On January 9, the upper house of India’s parliament – the Rajya Sabha – passed a constitutional amendment to lift the cap on reservations in education and public sector jobs from 50 to 60 percent. The next step is for the bill to receive presidential assent, but its fate is still somewhat uncertain, given the possibility that it might not withstand judicial scrutiny and be struck down by the country’s Supreme Court.
What is certain is that this initiative has proven deeply controversial. Opposition parties have criticised its legality, intent, and practicability, while public intellectuals such as Pratap Bhanu Mehta has labelled it cynical politics and cynical policy.
What explains this level of controversy?
Reservations are what passes for affirmative action in the Indian context, and entail, simply put, a percentage of state and central government jobs and seats in higher educational institutions being reserved for Dalits and other lower caste groups. This form of affirmative action has colonial antecedents, and was written into the constitutional backbone of India’s political system after the coming of independence as a means of improving the condition of groups who were thought to be suffering from social and educational backwardness.
Reservations were initially limited to Dalits (Scheduled Castes) and Adivasis (Scheduled Tribes). However, in the early 1990s, in accordance with the recommendations of the Mandal Committee Report, reservations were expanded to encompass other lower caste groups (Other Backward Classes) as well. In 1992, the Supreme Court imposed the 50 percent cap on reservations, which is currently in the process of being overturned, avowedly to avoid compromising the constitutional principle of equal access.
What is crucial about the constitutional amendment that has now successfully made it through parliament is the fact that it is delinked from caste. The additional 10 percent of reserved jobs and seats in higher educational institutions that is to be introduced by removing the current 50 percent cap is intended to benefit what the Modi government refers to as “economically weaker sections” that do not fall under the categories Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, or Other Backward Classes – that is, so-called general category poor.
Economically weaker sections are defined as households with an annual family income of less than $11,345 (800,000 rupees) a year, who do not own more than two hectares of agricultural land or a house that is larger than 1,000 square feet.
However, as commentator Ajaz Ashraf has pointed out, upper caste groups are expected to benefit disproportionately from this policy measure, as their high levels of education, as well as their accumulated social capital, will most likely enable them to corner most of the benefits.
This is why Modi’s scheme has come to be scorned as “upper caste reservations” that erase the fact that, in India, affirmative action was introduced specifically to remedy the indignity of caste-based discrimination. In this regard, it is also significant, of course, that the economic criteria for eligibility have been defined in such a way that nearly all Indian households qualify – a fact that, according to Supreme Court lawyer Karuna Nundy, renders the constitutional amendment nothing less than ridiculous.
Modi is making this move in no small part due to an electoral imbroglio that is emerging from his project of authoritarian populism. His electoral success in 2014 was based on the fact that he and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) managed to extend their base of support from the urban upper caste and middle class groups that have been the main supporters of Hindu nationalism in electoral politics to incorporate Other Backward Classes, Dalits, and Adivasis.
From 2016 onwards, this bloc began to crumble. Dalit and lower caste voters began to abandon the party, and Modi was the target of large-scale protests both by Dalits and farmers. Modi has attempted to stem this tide – for example by reversing the Supreme Court’s decision to relax the provisions of laws aimed to prevent violence and atrocities against Dalits – but this seems in turn to have resulted in the alienation of upper caste voters. As the 2019 general elections are looming on the horizon, Modi is now attempting to shore up the support of the BJP’s main vote base.
In doing so, he is appealing to upper caste and middle class groups who resent caste-based reservations due to the profoundly mistaken belief that affirmative action prevents social mobility based on merit. He is also attempting to appease Hindu nationalist hardliners who have recently called for caste-based reservations to be abandoned in favour of reservations based on economic criteria.
“Poverty does not see caste,” argues Desh Ratan Nigam – a leading activist with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang, the BJP’s ideological parent-body – and therefore reservations should be based on economic criteria.
How should progressive forces in India respond to this initiative? A good starting place is to point out that Nigam is as wildly incorrect in his assertion that poverty does not see caste as he was in his ludicrous claim that the Taj Mahal – which was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan – was in fact a Hindu temple.
According to the Oxford Poverty and Development Initiative, 65.8 percent of India’s Dalits, who predominantly earn a living as wage labourers, and 58.3 percent of the country’s lower castes are poor. By contrast, 33 percent of the rest of the Indian population are poor. The fact that poverty in India is structured in this way testifies to the truth of the claim made by Dalit intellectual Anand Teltumbde that “beneath the veneer of a modern developing superpower, India remains a republic of caste.”
Closely linked to this must be the argument that reservations were never intended to be an anti-poverty measure, and that it is therefore disingenuous when the BJP speaks of it as such. However, this point in turn needs to be connected to a progressive critique of the limitations of reservations for the politics of social justice. Again, Anand Teltumbde’s reflections are instructive.
Reservations, he argues in a recent interview, were never about rooting out caste – if that had been the intention, the caste system as such would have been abolished, which it was not. Moreover, the persistence of dramatically low social development indicators among Dalits suggests that reservations have done little to achieve progressive change even on their own terms. Advancing social justice for Dalits, he suggests, has to be linked to a struggle for universal social citizenship, which can grant access to healthcare, education, and secure livelihoods.
This perspective provides a way in which to link struggles against the injustice of caste with the political economy of inequality in India – a political economy that is writ large in the fact that in a country which has grown at an average rate of 7.3 percent since 2007, 57 billionaires own as much wealth as the bottom 70 percent of the country’s population, while at the same time India’s social development indicators are much weaker than those found in far poorer neighbouring countries.
Importantly, that link is already being forged by Dalit activists who couple claims for dignity and recognition with demands for social justice and redistribution, and it is quite possible that it is struggles such as this that can consign the republic of caste to the dust heap of history where it belongs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.