In 2016, a man was beheaded in Uttarakhand for entering a rice mill and allegedly making it “impure”. In 2019, a 12-year-old girl and 10-year-old boy were beaten to death by two upper caste men for defecating in the open. Last week, a teenger was shot dead by upper caste men allegedly for entering the village temple.

India’s caste system is uniquely horrific. For thousands of years, society in India has been brutally segregated, with members of castes designated to be “backward” accruing a cumulative lack of privilege that is debilitating.

Under the British Raj, efforts were first made to provide a minimum level of relief against this prejudice. This took the form of caste quotas. In 1950, when a free India instituted its Constitution, this was included in its laws, setting aside legislative seats, jobs in government institutions and places in higher educational institutions for Dalits and Adivasis. In 1991, this system was extended to members of the Other Backward Classes, a vast collection of labouring castes that sit between upper castes and Dalits in terms of social disability in Indian society.

Under attack

However, even this minimum effort to overturn millennia of discrimination is under attack. The Bharatiya Janata Party government has been denying members of the Other Backward Classes their full quota of seats in medical and dental colleges. This has been taking place ever since state-wise medical admissions were barred by the Supreme Court and a national admission system, the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, was introduced in 2016.

Under the NEET, 15% of the seats in diploma and undergraduate courses in state medical and dental colleges form an All India Quota, open to students from around the country. Seats in this All India Quota should offer reservations for candidates from the Other Backward Classes – but have not. As a result, members of the Other Backward Classes have been losing around 3,000 seats across India per year for the past three years, according to data collected by the All India Federation of Other Backward Classes Employees’ Welfare Association.

Shortcircuiting the law

This is not new. Caste quotas – including the OBC quota – are frequently left empty by recruiters and educational institutions. In some cases, complicated barriers are set up to ensure that this happens – like the “creamy layer” concept, which adds economic criteria to a measure that is supposed to be a way to balance social backwardness. To make matters worse, the Modi government now plans to make the creamy layer criteria more stringent – an absurd proposition, given that OBC quotas are never completely filled anyway.

It is difficult to see these moves – from the creamy layer decision to NEET – as anything but strategies to avoid applying caste reservations, in contravention of the law.

India’s extreme caste inequality has blocked its path to progress. At Independence, India started off at the same level as most countries of East and SouthEast Asia – or in some cases with a small lead. But today, it stands beaten comprehensively when it comes to standards of living. Even parts of South Asia such as Sri Lanka or Bangladesh are inching ahead.

Reservations are the minimum the Indian state can do to overcome this extreme inequality. They must not be diluted.