The recent Supreme Court order permitting 27% quota for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the all-India quota for admissions to the undergraduate medical courses has been hailed by almost the entire political spectrum in Tamil Nadu as a milestone in the history of social justice. The words, ‘social justice,’ may even sound clichéd to some but a look at the evolution of the reservation system reveals how the idea is an important chapter in the contemporary politics in Tamil Nadu.
It all began with a decision taken at a meeting at the Victoria Public Hall in Chennai in November 1916 to form an organisation to voice the grievances of non-Brahmins. Among those present were T.M. Nair and P. Theagaraya Chetti. The meeting paved the way for the establishment of the Justice Party. A month later, the leaders unveiled a document, called ‘Non Brahmin Manifesto’. Thus began the campaign for getting a rightful share of the non-Brahmins in public life and in government services.
Four years later, the Justice Party came to power in the elections to the Legislative Council, which was how the legislature was called. It had its moments of success in September 1921 and August 1922 when two government orders (GOs), famously called “Communal GOs”, were issued.
In his Politics and Social Conflict in South India, the Non-Brahman Movement and Tamil Separatism, 1916-1929 ,’ American historian Eugene F Irschick mentions the party “pursued its demands doggedly, for it realised that the implementation of Government Orders to redistribute government appointments in favour of non-Brahmans [sic] would fulfil some of the party’s first-articulated ideas — administrative power, social position and economic security.”
In the first GO, six broad classifications — Brahmins, Non-Brahmin Hindus, Indian Christians, Muhammadans (Muslims), European & Anglo Indians, and Others — were created. The second GO pointed out that non-Brahmin Hindus constituted 48% of the new appointments made in the six months ending December 1921.
Six years later, when P. Subbaroyan was the Chief Minister, a scheme of quota was designed under which non-Brahmins would get 5 out of 12 posts (41.67%) and Brahmins, Anglo Indians-Christians and Muslims 2 each (16.67%). Depressed Classes, now called Scheduled Castes, would get 1 out of 12 (8.33%).
This development was described by R. Kannan, UN diplomat, in his book Anna: The Life and Times of C.N. Annadurai , as the basis for the present scheme of reservation. Three months after Independence, when Omandur P. Ramaswami Reddiar of the Congress was the Chief Minister, an exclusive category — Backward Hindus — was created, with 14.29% of the seats earmarked for them.
After the Constitution was adopted in 1950, the Madras High Court and then the Supreme Court quashed the scheme of reservation on the grounds of violation of the principle of equality. Agitations organised by Dravidar Kazhagam founder ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramasamy Naicker and pressure exerted by K. Kamaraj, a towering figure of the Congress, on the Central government made possible the first constitutional amendment. In September 1951, the Scheduled Castes (SCs)/the Scheduled Tribes (STs) were provided with 15% and the BCs with 25%.
Kamaraj, as Chief Minister, had got ready the list of ‘More Backward’ among the BCs after a study. A GO issued in January 1957 stipulated that on a par with those of the SCs, educational concessions alone need be granted to 58 communities identified in the list. Thirty-two years later, when DMK leader M. Karunanidhi was the Chief Minister, this list became the basis for the creation of the category — Most Backward Classes (MBCs) — which got 20% out of 50% for the BCs.
Following the recommendations made by the first Backward Classes Commission (1969-70), headed by A.N. Sattanathan, Chief Minister Karunanidhi, in May 1971, announced 31% quota for the BCs and 18% for the SCs/STs.
In February 1980, the AIADMK government, led by M.G. Ramachandran, which had unsuccessfully tried to introduce the creamy layer concept among the BCs, hiked the quantum of reservation to 50%. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s verdict in 1992 in the Mandal Commission case, the State’s 69% quota system had to get a constitutional safeguard, which became a reality in 1994 owing to the efforts of the then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa (AIADMK) and Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao (Congress).
During the fifth innings of Karunanidhi as Chief Minister (2006-11), Arunthathiyars and Muslims were given internal quotas of 3% and 3.5% within the overall quota for the SCs and the BCs respectively.
Agitations by PMK
Subsequent to the agitations by the PMK, the AIADMK government, headed by Edappadi K. Palaniswami, got a law enacted in February 2021 providing 10.5% quota for the Vanniyars within the total of 20% for the MBCs and De-notified Communities. However, the legislation was quashed by the Madras High Court nine months later. The Supreme Court is hearing a batch of appeals, including one by the DMK government.
In his response to the Supreme Court’s latest ruling on the all-India quota, Chief Minister M.K. Stalin reiterated his party’s demand for reserving 69% seats, including 50% for the OBCs. It also has been the stand of his government that States be empowered to fix the quantum of reservation based on their needs.