Should reservation in jobs only be in proportion to the population?

Updated - May 17, 2024 01:47 pm IST

Published - May 17, 2024 12:15 am IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Madiga Reservation Porata Samithi leader Manda Krishna Madiga during a public rally in Hyderabad.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Madiga Reservation Porata Samithi leader Manda Krishna Madiga during a public rally in Hyderabad. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

During his election campaign, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has often used the slogan ‘Jitni abadi, utna haq’ (the rights of a group are proportionate to the group’s share in the total population). The Prime Minister has lashed out at him for the slogan and others have argued that it is against the spirit of the Constitution. Should reservation in jobs only be in proportion to the population? Sukhadeo Thorat and Sudheendra Kulkarni discuss the question in a conversation moderated by Abhinay Lakshman.

Edited excerpts:

This slogan is not new. It has a unique place in the history of India’s social justice politics. What is the salient difference in how it was used in Kanshi Ram’s time and how it is being used now? What does it really mean? Whose population and what right is the slogan talking about?

Sukhdeo Thorat: One of the justifications for a caste census is that Indian society is highly diversified and exclusionary. Very few countries have a group-specific policy like we have. We combine policies that are focused on individuals and at the same time we focus on groups as a whole. Over the last 20 years, you will see that there has been an increase in demand for group-specific policies: for certain SCs (Scheduled Castes), STs (Scheduled Tribes), Other Backward Classes (OBCs), those above OBCs such as the Patels and Marathas, and now low-income groups, and women. That is simply because of the character of our society where certain groups face discrimination from having an equal access to opportunity and equal rights.

Also read: Bihar seeks to raise quota to 65% after tabling caste survey

Increasingly, the issue is that the government is surrendering to some groups due to pressure and providing group-specific policies without sufficient information. That is why we find arguments for caste-wise data, sub-caste-wise data — so that we can study it and the government can take a position based on that. When I was chairman of ICSSR (Indian Council of Social Science and Research), I was asked to justify reservation at the Centre for the Jat community. We were not given caste census data for the Jats. But we were given five reports of five States and those reports were very poor. This is an example to say that if we want to have group-specific policies, we should have group-specific information about human development indicators, poverty, income, malnutrition, education, and ownership of means of production. That, I think, is the justification of the Congress.

Sudheendra Kulkarni: This slogan did not start with Kanshi Ram. In some ways, it has its origins in the debates and even policies of the colonial government. It is the British who introduced proportionate representation to certain sections of society. It was also supported by B.R. Ambedkar in States and Minorities: he made a strong case for representation proportionate to the population. In fact, he wanted erstwhile depressed classes to also be categorised as minorities. And depending on the proportion of population, he demanded representation. That was strongly opposed by the Congress and was not adopted in the Constitution. Instead, a principle of affirmative action was introduced for certain sections of society, for certain needs, that is, education and employment, which would ensure their justice and development. This was done unanimously. But in this principle, there is no concept of jitni abadi utna haq. This concept is patently unconstitutional. It goes against the letter and spirit of the Constitution. India is a Republic which recognises equality among citizens. Caste is not recognised as a unit in the Constitution. If it is recognised, it is only to the extent of certain policies for affirmative action.

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Jitni abadi utna haq is also unimplementable. Let me give an example. We are already encountering enormous difficulties in ensuring reservation even for groups such as SCs. You know there is a strong demand for sub-categorisation among Dalits, tribal groups, and OBCs. This is because there is a strong feeling among beneficiary categories that some sub-category is taking a much larger share of the benefits and depriving others. For instance, the Madigas in Telangana are demanding sub-categorisation because they believe that the Malas, who are fewer in number, are getting more benefits. The Rohini Commission’s initial findings also show that there is a tremendous imbalance even among the beneficiary groups. Affirmative action has some justification within certain frameworks. But jitni abadi utna haq is a divisive and unconstitutional concept. If anyone tried to implement it, it can create social chaos.

Are you saying we must find larger groups to ensure accurate representation, or should we move away from representation in totality?

Sudheendra Kulkarni: The fundamental moral underpinning of the Constitution is nyay (justice). We are far from approaching the ideal. The question is how we move towards it. There is a tendency to focus only on the government or the formal sector of the economy. These provide employment only to a small section. So, we need to think of economic and social justice and equality in totally different terms. This means we need to think of wealth and livelihood creation at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid.

Explained: The case for caste census in India

Sukhdeo Thorat: Dr. Ambedkar’s position was that if the reservation share of the SCs, STs (Scheduled Tribes) has to be defined, it should be in proportion to the social, economic, and educational standing of the group. He was not strictly in support of the population as an indicator for representation. He dealt with reservation in the legislature and said that it should be in proportion to the socioeconomic standing of the group. He said that the majority seats in the legislature should be reduced to a certain extent and redistributed among the social and religious minorities. And the redistribution of seats, which will also apply to jobs, should be in proportion to the economic and social standing. Nevertheless, population comes in. Because in the absence of the other indicators, at that time, population was considered to be a tentative indicator of a fair representation of a group. But that doesn’t mean that it should be the ultimate indicator.

The second point is the reservation issue by social group. There is a distinction between pro-poor policies, irrespective of caste, religion, ethnicity, gender, and policies for those who are discriminated against. Affirmative action policies are necessary in addition to general policies, which are applicable to all, only for those groups which have suffered from discrimination. So, as far as reservation is concerned, in India you will have to have a policy that is for economic and educational empowerment for all, irrespective of caste and religion, and an additional policy for the group that is discriminated against. Ambedkar did not ask for reservation only in the public sector. He also asked for it in the private sector because discrimination is more rampant in the private sector than the public sector.

But the question here is, how do we determine what qualifies as a fair share?

Sukhdeo Thorat: Ambedkar was clear that the fair share should be based on the socioeconomic and education standing of the group, which can be supplemented by the population. Take, for example, Parsis or Christians. They are minorities, but they are advanced in terms of education. Their share is much, much higher than their population share. Brahmins constitute only 3.5% or 5%, but their share is several times higher than the low castes.

What should be the aim of a caste census in India?

Sudheendra Kulkarni: A caste census is welcome because it will reveal how many people belong to which caste or sub caste and their relative backwardness or progression. It will then show government and society what actions are needed for us to move towards greater equality. The question is, what are you going to do then with the data of the caste census? The caste census will also, among other things, reveal how certain castes who were earlier deprived and discriminated against have moved on. This will be important new information that will come out. Let us not be under the illusion or misconception that all the SCs are as discriminated against as they were 70 years ago. There is a certain section of SCs which has moved on, a section of OBCs that has moved on. Many of them are crorepatis. Should their children get reservation? The concept of a creamy layer should also now be applied to the SCs. So, these are the larger issues that will be revealed by the caste census. Similarly, there are other so-called non-OBCs or upper castes who are poor. So, we need to therefore take a holistic view and not go in the direction that divides our society, that is, jitni abadi, utna haq.

Sukhdeo Thorat: The purpose of a caste census is quite clear. It is not a census only to gain demographic data and family data. The first is that you go down from broader caste categories like SCs to sub castes. So, have a population estimate of these sub castes or even religious groups for that matter and social groups within the religion. But that certainly is not the purpose. The purpose is to know about the economic, educational, and social standing of these groups. What is their access to ownership of means of production like land, business, employment? What are their educational levels? Do they face discrimination? What is the nature of such discrimination? So a caste census will generate all this information and bring transparency. There will be shocks. The people who are opposed to a caste census are worried simply because they think that the 5% Brahmins will have a 60% share. But my point is government policy is based on evidence and data and it is a fair policy. But at the moment policies are not based on data. Policies are based on political pressures.

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Sukhadeo Thorat is the former chairman of the University Grants Commission and Professor Emeritus at JNU; Sudheendra Kulkarni served as an aide to Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the Prime Minister’s Office

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