Despite a relatively decent growth rate, unemployment has touched new heights. Alongside, there is this strange conundrum: On the one hand, many educated people do jobs way below their skill set; on the other, recruiters often find that those with formal degrees do not possess the expected skills. Government jobs, prized for their security, are few and hard to come by, incentivising aspirants to cut corners.
Multitudes of young people are passing through educational institutions hoping to better their life chances. Instead, they get jobless growth, unhappy work prospects and insecure jobs. This, naturally, creates a sense of angst and the obvious object of such questioning is the working and outcomes of reservation policies.
Abhinav Chandrachud’s These Seats Are Reserved: Caste, Quotas And The Constitution Of India, therefore, could not have come at a more appropriate time. He presents a long history of reservation policies that is relevant and essential to understanding the Constitution’s guarantee of social and economic equality. It gives us a deeper understanding of the provisions, often ignored in narrow legal perspectives. The writing is lucid, shorn of technical jargon, and should be easily understood by the general public.
Those ineligible for affirmative action benefits fiercely question existing policy frameworks. For them, “merit” ought to be given preference, they should not be “punished” for something that happened in the past. The counter includes questions about the neutrality of so-called merit as well as the relationship between social privilege and merit. Why shouldn’t opportunities not be proportional to the numbers in the population? These questions have often been asked and the noise around them becomes louder during periods of stress. Given that we have seen protracted periods of scarcity and want, reservation policies and the politics around them have been among the most controversial issues in post-independence India.
Who deserves what? How should different concerns and demands be treated? These are ultimately moral questions. While cheap access to information has made the youth better informed than previous generations, they are also easy prey to communication that mixes facts with opinions, alters facts and cherry-picks information to make a case for a particular position. Precarity causes angst and resentment and it is possible that everyday conversations can take an ugly turn.
It is this context that makes Chandrachud’s contribution valuable. While the introduction sets out the broad contours of the study, the first two chapters are clarificatory. They trace how terms like depressed classes, backward classes, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes came to be used and how these groups were identified as categories eligible for reservation. The historical rear-view approach helps us make sense of long-standing positions that critics as well as defenders of reservation policies advance, including those of “merit”, “efficiency” and the need for “proportional” and “substantial” representation.
Chandrachud then moves on to the debates in the constituent assembly and the life of reservations immediately after the inauguration of the Republic. We understand the background to the 50% cap on reservations and why seats are reserved only in legislative bodies and government jobs. The questions and issues in the early years revolve around themes of liberty and equality: Can the two coexist without conflict, especially since they appear to be ideas straight out of political theory textbooks? These chapters also highlight two points incidental to the main discussion but relevant today: One, there was a strong conservative position within the Congress, and two, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel were on the same page in many ways.
Over the course of the next few chapters, Chandrachud takes us to the heart of the contentious debate on reservations. They map the back and forth between the legislature and the judiciary at various points in time and on different dimensions of reservation. This helps us understand how the 50% cap and “creamy layer” concepts were institutionalised. We also learn some of the technical dimensions that work in the background, such as vertical and horizontal reservations, reservations and promotions, carry-forward and catch-up rules, consequential seniority and the working of the roster system.
The book also intuitively reiterates a point made elsewhere that the judiciary in India does not have a clear-cut philosophy of its own and is more comfortable playing the role of a balancer. The court’s position on the same question has changed at various times, and there appears to be no clear logic. This may explain how reservations for “economically weaker sections” (EWS), which radically breaks from the “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution, becomes the new normal.
The penultimate chapter addresses the vexed question of what happens to reservations after marriage, conversion or migration. Court judgements are examined to understand how the law has emerged to answer these questions.
In the concluding chapter, he presents his main findings of how reservation policy has worked in practice. Chandrachud summarises the arguments that are advanced for and against reservation policies. We are also told that despite all the noise made about reservations, the number of people it has touched is minuscule. Again, this only underscores the problems arising from the lack of a vibrant economy and the failure of developmental policies. At the same time, this would be an unfair assessment as affirmative action policies have energised the politics of recognition and dignity. Reservations are only part of the story. They are part of a larger movement and struggle by the marginalised demanding their due share of opportunity, freedom and equality.
While there are valuable lessons to be drawn from Chandrachud’s exploratory analysis, there are also weaknesses. He tends to blur the political and ignore the criticism that sociologists like M.N. Srinivas, Andre Beteille and Dipankar Gupta, among others, have made of extending reservations to the backward classes. They argue that the backward class clamour for reservations must be understood in the context of the changing economy and how this upset long-standing social structural and power dynamics in rural areas. Reservations for these groups helped them transfer their political and economic power from rural to urban areas.
The deprivations of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes cannot be compared with that of the backward classes. Affirmative action for the former was meant to enhance equality of opportunities, weed out caste and compensate for historical disadvantages. The same cannot be said of the Mandal recommendations. Gupta argues that these were meant to “represent castes” and make it a “perennial political resource”. Chandrachud does not make a distinction between the different categories eligible for reservation and this lumping together weakens the case he is trying to make.
This is, however, not to take away from what is undoubtedly a fine contribution. Today we live in echo chambers where we are programmed to ignore and even distrust outside sources and voices. Chandrachud seeks to undo this, create a more informed public and asks us to escape and reboot our belief systems. This, however, is easier said than done.
K.K. Kailash is with the department of political science, University of Hyderabad.