By Tanweer Alam
April 10, 2015
Reservation has always been an important issue in Indian politics. Often it is also seen as a tool for vote bank politics. Any talk of extending the benefit of reservation to minorities, especially Muslims, gets politicised and becomes a polarising issue. The net result: Muslims have been effectively kept out of it.
Those who oppose it say, almost reflexively, that the Constitution doesn’t allow reservation on the basis of religion. And those who favour it argue that religion cannot be used to deny justice to a community. That is, the Constitution does not bar any faith based community from reservation when it meets other criteria as well.
It’s relevant here to have a look at two recent judgments on the issue of reservation – by the Bombay high court and the Supreme Court of India. In a crucial judgment the Supreme Court scrapped the notification of the UPA government for including Jats in OBCs category in nine states of India.
A bench of justices Ranjan Gogoi and Rohinton F Nariman said, “Caste, though a prominent factor, cannot be the sole factor of determining the backwardness of a class.” The court further said, “An affirmative action policy that keeps in mind only historical injustice would certainly result in under-protection of the most deserving backward class of citizens.”
In the other significant judgment the Bombay high court stayed implementation of a decision of the then Congress-NCP government to provide 16% reservation for Marathas in employment and education. This court disapproved of the Maharashtra state’s decision to provide 5% job reservation to Muslims, but approved reservation for them in educational institutions. It accepted that the empirical evidence provided by government justified reservation for Muslims in educational institutions.
In both these judgments courts have questioned the basis and framework for determining backwardness. So far, affirmative action policies have disproportionately focussed on the historical past rather than the present reality. But today’s realities cannot be addressed by referring to yesterday’s facts.
Intra-group and inter-group inequalities have increased over the last 15-20 years. It is therefore misleading to assume that people belonging to upper castes or majority faith community are not discriminated against. In India, discrimination is a widespread phenomenon. It’s not confined to any particular group, caste or community. Yet the proportion and degree of deprivation and discrimination may be different.
A sizeable number of SCs and STs have been able to catch up with better off classes on a sustained basis because of institutional support and policies, while Muslims have lagged behind in almost all measurable indicators mainly because of absence of such support.
Time has come to broad base affirmative action policies to include other disadvantaged groups in the present context where a new class of deprived Indians has emerged. The concept of equality is enshrined in our Constitution. In order to eliminate opportunity deficits and improve outcome measures among deprived groups, the state needs institutions that work for all deprived groups.
The creation of an Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) to redress deficit in access to opportunity was one of the major ideas that emerged out of the Sachar committee report, mainly to curb discrimination against deprived groups and to ensure that all groups have equal access to opportunities in employment and education in proportion to their population. This concept is the least divisive, non-emotive and cognizant of a fast changing social scenario. This could be the next generation empowerment and social justice tool.
EOC, in which emphasis is not on denomination or caste labels, can work as an anti-discriminatory institution and shall ensure that diversity of population gets reflected in employment, education and government programmes – by creating empirical evidence in relevant sectors on a regular basis. Most deprived groups will benefit optimally from this institution, outside the usual identity politics framework.
Institutions like EOC have done a great service in many democracies, reducing inbuilt institutionalised inequalities and improving the tenor of public life. The US and the UK have particularly benefitted greatly from this idea. The US has a very effective and successful Equal Employment Opportunity Commission based on the principle of civil liberties and equality of opportunity for traditionally neglected minorities. Similarly the UK has an Equality and Human Rights Commission, which has put the issue of equality in a new context and corrected anomalies.
It is time that India deals with discrimination directly, squarely and effectively by establishing a national EOC and state level EOCs across the country. A number of new institutions are evolving to support new economic development but nothing much has been done on the social side. So there is an urgent need for a redressal mechanism that will balance the social outcomes of the next stage of India’s economic development. This will also bring to fruition the aspiration of the founding fathers of our Constitution who envisaged “equality, of status and opportunity” for all of us.
The political class has to realise that equality must not be viewed from the framework of caste alone. Nor is it to be pursued to appease voting groups. Equality has to be a governance objective above electoral politics.