RESERVATIONS AS A corrective to social discrimination seemed obvious and agreeable to most rational citizens at the time of Independence. Scheduled Castes and Tribes had been stigmatised for thousands of years. They did the worst forms of labour while forced to remain invisible and untouchable in every region of India. Drastic measures would be needed for them to become socially uplifted fast and reservations were the answer. It was not just revisionism of history but what they were still experiencing in the present, even if the law had made them equal. Three-quarters of a century of reservations in education, government jobs and political positions has shown that the solution was right. There has, for instance, been a Dalit chief minister in Uttar Pradesh from a party that represented their community, something that would have been inconceivable half-a-century ago.
But the very success of reservations in a desperately poor country made it something to crave for by other caste groups. These had been backward at some point in history, but their situation even then was nothing like the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. In the present, they were far from a category that needed a crutch for uplift in relation to the rest of society. But they wanted reservations because they could get it. The latest example of this is the Supreme Court having daily hearings on a case which would test the 50 per cent limit to overall reservations. This was a cap that another bench of the court had laid down in 1992 when it was becoming apparent that the
eagerness of the political class to dole out reservations would leave nothing for the general category.
The current case is of the Maharashtra government going over that limit to give the Maratha community reservations.
The Marathas are the most powerful caste group in Maharashtra. They have become chief ministers a majority of times in the state. The Marathas decide who come to power in the state and that is also the reason why when they demand reservation, the political class, whether it be the former BJP government or the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress alliance, cannot refuse them. This is more or less the trend all over India. From Haryana to Tamil Nadu, every state has powerful caste groups trying to force governments to give them reservations, and the only thing preventing it is the 50 per cent limit.
Should the Supreme Court now change it, it could have fallouts. A feature of caste is competition with other castes. Reservations that one dominant group gets, instead of removing social imbalances, will add to them. Groups that haven’t got it yet will become agitated and united to become powerful enough to get their own demand passed.
But there is only so much of the cake to pass around.