New Delhi, 17 July-2014,Ajaz Ashraf (FP): The Indian political class possesses the unique trait of turning the sublime into ridiculous.The most recent example of this is now on display in Maharashtra where the Congress-NCP government has disingenuously extended 16 percent reservation to the Marathas and 5 percent to the Muslims in employment and educational institutions.
Thus, in one stroke, the State government has overturned the philosophy of affirmative action, subverted the Constitution, extended the quota system to the private sector, and upset the fine balance that India’s courts have struck between the contending ideas of social justice and meritocracy.
The looming State assembly elections inspired the Cong-NCP government to cynically sweep aside the principles underlying affirmative action. Undoubtedly, its cynicism demands condemnation. But undoubtedly too, all other parties, from the BJP to Shiv Sena, need to be severely admonished for their silence on the reservation issue.
No, not even a simple majority of its own in the Lok Sabha has persuaded the BJP to ignore what is euphemistically called ‘political compulsion’ and speak out against reservation for the Marathas and Muslims. Obviously, had the Maharashtra government extended preferential treatment to Muslims alone, the BJP would have gone to town screaming against minority appeasement and vote-bank politics. To criticise reservation for Muslims now would tacitly mean opposing the same benefits for the numerically and economically powerful Marathas. It’s a political risk the BJP is averse to taking.
Indeed, political compulsion was why the BJP had remained silent on the egregiously flawed decision of the UPA to include the Jats in the Central OBC list a month before the general election. This was also why we did not hear a squeak from the BJP at the decision of its ally, Akali Dal, to graft the Jat Sikhs onto the State list of OBCs in Punjab.
Affirmative action in India, as elsewhere in the world, seeks to remove disabilities social groups have suffered on account of historical discrimination in nature. For instance, Dalits and sections of OBCs in India or Blacks in the United States can’t compete on an equal footing with others because their perceived inadequacies were a consequence of the discriminatory social structures of the past – and which, to a degree, still endures. They were and still are compelled to live in servility and denied access to certain occupations.
Such denial spawns debilitating economic consequences – a Jatav, for instance, is poor because of his or her social position. But the reverse doesn’t hold true – a Brahmin is poor not because his or her ancestors encountered social discrimination arising from the invidious caste system.
Then again, social backwardness in India is a function of caste, not religion. This is one of the principles underlying the philosophy of affirmative action and courts in India have upheld it. For instance, the discrimination a Black faces in the US is racial in nature; his or her religion, whether Christianity or Islam, is irrelevant to his or her social plight.
Likewise in India, Muslims are stratified into different castes, and those deemed socially and educationally backward are placed low in the caste hierarchy.
But reservations can’t be extended to the entire religious community, for it would fall foul of Art 15 (4) of the Constitution. No doubt, the government’s ordinance lists Muslim caste titles that ostensibly create the impression that preferential treatment hasn’t been extended to the entire Muslim community. However, a cursory glance tells you a good many Muslim upper castes will now enjoy the benefits of quota.
Muslims apart, the norm in India has been to include social groups declared socially backward into the Central or/and State OBC lists. However, the Maharashtra government has chosen to carve out a separate 16 percent for the Marathas because of its fear of an OBC backlash. The OBCs have 19 percent reservations in the State, and the addition of Marathas to this category would have meant a smaller share of the pie for others.
The intense rivalry between the Marathas and the OBCs prompted the government to take recourse to intellectual sophistry.
In July 2008, the Maharashtra State Backward Class Commission, under the aegis of Justice (retd) RM Bapat, rejected the demand of Marathas to be classified as OBC. Shrewdly, the government neither rejected nor accepted the report. Acceptance would have alienated the Marathas, and rejection would have made it incumbent on the government to cite reasons for its decision.
Let us bypass the story of the Bapat report being examined by two other commissions. Suffice it to say that a committee headed by Industry Minister Narayan Rane was ultimately asked to determine whether the Marathas were backward enough to be granted reservation. The Rane committee recommended 20 percent reservation for the Marathas based on a survey of nearly five lakh families and another 18 lakh people contacted through various methods.
Unable to secure a backward class status for the Marathas from the State Backward Class Commission, it seems, in hindsight, that the government took the Rane Committee route to ensure it did not flout the Supreme Court’s ruling that reservation can be extended to a social group only on the basis of quantifiable data collected through a scientific survey.
However, the data the Rane committee has generated is suspect on three counts.
One, it is uncertain whether the criteria evolved to judge the backwardness of the Marathas are the same the State Backward Class Commission usually follows. The dissimilarity of criteria would logically imply that different social groups have been judged differently for their backwardness.
Second, the Rane committee can’t be perceived as an independent body and, therefore, objective in its assessment. Rane is himself a Maratha and can be said to have a conflict of interest.
Three, the government is required to consult (but not necessarily accept) the backward class commission before including a social group in the reservation pool. Since the Bapat Commission had rejected the claims of Marathas for the OBC status, it became imperative for the government to produce quantifiable data to justify reservation for them. Do not all these factors undermine the credibility of the Rane committee?
Nevertheless, there is ample literature to suggest that the Marathas are not a backward community. For instance, The Hindu newspaper in 2009 quoted political scientist Dr Suhas Palshikar’s book, Local Context of the Political Process, to say that 55 percent of all MLAs elected from 1962 to 2004 were Marathas, that 54 of the 288 Assembly constituencies have always elected them as their representatives.
Such enviable political clout has to have a strong economic and educational base, and precludes the possibility of severe social discrimination.
Palshikar’s study shows that Marathas control nearly 54 percent of the educational institutions and head 86 of the 105 sugar factories. About 70 percent of all cooperative institutions are under the sway of this social group. Comprising 32 percent of the state’s population, the share of Marathas in agriculture landholding is said to be well above 70 per cent. All this is reflected in another indisputable fact – 10 of the state’s 17 chief ministers have been Marathas.
Undeniably, there are Marathas who are poor. But affirmative action isn’t a tool for economic mobility. This policy is undertaken worldwide for ensuring that social disabilities historical in nature don’t hobble individuals of social groups from competing on equal footing with others. Eject the factor of social discrimination from reservation policy and you simply can’t justify the exclusion of Brahmins from job quotas, given that there are poor among them too.
Further, the decision to extend reservations to Marathas and Muslims means 73 per cent of all jobs and seats in educational institutions in the State will now be outside the general category. This contravenes the judicial prescription that preferential treatment must not compromise merit. The fine balance between the contending ideas of social justice and meritocracy was believed could be maintained through a 50 per cent cap on reservation.
True, Tamil Nadu has 69 percent reservations, but this figure predates Mandal. No doubt, a rollback would have led to social upheaval. But for the Maharashtra government to cast aside the cap of 50 per cent is downright insidious, for it knows that no political party nursing the ambition to rule the state will oppose it and risk incurring the wrath of the powerful Maratha community.
Perhaps the most eloquent testimony to the cynicism of the Maharashtra government is the manner in which it has pushed reservation in the private sector. Forgive me, I don’t know Marathi. But a friend from the state has translated the lines from the government’s ordinance on reservations to read thus: “All those industries or organisations which have received the State government’s help in the form of concessions on land prices or financial aid, those industries which have received approvals from the government or are being monitored by it” will have to extend reservation to Marathas and Muslims.
It is hypocritical that whenever Dalit leaders demand extension of reservation to the private sector, there is always an outcry from the captains of industry and intelligentsia. But there is an inexplicable silence at the Congress-NCP government’s decision to extend partial reservation into the private sector.
I have been a votary of affirmative action, and would often enter into verbal jousts with others to justify reservation during those cataclysmic initial months of the Mandal era. Obviously, I hadn’t factored the capacity of our politicians to turn a socially useful policy into a dysfunctional one. We need to tell our politicians, ‘enough of your cynicism and self-serving ways.’
A Delhi-based journalist, Ajaz Ashraf is the author of The Hour Before Dawn, HarperCollins India, releasing September 2014