A special feature of the political life in India under the British was the existence of communal electorates. Nationalist opinion was always opposed to it. Yet it continued and in course of time, it established a pattern of communal politics unknown in any other country. According to this, almost every religious minority in India, the Muslims, the Sikhs, the Indian Christians and others, had a certain number of seats reserved for them in the legislatures. This privilege was extended to the Anglo-Indians and the Europeans also. Under the Government of India Act of 1935, the Scheduled Castes were also to be treated as a separate community and given separate representation. But the historic fast of Gandhiji at Poona (now Pune) in 1933 prevented it and the Scheduled Castes were given reservation in constituencies based upon joint electorates with other Hindus. In 1947, when India became independent, this was the situation.
Although the country was divided into India and Pakistan on the religious basis, the partition of the country did not by itself solve the problem of religious minorities. Pakistan became a Muslim State, but all the Muslims of undivided India did not migrate to that State. Some forty million Muslims still remained in India. Besides, there were large groups of other religious minorities such as Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Parsees and others. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes were still treated on a par with other religious minorities deserving special consideration.
When the Constituent Assembly took up this question in 1947, there was nothing fundamentally different from the old ideas on the subject. The Assembly formed a Committee, the Advisory Committee on Fundamental Rights and Minorities, with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel as its Chairman. The Committee was asked to study the different aspects of the problem and make recommendations to the Assembly so that these recommendations could be given due recognition in the provisions of the new Constitution.
The decision of the Constituent Assembly arising out of the discussions on the recommendations of the Advisory Committee opened a new trend in Indian politics. The main features of this new trend were :
(1) abolition of separate electorates, (2) abolition of reservation of seats in the legislatures, and (3) abolition of separate safeguards to minorities. The only exceptions made were with regard to the three communities, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Anglo-Indians, each of which had a special case. But even in these cases, the special provisions were to exist only for a limited period of ten years from the commencement of the Constitution. These provisions are embodied in a separate Part (Part XVI) of the Constitution.
The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have been specified by 15 Presidential Orders issued under the provisions of Articles 341 and 342 of the Constitution. According to the 2011 Census, about 25.2 percent of the country’s population comprised the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. In addition, some State Governments have also specified other categories of people known as “Other Backward Classes” and denotified nomadic and semi-nomadic communities.
According to the 2001 Census, there were over 25 crore Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe people who were entitled to benefits provided under the special provisions of the Constitution. According to the 2011 Census data, the Scheduled Castes alone numbered some 20.14 crore. They are divided into several groups and are spread all over the country. The Scheduled Tribes numbered around 10 and a half crore. Most of them were in the States of Madhya Pradesh (15.3 million), Maharashtra (10.5 million), Odisha (9.5 million), Rajasthan (9.2 million), Gujarat (8.9 million), Jharkhand (8.6 million), Andhra Pradesh (5.9 million) and West Bengal (5.2 million). The Backward Classes, which include the ex-criminal tribes, have not been precisely defined yet.
The Constitution prescribes protection and safeguards for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and other weaker sections either specially or by way of insisting on their general rights as citizens with the objective of promoting their educational and economic interests and removing the social disabilities. The main safeguards are :
(1) Abolition of ‘untouchability’ and forbidding of its practice in any form.
(2) Promotion of their educational and economic interests and their protection from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.
(3) Throwing open Hindu religious institutions to all classes and sections of Hindus.
(4) Removal of any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and places of public entertainment or the use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and places of public resort maintained wholly or partially out of State funds or dedicated to the use of the general public.
(5) Curtailment by law, in the interest of any Scheduled Tribe, of the general rights of all citizens to move freely, settle in and acquire property.
(6) Forbidding of any denial of admission to educational institutions maintained by the States or receiving aid out of State funds.
(7) Permitting the States to make reservation for the Backward Classes in public services in case of inadequate representations and requiring the State to consider the claims of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in making of appointments to public services.
(8) Special representation in the House of the People and the State Legislative Assemblies to Scheduled Castes
and Scheduled Tribes.
(9) Setting up of Tribal Advisory Councils and separate departments in the States and the appointment of a special officer at the Centre to promote their welfare and safeguard their interests.