Social Justice Minister Ramdas Athawale has argued for 25% reservations to be extended to upper castes. He has also suggested the Supreme Court should extend the total ceiling for reservations from 49.5% to 75% to accommodate upper castes. A Dalit leader’s advocacy for upper caste reservations may appear odd, but there is a popular Dalit rationale to Athawale’s argument that has remained unstated: the provision of reservations to upper castes would buttress the continuation of existing reservations for Dalits and reduce the stigma associated with reservations.

Some will suggest Athawale’s proposal dilutes the rationale for the provision of reservations since the Constitution intended reservations to be an instrument for ameliorating the effects of discrimination suffered by historically marginalised groups. The extension of reservations to upper castes, they will argue, mocks this principle. Others will point to the legal hurdles that such a move will encounter.

Athawale claims that new reservations for the upper castes, including upper backwards, will end the recent agitation politics around reservations and pacify the Jats in Haryana and Patidars in Gujarat among others. On this he may be wrong.

Two scenarios

Consider the following two plausible scenarios.

First, if reservations were extended to upper castes, all caste groups might still clamour to further divide the reservation pie, with each group fearing that other groups in their respective category were going to capture most of the benefits. Among upper castes, Brahmins and Baniyas might squabble over their respective shares of benefits. Among the Backward Castes, the same affliction could pit Jats against Yadavs, and within Dalits, Chamars against Pasis. In a labour-surplus, employment-scarce economy, political entrepreneurs will have enough reasons to mobilise voters on the basis of reservation-related demands.

Second, the addition of upper castes, if it were to occur, would substantially diversify the caste-based coalition of reservation beneficiaries – more castes would be invested in preserving the reservations system overall. Together, these groups would constitute a substantial electoral majority. Given the limited number of public sector jobs available, the focus of this coalition would almost certainly shift to the private sector. In other words, there is still plenty of wood to burn to keep the fires of the reservation-centric agitations alive.

The demand to end reservations has been a regular feature of upper caste mobilisation. A few years ago, while doing research for my book on Dalit politics, I discussed this issue with a prominent Dalit politician in Maharashtra,which also happens to be Athawale’s home state. When I asked the Dalit politician, if he was concerned about the possible removal of the reservation policy, he laughed. “Impossible!” he declared. Taken aback by his response, I asked him how he could be so confident. He argued that ever since reservations had been extended to the Other Backward Castes, it had become politically impossible to withdraw them. The expansion of reservations to other groups, in effect, had given Dalits powerful allies.

Important question

According to the Dalit politician, the framers of the Constitution had overlooked an important question while drafting the reservation policy: “When you give protection to the weakest section, who will protect the weak from the backlash of the strong?” He explained that every time there were anti-reservation riots, Dalits were inevitably targeted and abuse was heaped upon them. Those who benefited from the reservation policies were called names in their schools and colleges, then insulted and humiliated in their workplaces. The state had instituted reservations, but it had forgotten to remind its citizens why these policies were put in place and how the caste system had broken an entire people. As a result, reservations remained under persistent threat and a new stigma had been invented for Dalits. He continued, “Say the reservations were removed. Even today, frankly, what can we [Dalits] do? We will protest. The police and the upper caste will thrash us and the agitation will eventually peter out.”

But this changed, according to the politician, when in 1990 V.P. Singh extended reservations to OBCs. Now, ending them hurts a broader caste constituency. In the politician’s words, trying to end reservations means “India will burn.” Because the population pf OBCs is larger than that of the Dalits, OBCs are in a stronger position to punish political parties that threaten reservations. On the ground – in villages and in cities – they are electorally powerful and they are in the police. These keen observations resurfaced across many interviews I conducted with Dalit leaders. They suggest the institution of reservations would be fortified further if it were expanded to include upper castes now. Athawale may not explicitly state these arguments, however, as a Dalit himself,he surely understands their significance.

It is important to recognise that extending reservations to upper castes will not end the debate on reservations, rather it will only change the qualitative character of the agitation. No one will argue for the end of reservations; in fact, more people will argue for their preservation and calls will only grow for their expansion to the private sector. The particular Dalit stigma associated with reservations will abate, yet those advancing without reservations are still likely to lord their status over others. Political measures have not yet been able to dismantle the caste system’s fundamental inequality, but they have proven their ability to invest new groups in their caste identity in curious ways.

Amit Ahuja is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of California at Santa Barbara.