The modern concept of reservations originated in the USA in the 18th century. But this reservation was quite different from the one that prevails in India currently. The reservations in the US was in relation to land, whereas the contemporary Indian reservation is given in government jobs and educational institutions to the backward sections of the society.
In India, reservations can be seen to have originated in ancient Indian book Manusmriti and other literary works which talked of the Chaturvarna System. Under this system, four recognised classes of society which were Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras were given ‘reserved’ occupations and privileges for eg. The Brahmins and the Kshatriyas were the priestly and the warrior classes respectively and were the most powerful sections of the society. On the other hand, the Vaishyas and the Shudras were supposed to do ‘subsidiary’ and ‘menial’ tasks and were less influential than the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas. This was called the Indian Caste system. However, with time the concept of reservation underwent change to suit the needs of the times and people.
Even during the British times reservation can be noticed in India in various forms. In 1882, when the Hunter Commission was introduced, Mahatma Jyotirao Phule demanded proportionate reservations in government jobs. Similarly, in 1902, Chatrapati Sahuji Maharaj, Maharaja of Kolhapur in Maharashtra, introduced reservations for backward classes to eradicate poverty and give them a chance to participate in the administration. In 1909, the introduction of the famous Morley-Minto Reforms provided for separate electorates for Muslims, which was the first instance of reservations in India by the Britishers. A significant measure for reservations emerged from the Round Table Conference of June 1932, when the Prime Minister of Britain, Ramsay Macdonald, proposed the Communal Award, according to which separate representation was to be provided for Muslims, Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians and Europeans.
After independence, the concept of reservation again underwent a sea change, where the backward sections, that is, the SC/STs and OBCs were given reservations in government jobs and educational institutions for a period of 10 years to protect their interests and to increase their welfare by bringing them in the mainstream. In 1954, the Ministry of Education suggested that 20 per cent of places should be reserved for the SCs and STs in educational institutions with a provision to relax minimum qualifying marks for admission by 5 per cent wherever required. In 1982, it was specified that 15 per cent and 7.5 per cent of vacancies in public sector and government-aided educational institutes should be reserved for the SC and ST candidates. A significant change began in 1978, when the Mandal Commission was established to assess the situation of the socially and educationally backward classes. In 1980, the commission’s report recommended that a reserved quota of 27 per cent for OBCs should apply in respect of services and public-sector bodies operated by the Union Government. It called for a similar change in admission policies of institutes of higher education, except where states already had more generous reservations. It was not until the 1990s, that the recommendations were implemented in Union Government jobs. The Supreme Court of India ruled in 1992 that reservations could not exceed 50 per cent and anything above it would violate equal access as guaranteed by the Constitution. It thus put a cap on reservations. Along with this, a creamy layer concept was created for the OBCs to ensure that the benefit of reservations goes only to the economically backward sections of the OBC category. However, there are state laws that exceed this 50 per cent limit and these are under litigation in the Supreme Court. For example, in the State of Tamil Nadu the caste-based reservation stands at 69 per cent and applies to about 87 per cent of the population.
There have been support and appreciation for reservations in India by the beneficiaries and some of the experts and intellectuals. However, there is a widespread feeling that the system of reservations has been overstretched, as it was introduced initially for a period of 10 years till 1960. It is also noticed that the goal of the reservation policy of uplifting the backward sections was not achieved, rather the system was misused by politicians and powerful sections among the backward sections in India. Consequently, there have been many demonstartions and protests by various organisations and institutions.
In 1990, the then 20-year-old Rajeev, a commerce student of Delhi University’s Deshbandhu College, poured oil and set himself on fire amid a crowd of supporters and spectators in one of the most divisive phases since Independence. Rajeev was protesting against the V.P. Singh government’s decision to revive the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, which had suggested 27 per cent quota for backward classes. In addition, the 2006 Indian anti-reservation protests were a series of protests that took place in opposition to the decision of the Union Government of India, led by the Indian National Congress-headed multiparty coalition United Progressive Alliance, to implement reservations for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in central and private institutions of higher education. These protests were one of the two major protests against the Indian reservation system, the other one being the 1990 anti-Mandal Commission protests.
Apart from these protests against reservations, there have been many litigations relating to it. Consequently, there have been many Supreme Court Judgments on reservation issue. Most important SC Judgements regarding the issue of reservations are Indira Sawhney vs the Union of India and M. Nagaraj & Others vs Union of India.
The most important and famous judgement was in the Indra Sawhney case. Under this case, SC upheld the executive’s decision to include OBCs in the reservation category with a 27% share, under the overall cap of 50%. Also, a creamy layer concept was formed by the SC to ensure that the benefits of reservations reach only the most needy sections amongst the OBCs. On the other hand, the Nagaraj case was in relation to reservations in promotion of government employees. The court ruled that various promotions of SC’s/ST’s category made by these Rules are non-est in the eyes of the law and persons promoted have to be reverted.
The current situation of the reservation issue in India is active and intense. Many communities in various states are demanding reservations in jobs and educational institutions. These include Jats in Haryana, Patidars in Gujarat, Marathas in Maharashtra. In 2008, Gurjars’ demand for status of Schedule Tribe (ST) led to state wide clashes between Gurjars and Meenas, threatening the law and order situation in Rajasthan. Meenas’ who are currently reaping the benefits of ST status, feared increase in competition, if Gurjars get included in ST category.
Other than these communities, many other groups across the country have also raised similar demands for reservation in different categories. However, with such high demands, governments are in a fix as the Supreme Court has put a cap of 50 per cent on reservations. In most of the states, the limit has already been reached and the concerned government cannot accommodate any new group into the SC/ OBC category.