The release of the movie “Aarakshan” has reignited the long-standing debate around the reservation system in India. However, this time the focus is on the ban imposed by the governments of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and Andhra Pradesh, citing law and order concerns. While the intensity of the current debate is relatively lower than what was witnessed in 2006 and the early 1990s, the issue of reservation remains a contentious topic in the country.
The reservation system in India has been a subject of discussion even before its formal inception in the constitution. Leaders like Gandhi and Ambedkar, who fought tirelessly for the rights of the weaker sections of society, held differing views on how to safeguard their interests. Ambedkar advocated for separate electorates for the “Untouchables,” along with Sikhs and Muslims, while Gandhi opposed this, fearing it would divide Hindu society. Eventually, under pressure from Gandhi’s supporters, Ambedkar agreed to the Poona Pact of 1932, which reserved seats for Untouchables in the Provincial and Central legislatures.
Following the Poona Pact, the Government of India Act 1935 allotted reservation of seats for the Depressed Class, which later came to be known as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST). After independence, the Constituent Assembly continued the definition of SC/ST and empowered the President of India and Governors of States to compile and edit the list of castes and tribes eligible for reservation.
As per the 2001 census, SC/ST, along with Dalits, comprise 24% of India’s population. The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950 lists 1,108 castes across 25 states, and the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order 1950 lists 744 tribes across 22 states. However, despite the reservation system being in place for over six decades, justice and equality for these communities are yet to be fully achieved.
The National Crime Record Bureau’s statistics for 2007 show that Uttar Pradesh tops the list of atrocities against SC/ST, despite having a Dalit Chief Minister. The SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act has failed to provide adequate protection to these communities, largely due to deep-rooted caste and class prejudices in society. These prejudices have been institutionalized through religious and social practices, leading to a system of long-standing apartheid. The SC/ST communities, along with adivasis, form almost 80% of India’s poor.
It is evident that reservation alone is not sufficient to uplift the marginalized sections of society. Efforts must be made to bridge the gap in implementing policies, address the rigid Indian class structure, and prevent the politicization of the reservation system. The focus should be on ensuring quality education and equitable opportunities for all, irrespective of their caste.
Anti-reservationists argue that reservation compromises merit and quality in higher education. They advocate for economic-based reservation rather than caste-based reservation. However, the judiciary has ruled that backward classes can be identified based on caste and not solely on economic status.
To implement reservation policies effectively, attention must be given to maintaining a balance between quality and equity. Affirmative Action takes care of equity, but infrastructure improvement is essential to uphold quality standards. These two aspects should complement each other rather than conflicting.
As India celebrates 65 years of independence, the country must continue its efforts to uplift the marginalized sections of society. Reservation should not be seen as a disease but as a remedy to address historical injustices. While debates on the reservation system will continue, the focus should be on finding comprehensive solutions to ensure a more inclusive and equitable society.
It is essential to recognize the contributions of leaders like Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, who advocated for social justice and equality. Just as Barack Obama acknowledges Gandhi’s influence on his journey to becoming the President of the United States, India must embrace Ambedkar’s political discourse and implement affirmative action effectively to empower all citizens. Reservations should not be looked upon as a problem, but rather as a means to cure the historical injustices suffered by marginalized communities.