There are many things one might accuse Narendra Modi of – but not lethargy. On Monday, the Union government took everyone by surprise by proposing a constitutional amendment that would award a 10% quota in government jobs and educational institutions to members of the upper castes on the basis of economic criteria. The move received wide support across parties. On Tuesday, the amendment bill was passed by the Lok Sabha with all of three MPs voting against it. The next day, it was passed by the Rajya Sabha with only seven noes.

Even as India’s parliamentarians express bipartisan support, there are voices that contend that the move will harm the progressive cause. In the Indian Express, Pratap Bhanu Mehta argued that the bill is an example of how “the exigencies of politics and power rather than the ethical and moral claims drive entitlements”. In Scroll.in, Alok Prasanna Kumar contested the use of economic measures: “By breaking the link between reservation and social criteria such as caste, the Narendra Modi government is attempting to paint reservations, as a whole, as an act of charity on the part of the government and not a crucial, constitutional measure of ensuring equality.”

There is much merit in both Mehta’s and Kumar’s arguments. Caste is a fundamental building block of Indian society and, consequently, its greatest source of backwardness. As a result, the argument for affirmative action in India till now has always rested on caste. At first glance, then, a quota based on income and wealth might seem to roll back India’s social progress. However, given the specificities of the way this particular quota has been designed, it can be argued that it ends up achieving aims that are actually socially progressive.

Does not help savarnas in real terms

The first point to make is that the 10% upper caste quota does not eat into the existing Dalit, Adivasi and Other Backward Caste reservations slabs. The fact that all backward castes are unaffected by the quota is a significant reason for the bipartisan political support the measure has attracted. In fact, even the Bahujan Samaj Party, the country’s only major Dalit-led formation has supported the move.

The other side to look at: will the quota disproportionately benefit upper castes who, as has been well established, are socially and educationally advanced? Two points: one, the general quota, while technically a caste-agnostic category is, for all practical purposes an upper caste bloc. Given the caste system, savarnas are so socially and educationally advanced that other castes are unable to compete with them directly.

For example, while researching caste relation at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, Ajantha Subramanian, a social anthropologist at Harvard University, found that “most IITians assume that the ‘general category’ is upper caste”. Since the 10% upper caste quota has been carved from the general bloc, this is practically a sub-quota for upper castes. Two, the criteria for the 10% quota – five acre landholding or Rs eight lakh per annum income – being suggested in the media is so high, an overwhelming number of members of the upper castes will qualify for it.

This means that while the 10% quota might help Modi politically, it does little to better the situation on the ground for upper castes.

Ends arbitrary 50% ceiling

However, the 10% quota does open up new possibilities for those interested in backward caste advancement. Most significantly, the move ends the arbitrary 50% cap on reservations. In 1992, the Supreme Court instated this provision, arguing that “any reservation beyond 50% would be liable to be struck down”.

The court offers little by way of explanation on where this number was pulled out from. There is no law, anything in the Indian Constitution or population statistics that back it up. The court simply states that this 50% ceiling – and not, say, 70% or 43% – is “reasonable” and leaves it at that.

Indeed, there is much data to argue that this number is actually rather unreasonable. In 1980, the Mandal Commission found that 52% of the population comprised of what are today called “other backward castes”. This was over and above Dalits (17%) and Adivasis (8%), two other social groups who face social disabilities due to the caste system. These add up to 77%. Moreover, this estimate is on the lower side. The 52% figure is based on the 1931 Census, the last enumeration of castes in India and would have grown since then due to upper caste birth rates being relatively low.

Moreover, the number of castes classified as “backward” itself has grown. In 1980, when the Mandal Commission identified backward castes, it listed 3,763 castes. However, as of 2006, that number stood at 5,013. Indeed, the Economic Times reported in 2016 that one reason for the 2011 Caste Census data not being released by the Union government is that “upper caste numbers are dangerously low”.

From the lens of social justice then, upper castes cornering opportunities far in excess of their numbers is what is not reasonable. The current constitutional amendment would take total reservations to 59%. This dismantles the artificial 50% cap – a point that Dalit and other backward caste parties have been quick to catch on to, as they ask for larger backward quotas. Moreover, given that the Other Backward Caste quota in India also includes Dalit and backward caste Muslims, this would allow for a community that lags behind severely to get a bit more assistance from society.

Intellectual win

Finally, the 10% quota represents an important intellectual victory for caste reservations. Till now, upper caste interests had opposed quotas in themselves, arguing that jobs and educational institutions should only use “merit” to admit people, clean ignoring the historical and present-day role of the caste system in securing their advantages. This argument ensured a stigma around quotas, obscuring that they were a right to which backward castes were entitled.

Now that upper castes themselves have a quota, any argument based on merit will fall flat as will any stigma around reservations. The intellectual argument has been settled so comprehensively that it has shifted the common sense of the Indian Union: from opposing reservations, now even upper caste interest groups have to settle for their own quota.

A sarcastic internet meme that captures how comprehensively the argument against affirmative action has been defeated. The Hindi text on the button on the left reads, "reservations are charity".
A sarcastic internet meme that captures how comprehensively the argument against affirmative action has been defeated. The Hindi text on the button on the left reads, "reservations are charity".