Pursuing Equality in the Land of Hierarchy: Positive Discrimination Policies in India
Indian society is characterized by the continuum of caste hierarchy for over two millennia. In the source model of Hindu society, this hierarchy is kinked separating people into savarna and avarna (non-varna); touchable caste Hindus and the untouchable Dalits. Besides Dalits, who constituted the lowermost rung of the Hindu society and accounted for 16 percent of total population, there is a tribal community accounting for 7.5 percent, which traditionally lived in forests away from the caste society. Although the tribals did not suffer caste-based exclusion like Dalits, they were physically and culturally secluded from the mainstream. Both these communities, Dalits as the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and tribals as the Scheduled Tribes (STs), have been the focus of the positive discrimination (PD) policies in India. In the 1990s, these policies were extended to the Other Backward Castes (OBCs) (the lower part of the Shudra castes) as recommended by the Mandal Commission. Meanwhile, there have been persistent demands from other sections such as Dalit Christians, BC-Muslims, and even forward castes like Marathas, Jats, Gujjars, etc. for reservations. There have been demands for extension of reservations on the basis of economic criteria. Apart from the vertical extension, there have been horizontal pull by many castes to be included in the beneficiary lists of SCs, STs and BCs. There have also been demands that the reservation quota for Dalits be apportioned among the constituent sub-castes on the plea that reservation benefits have been disproportionately grabbed by certain sub-castes. The roots of these policies go back to the 1902, when a princely state in India had instituted it in some form. But even today, they raise passions in people and cause caste riots. While so much heat is generated every time the issue of PD policies raises its head as to threaten the very fabric of the country, there has been little light as to their effectiveness wherever they have been implemented*. There has not been any objective assessment of these policies over the last five decades of their operation. This paper seeks to contribute to this area of relative vacuum. Towards this objective, it takes stock of experience so far with the operation of the various PD policies, essentially following them through their historical evolution to the present day proliferation; it dwells upon each significant application and attempts to provide an assessment of these policies at the end.
*Footnote- i.The notable exception is a comprehensive study by Marc Galanter from a legal perspective (Marc Galanter, Competing Equalities: Law and the Backward Classes in India, Delhi, OUP, 1984, p 124.) and a few papers by other researchers, most of which have been referred to here.