THERE ARE DANGEROUS hot potato issues from which all politicians in India stay away. At the top is anything that remotely seems like questioning the policy of reservations in India. At the time of Independence, every virtuous Indian would have known that Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes needed drastic remedies for their uplift. Reservation was one of the self-evident measures in a country riven by horrendous discrimination, with a substantial swathe of the population ghettoised and shunned. But even then, those who wrote the Constitution had the sagacity to realise that it couldn’t be a permanent feature. Reservations came with a ten-year timeline attached, which has been extended time and again, and probably with good reason. But it would have been in the spirit of the Constitution to at least discuss the contours of the problem in the present before the extension. Has anything changed since 1947 that the same solution should still apply now, or are modifications necessary in an India that has no resemblance to three quarters of a century ago? Not only have reservations been embossed forever, they have spilled over from those who need them most to the rungs after them. More than half of Indian society now stakes claim to them.
As often happens, it falls on the judiciary to ask uncomfortable questions. This week, you saw an instance of it in relation to the question of reservations in promotions in government jobs. The legal website Live Law reported: “The Supreme Court on Tuesday told the Attorney General for India that the Centre will have to place figures and data would have to be placed before the Court showing that decision to continue with reservation in promotion was based on quantifiable data on adequacy of representation. A bench comprising Justices L Nageswara Rao, Sanjiv Khanna and B.R. Gavai is hearing a number of petitions relating to reservation in promotions as several appointment have been stalled due to ambiguities in the norms for applying reservation in promotions.” This is not unreasonable. Reservations should be questioned if only so the objectives it set out to achieve are met. And without a clear rationale backed by numbers, it is easily and always exploited by politics.
Reservations in promotions is something that was introduced in the Constitution as an amendment in 1995 after the Supreme Court had held that states couldn’t enforce such a policy. The Constitution didn’t envisage it originally and, between then and 1995, who can say caste discrimination had not come down in India? It is perhaps time to ask what exactly did reservations intend to achieve, whether it has been achieved and, even if so in some measure, what else is now becoming its fallout, and whether there is any clear quantifiable end that can be spelt out when this policy can be rested?
Perhaps the moment for such an approach has anyway passed.