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Mainstream, Vol. XLVI, No 18

Rights Reserved

Tuesday 22 April 2008, by Sachi Chawla


Dr B. R. Ambedkar once said: “We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well.” He then added: “Social democracy means a way of life which recognises liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life.”

The Founding Fathers of the Constitution had drafted the Constitution with an aim to achieve the goal of social revolution. Reservations to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are aimed at rectifying past injustices and are acting as an instrument of inclusion of the downtrodden sections of the society into the democratic process . In 1990, the implementation of the Mandal Commission led to the introduction of quota for OBCs (Other Backward Classes) in government jobs. On April 10, 2008 the Supreme Court upheld Central Educational Institution Reservations in Admission Act 2006, providing for 27 per cent quota in Centrally run educational institutions. The resultant silent revolution underway in India has led to the deepening of democracy. However, there are some issues that need to be pondered over.

Beyond Caste based Reservation

THE Constitution provides social engineering for class and not caste. In Article 340 as well as Article 16(4) of the Constitution , the word ‘ class’ has been preferred to ‘caste’ a phrasing reflecting a widespread idea that India had to move away from caste-like organisations.

In the debate in Parliament that primarily focused on the definition of the ‘backward classes’, Ambedkar systematically emphasised that caste was responsible for social backwardness. However, Pandit Nehru’s views were different. Nehru acknowledged the pernicious influence of the caste system but he did so almost reluctantly—caste does not appear in his primary list of factors of backwardness. For him, economic modernisation would eventually eradicate caste and communal feelings, all these legacies of the past that had to be blamed for our ‘backwardness’.

The First Backward Classes Commission, headed by Kakesaheb Kalekar, identified four criteria for defining the OBCs : (1) low social position in the traditional caste hierarchy of the Hindu society, (2) lack of general educational advancement of the major section of a caste or community, (3) inadequate representation in the field of trade, commerce and industry, and (4) inadequate or no representation in the government service. Caste was not the only criterion but it was a key element. However, the Central Government disapproved of the use of caste as the most important criterion for identifying the backward classes. It was pointed that “the recognition of the specified castes as backward may serve to maintain and perpetuate the existing distinction on the basis of caste”. Pandit Nehru said:

I have referred above to efficiency and to our getting out of our traditional ruts. This necessitates our getting out of the old habit of reservation and particular privileges being given to this caste or that group…. If we go in for reservation on communal and caste basis, we swamp the bright and able people and remain second rate or third rate. I am grieved to learn how far the business of reservation has gone based on communal consideration….. let us help the backward groups by all means, but never at the cost of efficiency.

The Second Backward Classes Commission, headed by Bindhyeshwari Prasad Mandal, recognised caste as the main factor in the backwardness of the OBCs: “Caste is also a class of citizens and if the caste as a whole is socially and educationally backward, reservation can be made in favour of such a caste on the ground that it is a socially and educationally backward class of citizens within the meaning of Article 15(4).” The Commission did not regard caste as the sole criterion for the definition of OBCs. In fact, it evolved an index based on eleven indicators subdivided into three categories —social, economic and educational.

Ultimately social indicators were given greater weightage than the other criteria and thus the OBC were defined as a caste group.

In India, caste still remains one of the most significant axis around which the politics of equality is conducted. In the past, caste was the single most influential factor that determined whether a person belonged to socially and educationally advanced classes. However, there are also other factors of exclusion and discrimination present in the Indian society which restrict a person’s competitive ability. A broad based deprivation index should be formulated that takes into account not only caste, but also gender, economic conditions, geographical disparities, level of schooling and so on. The Sachar Committee report recommended the criteria for identification of real backward and needy people: merit, household income irrespective of caste, district in which a person studied (rural/urban and region), family occupation and caste. A comprehensive system of affirmative action would be more beneficial than reservation in addressing the concerns of social justice. The Supreme Court’s judgment excluding the creamy layer from the ambit of the quotas recognises that economic factors have to be taken into account while assessing social and educational backwardness. Policy-making must strive for non- divisive affirmative action as the system of caste based quotas leads to a polarised and divisive society.

Equality of Opportunity vis-a-vis Equality of Outcome

THE reservation policy in India focuses more on equality of outcomes rather than on creating equality of opportunities. The pursuit of equality of outcome leads to injustice, stagnation as social “levelling” serves to cap aspiration and remove the incentive for enterprise and hard work. Talent is often penalised and equal result is achieved by a process of ‘levelling downward’.

The affirmative action programme should focus more on creating equal opportunities. Plato pointed out that the social position should be based strictly upon individual ability and effort, and that the educational system should offer all children an equal chance to realise their talents.

Lack of social opportunities is a main impediment in personal development and self-realisation of the weaker sections of the society. The inequities are manifest in inadequate government support, non-affordable fee structure, and inadequate teaching faculty. Very few among the weaker sections of the society complete primary and secondary education. According to the HRD Ministry’s survey, one out of every four doesn’t go beyond Class V and the drop-out rate increases to 50.8 per cent for secondary education. Concerted attempts should be made by the government to fulfil the mandate under Article 21 A of the Constitution for free and compulsory education for children between six and 14 years. Scholarships on a very wide scale at every grade of education to bright boys and girls, greater investment in education and training of socially advantaged groups would help in promoting the twin goals of social justice and economic efficiency. The only real way to empower the backward groups is to give them access to good and quality education.

Rights based Approach vis-a-vis Policy based Approach

AFFIRMATIVE action programmes are in place in many countries and these programmes have been beneficial to the underprivileged. However, these programmes differ significantly from caste based reservations in India. Unlike in India, where the impetus is on a rights based approach to caste quotas, in the United States, affirmative action has a policy based approach. Racial preferences have been given in institutions in the USA to promote greater diversity in their social composition rather than on grounds of equality. Affirmative action in the USA recognises that there are multiple factors of exclusion and discrimination working in society (race, gender, and economic factors) while caste based reservations focus only on caste. In India, nearly six decades after independence the objectives of the quota have not been achieved. Justice Ravindran in his judgment spoke about the pitfalls of the timeless implementation of the caste based quota. He said the lure of the reservation benefits had given rise to a tendency in the post-reservation era, even among those who were considered ‘forward’, to seek a ‘backward’ tag. Reservation as an affirmative action tool is a step towards equality; however, quotas should not be in perpetuity. In this context the judgment of the Supreme Court is commendable as it has called for a review of the OBC quota list every five years. Reservation by itself is not a panacea for all ills. Reservation is only one of the tools to build a socially inclusive society. Along with it the government should focus on land reforms, land distribution and development of land. Affirmative action programmes should be so designed as to help the socially disadvantaged groups to develop their skills and capabilities and thus ensure that everybody has a level playing field.


1. Christophe Jaffrelot, India’s Silent Revolution, Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003.
- 2. Granville Austin, The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation, New Delhi: Oxford Press, 1996.
- 3. Dhananjay Mahapatra, “SC stresses on expiry date for quota”, The Times of India, April 14, 2008.

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