Reservation has often been a point of contention in India since its inception. The occasional statements of the political leaders and the recurrent court rulings often sparked off the debate on reservation. Recently, the Supreme Court said that reservation is not a fundamental right rejecting a petition seeking OBC quota in medical colleges in Tamil Nadu. The judicial scrutiny on reservations occurred several times in India’s independent history. On February 7, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that reservation in jobs and promotions are not a fundamental right and it’s the discretion of the state or central government to provide reservation in promotions. A five-judge bench in 1962 in the case of M.R. Balaji v. State of Mysore and another five-judge bench in C.A. Rajendran v. Union of India in 1967 had ruled that Article 15(4) is just an enabling provision which gives discretionary power to the government to make reservations. It means that the government is under no constitutional obligation to give reservations for SCs and STs either in the initial recruitments or in promotions. Similar inferences were upheld in several other court decisions including a nine-judge bench in Indra Sawhney v. Union of India in 1992 and in M. Nagaraj v. Union of India in 2006.
It can be claimed that the apparent rejectionist approach towards reservations and the reticence on growing caste rigidities enmeshed in the graded inequalities emanate from a lack of empathy for the marginalised sections and the paucity of wisdom in accepting reservations as one of the remedies to debilitate the impacts of caste discrimination until the caste is annihilated. One is also compelled to think that the apathy towards affirmative action is not just owing to one’s lack of understanding on reservations as a means of elevation of hitherto untouchables and backward sections to the status of an equal dignified citizen, but also amounts to an entrenching of upper caste social morality over constitutional morality. Unfortunately, upper caste social moorings are invariably opaque to the normative claims of the marginalised sections to representation, recognition, self-respect and dignity.
The robust normative claims of marginalised sections to affirmative action not only deconstruct the moral bankruptcy of legal cognitive structures but also decode the popular understanding of reservation as a gateway to jobs and promotions. The moral lexicon of the caste-based reservations treats it as a medium to restore self-respect, dignity and representation, especially in a social structure which traumatise the Dalit lives on a daily basis through physical assault, violence, stigma, stereotypes and humiliation.
Representation with recognition is the most important justification for caste-based reservations. Representation is a core principle of democracy and the latter has no meaning without the former. However, a fair representation is still not possible for the underprivileged and deprived sections of society due to the existing caste discriminations, Brahmanical attitudes and prejudices. It is also imperative to note that representation alone is not enough to democratise the social spaces. The representation will not fulfill the purpose if there is no recognition. The instance of denial of entry of President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, into a temple in Odisha because of his Dalit identity indicates the fact that representation has no meaning without recognition. Both recognition and representation are complimentary to each other. Recognition is a matter of attitudinal change and transition of morality from social to constitutional and can be achieved when people adopts democracy as a way of life.
Another normative claim of reservation lies in the concept of Social Justice. It is defined in the theoretical parlance as an equal distribution of primary goods like wealth, prestige, power, rights, honors, self-respect, dignity, duties, gains as well as burdens in the society. Social justice as a policy seeks to prevent the concentration of these valuable resources of the community in the hands of the rich and the privileged sections, and to create a social order which will enable the deprived sections. One of the most celebrated philosopher of justice in the contemporary political philosophy, John Rawls, has famously said, “In order to strengthen a chain, we should start with strengthening its weakest link”. In his concept of ‘difference principle’, he asserts that the departure from an equal distribution of primary goods can be justified only when it could be proved to bring greatest benefit to the least advantaged. Rawls has revolutionized the debate of justice in the contemporary America. His redefinition of justice was instrumental in exerting a moral pressure over the privileged sections of American society to ensure representation for the underprivileged sections like Blacks and Women.
The rationalisation for caste-based reservations can also be found in the notion of compensation. The Indian caste system engenders a social norm by which the birth of individuals qualifies them be in a particular occupation and denies them the accessibility to education and administration. Consequently, the lower caste people are alienated from the highest echelons of administration and education. Reservations were introduced in order to enhance the representation and participation of hitherto untouchables and thereby democratize the modern public spaces. In other words, reservation is an intervention to dismantle the socially assigned occupations to a particular community and bring equal access and opportunity to all jobs.
The ‘no caste’ narratives of urban upper caste and class often seek to negate the logic of compensation for the historical exploitation and marginalisation. However, compensation still carries its relevance as caste continues to exist in both covert and overt forms. Stigmas and stereotypes still haunt the lower castes which stymies their economic and social progress. Caste-based reservation is the compensation for the damaging role of caste in making the human birth the ‘fatal incident’, as reads in Rohit Vemula’s statement, “My birth was a fatal incident”. The caste-based reservation is compensation for the disruption of self-esteem, self-confidence and dignity of the lower castes which continues even till today despite the abolition of caste based discrimination and untouchability in the Constitution.
Reservations are necessary measure to ensure representation, recognition and democratise the public institutions and fight against the malaise of caste discrimination. The responsibility of the creation of egalitarian society based on democratic ideals should not be left on the shoulders of Dalits alone. It is the collective responsibility of all of us to ensure an equal society by promoting reservations and affirmative action till we achieve the goal of annihilation of caste.
(Umesh Kumar teaches Political Science at Janki Devi Memorial College, Delhi University. He completed his PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views expressed are personal.)