“That all men are created equal, that they all are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.”

—Thomas Jefferson

Every human being is unique. The opinion, personality and character of an individual depend upon his upbringing, education and the community to which he belongs. In India, we celebrate differences under the slogan of ‘unity in diversity’. But these differences, at times, also lead to inequality among the people. Specifically in the Hindu society, there exists disastrous caste system, which has virtually reduced so many people to the status of ‘slaves’.

As Karl Marx rightly pointed out in the case of religion that ‘Religion is the opium of the masses.’ Similarly, caste system is the opium of Indian society. The reason can be traced to the origin and development of caste system. The caste system in India originated about 2500 years ago which is rooted in the religious belief. It is considered as an important basis of social stratification for social, economic and religious purpose which exists side by side with class based social stratification. One of the characteristic features of caste system is that it is a hereditary social group which does not permit social mobility to its members. It involves ranking according to birth which affects one’s occupation, marriage and social relationship. Sociologists opine that in the process of development of caste, it evolved as the varna system which divided the society into four varnas on the basis of division of labour—Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras—with Brahmins occupying higher position as compared to Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras respectively.

Caste system in India is mainly attributed to the concept of ‘pollution’, ‘cleanliness’ and ‘purity’. Scheduled Castes were considered untouchables and they had to follow some restrictions on food habits, entry into village and interaction with people of other castes. Their place of living was outside the village and even their shadow was considered inauspicious which ultimately resulted in untouchability. The inhuman practice of untouchability virtually reduced such people into serfdom. Before being “scheduled” in 1935, these castes were classified as exterior castes and depressed castes. Gandhiji designated them as ‘Harijans’ or ‘Children Of God’. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar called them ‘Protestant Hindus’.

By taking into account, the oppression and depression suffered by lower strata of the Hindu society, in 1902, Shahuji of Kolhapur in Maharashtra took first organised step to provide reservation to backward classes in the princely State of Kolhapur. His aim was two-fold—eradication of poverty in backward classes and increasing their involvement in public administration. In 1932, the British government tried to extend the scheme of reservation to the Scheduled Castes and Schedule Tribes by MacDonald Award, which was thwarted by the hunger strike of Mahatma Gandhi in Yerwada jail.

After independence, the Constituent Assembly set up an Advisory Committee headed by Sardar Patel on fundamental rights and minorities. The committee recommended special privileges to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes for a limited period of 10 years for their upliftment and to bring them into the mainstream. On the basis of it, our Constitution guarantees justice and equality of opportunity to all its citizens and equal treatment to all. It also recognises that equal opportunity implies competition between equals and not ‘unequals’ thus weaker sections have to be dealt with on a preferential footing by the State. Accordingly the Constitution provides for protective discrimination under article 15 and 16 in the form of providing reservation in higher education and services under the State to accelerate the process of building an egalitarian social order. Initially in 1950, the Constitution provided reservation of 12.5% for SC and 5% for STs but this percentage was subsequently enhanced in 1970 to 15% and 7.5% for SCs and STs respectively. The provision for this ‘affirmative action’ or ‘reverse discrimination’ was contemplated by makers of Constitution for ten years only. They also deliberated upon doing away with reservation after ten years. But subsequent government extended it to the next ten years by amending the Constitution and now even after 70 years of independence reservation prevails.

In 1990, the government headed by Prime Minister V.P. Singh decided to implement the recommendations of Mandal Commission to give 27% reservation to Other Backward Classes which constitute 51% of the population of the country. This led to nationwide protests due to the sudden cut of nearly fifty percent seats in government employment. Many youth attempted to commit suicide against the government’s decision and Rajeev Goswami attempted self-immolation. The Mandal Commission was appointed by the then Prime Minister Morarji Desai, in 1979, to investigate the condition of socially and educationally backward classes within the territory of India under Article 340 of the Constitution of India. This commission was headed by Indian parliamentarian B.P. Mandal. When Narsimha Rao government came to power in 1991, it issued a notification in September 1991 stating that 10% of jobs would be reserved for other economically backward section of people who were not covered by any of the existing schemes of reservation. Both these notifications were challenged in the Supreme Court which resulted in Indra Sawhney V. Union of Indiajudgment, wherein Supreme Court upheld Mandal Commission’s recommendations. However the Supreme Court decided against economic backwardness criteria by upholding the judgement in K.C.Vasant Kumar V. State of Karnatakawherein Justice Desai opined, “Social status and economic (status) are so woven and fused into caste system in Indian rural society that one may without hesitation, say that if poverty be the cause, caste is the primary index of social backwardness, (and it) is often readily identifiable with reference to a person’s caste.”Thus economic backwardness cannot be the sole criteria to provide reservation in public employment and higher education. This is because, as rightly pointed out by Justice Subba Rao,“The ultimate aim of reservation was to breach down and eradicate caste group.” Reservation is not a poverty elimination programme. The coexistence of caste and class based stratification in Indian society and evolution of caste system as the biggest curse of Indian society became a striking point for makers of the Constitution to provide caste based reservation. Since caste system has kept downtrodden people oppressed and depressed, it needs to be the cause of their elevation to the mainstream of the society. Thus, caste based reservation is justified.

As it has been rightly pointed out by Dr. B.R. Ambedkarin the Constituent Assembly that, “However good a constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it, happen to be a bad lot. However bad a constitution may be, it turn out to be good if those who called to work it, happen to be a good lot.” Thus the implementation of reservation policy in the right manner is desirous and imperative. There is a need to fix time for doing away with reservation system– rather than extending it to eternity. It is also necessary to adopt scientific and rational methods while listing any caste in backward class group and review reservation policy every five years. There should be introduction of creamy layer to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes so that deserving person could get the benefit of reservation, because benefits of reservation were successively enjoyed only by few families, depriving the truly deserving ones. Despite seventy years of independence, increase in demand for reservation is nothing but the failure of government to provide education which will lead to employment. It is necessary to make the youth job ready instead of engaging them in the race to prove that their caste is more backward than the other. The economic backwardness criteria will only complicate the problem. As it was noted by Congress politician V.N. Gadgil, “In India, you do not cast your vote; you vote your caste”. Thus, there is a need to look at reservation policy not from the point of view of ‘vote bank’ but as public policy which needs reformation and proper implementation in the country.

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