dominated and controlled the entire mainstream. This provision enabled the backward-caste students to enter the government-funded higher-education institutions and to get government jobs. So, one can argue that caste-based reservation for SCs, STs and OBCs triggered a paradigm shift in Indian history. It gave an opportunity to the marginalized groups to find space in the nation. Reservation is not a poverty alleviation programme; it addresses representation and is thus a nation-making process. Since caste acted as a debilitating force for the Bahujans, caste-based quota aimed to counter it. By premising itself on the idea of equality of opportunity, reservation seeks to bring the Bahujans to the mainstream so that they can also participate equally in the journey of the nation.
Reservation for SCs, STs and OBCs in government jobs is implemented through a roster system. In the 200-point roster system, the college or university, rather than the department, is taken as a unit to apply reservation to. All departments (big or small) are clubbed together to calculate reserved seats. The logic for this roster is to ensure that even the small departments (with less than four faculty positions) have reserved positions. The 200-point roster system can effectively provide 49.5 percent reservation to the reserved categories. All categories (OBC, SC, ST) get representation irrespective of the size of the department. On the contrary, in case of the 13-point department-wise roster, the department is considered as a unit to arrive at the number of reserved seats. Sadly, if this roster is used, a small department with less than four faculty positions will never have a reserved vacancy for OBCs, SCs and STs. To have a reserved vacancy for an SC, a department should have seven faculty positions (15 per cent of 7 seats is 1.05); for the first reserved vacancy for an ST, a department needs to have a size of 14 (7.5 per cent of 14 seats is 1.05). After 13 recruitments, the roster is applied afresh. Thus, if a department has less than 14 seats, it will never have a vacancy reserved for STs; ditto for a department with less than 7 positions with respect to SCs. In the case of university faculty positions, the scenario is worse because the unit will be further split in terms of pay scale (Assistant Professor, Associate Professor and Professor). It implies that the university departments with three assistant professors or associate professors will never have reserved seats in those pay scales, for the first reserved seat will be for an OBC and that will require four positions of same pay scale (27 per cent of 4 seats is 1.08). All this means that the 13-point roster/department-wise quota system will end up giving only 30 percent reservation instead of the Constitutionally mandated 49.5 percent.
Given these implications of the 13-point roster, the Dalitbahujans’ marches held on 31 January and 3 February were historic. The massive gatherings were indeed unprecedented. They articulated fury against this casteist policy. On 22 January, the Supreme Court upheld the 2016 Allahabad High Court order to replace the 200-point roster with the 13-point roster. The massive demonstrations started in Mandi House and culminated in Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. The protestors demanded the restoration of 200-point roster. Dalitbahujan groups, such as the Bhim Army, announced support for the demonstration and volunteers from various political parties such as the Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Rashtriya Lok Samta Party and Bahujan Samaj Party participated. The protests also had full support from the Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA).
The Dalitbahujan anger stems from the fact that they are being divested of their constitutionally mandated share in the government-funded higher-education institutions through the implementation of 13-point, department-wise roster. Disconcertingly, the government, on the one hand, swiftly introduced 124th Constitutional Amendment Bill in Parliament to grant 10 per cent reservation for poor savarnas, and, on the other hand, deprived Dalitbahujans of their constitutionally enshrined benefits. The advertisements of Indira Gandhi National Tribal University (see Indian Express, 14 April 2018, page no 10) and Central University of Rajasthan (dated 25 January 2019) offer a tragic glimpse of the implementation of reservation in central universities. The rejection of the Special Leave Petition (SLP) by the Supreme Court filed by the Central Government for reinstating the 200-point roster has finally sealed the fate of Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs. It will forever keep them away from higher education, ensuring that the rupture in the narrative of the Indian nation remains intact.
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