The Big Story: Quota wars

In 2011, after several years of deliberation and under pressure from the Supreme Court, the Union government under the United Progressive Alliance decided to conduct a socio-economic and caste census. This followed massive protests that had broken out in 2006 against the Centre’s decision to reserve government jobs and seats in higher educational institutions for members of the Other Backward Classes. The court said that it needed concrete data on caste numbers so that it could determine whether the quota limit, which it set at 50% in 1992, could be altered.

But six years after the caste census was completed, there is no sign of the caste component of the data being released, though a small part on the economic conditions was put out in 2014.

In the meantime, state governments have begun challenging the 50% limit. In April, for instance, the Telengana government decided to increase quotas for Muslims and Scheduled Tribes. In 2015, the state government had set up the Sudhir commission to study the Muslim community’s conditions. It was found that despite constituting 12% of the state population, Muslims got only 7.6% of government jobs. The community was also lagging behind in education. By increasing the quota for Muslims to 12% from the existing 4%, the Telengana government went way past the 50% ceiling.

In order to avoid judicial intervention, the state government said the reservations for Muslims had nothing to do with religion: it contended that the quota was alloted on the basis of the community’s economic backwardness. However, the courts have struck down previous attempts to create quotas for religious groups. They have not viewed the economic argument favourably as the Constitution recognises only educational and social backwardness.

Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao had also cited the example of Tamil Nadu, where quotas are as high as 69%. A challenge to Tamil Nadu’s reservation policy is currently before a nine-member Constitution bench of the Supreme Court.

What does this confusion really say about India’s policy of affirmative action? First, the Supreme Court’s decision to cap reservations at 50% has been criticised widely for its arbitrariness. Some have argued that such a cap allows members of the upper castes to corner a disproportionate share of resources, since they dominate the 50% of jobs and seats left to open competition.

Secondly, the only reason that could be cited for the Centre’s failure to release the caste data is its reluctance to take on upper caste interests. In the process, not only is the Centre denying vulnerable communities their legitimate share of reservations, it is also risking the danger of the caste census being dismissed as dated. In the meantime, the absence of quality data on caste and socio-econimic condition is leading to what the Supreme Court termed as “competitve backwardness”. Even historically well-off groups, such as Patels in the Gujarat and the Jats in North India, are seeking reservations, to the detriment of weaker communities.

There was also the question of federal rights involved in this debate. By holding back the caste census data, the Centre is also indirectly limiting the powers of state legislatures from making changes to the reservation law since they are unable to get the 50% ceiling lifted in the courts.

The Big Scroll

  • In this speech delivered in 2015, Vice President Hamid Ansari explains why Muslims need quotas. 

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