The policy of reservations is not new to India and existed even during ancient times. But the seeds of the Modern-day reservations, which has hurt India squarely and severely, were sown by the Britishers to carry out their policy of ‘Divide and Rule’.
In the ancient times, reservations had its roots in the practices of Untouchability, Caste System and The Varna system. In these times, the Hindu society was divided into 4 Varnas, Jatis or Classes which were Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras in the descending order of their hierarchy. There was another fifth class of people which was not even recognised by the society. This class was the ‘Untouchables’ or ‘Avarna’. Even in the Mythological Epics of India like the Mahabharata, instances of casteism were visible when Karna, who was born to Kunti but brought up in a Shudra family, was not allowed to showcase his talent merely on the basis of his ‘low caste’. He was often called a ‘Shudra Putra’ and was also humiliated for the same. The caste system in the ancient times was a form of reservation where the upper castes like the Brahmins and Kshatriyas were supposed to perform ‘elite’ functions and enjoyed certain privileges. Whereas, the lower castes like the Vaishyas and the Shudras were asked to perform ‘menial’ and ‘subordinate’ tasks and were devoid of any privileges. The atrocities and exploitation of the lower castes in those ancient times has its contribution to the advent of modern form of reservation system which is put in place to protect and secure the interests of the lower castes. The system was expected to provide equal opportunities, equal status in society, and to uplift the lower caste people.
However, the contemporary system of reservations has not been able to achieve its desired goals. Moreover, it has been misused by stronger sections among the lower castes to fulfil their narrow and vested interests leaving out the majority of weaker sections. It has not been able to achieve equality but has created another divide among the lower castes. The fundamental mistake with the system of reservations for lower castes is that, a reservation system cannot be replaced by another reservation system to achieve equality i.e. to compensate the lower castes for the caste-based discrimination in the ancient times, giving them reservations today in education and jobs will only lead to ‘Reverse Discrimination’. To achieve equality, destruction of the caste-system is needed so that the distinction between lower and upper castes is eradicated making every person equal.
In Modern India, the system of reservations first occurred in Tamil Nadu. In 1831, OBCs and other backward communities in Tamil Nadu created a mass mobilisation program through the launch of a powerful movement called the Dravidian Movement. This led to the initiation of reservations in education and public service in the Madras Presidency, much of which is still in existence. These reservations were introduced by the Britishers in response to several petitions from various public groups. Since then, the reservation provisions have undergone several modifications and changes to ‘rationalise’ the affirmative action.
The high contemporary reservations in the State of Tamil Nadu for the local backward sections has been responsible for various secessionist tendencies in the state since it diluted the cause of Nationalism and promoted regionalism by preventing reasonable and effective people to people contact between Tamil Nadu and Rest of India by curtailing entry of persons from other states into State services and in educational institutions.
Another instance of reservation was witnessed in 1874 in Mysore, in which the Prince of Mysore decided to reserve (to restrict) 20 per cent of lower and middle-level posts for Brahmins in the Police Department. The rest 80% were reserved for Non-Brahmins, Muslims and Indian Christians. It was a unique attempt done with an aim to lower down the Brahmin supremacy in the job sector.
Although equal access of opportunities was and should always be promoted, but Supremacy of a section based on higher skills is justified and not exploitative, hence it should not be curtailed. Imagine if India or any other nation in the contemporary times curtailed supremacy based on skills and technology in areas like the industrial sector. It would prevent the emergence of big Indian companies which can go on to become global giants and make India proud in the global arena. Simultaneously, it would disincentivise smaller companies to grow bigger. Similarly, ‘reverse discrimination’ prevents growth of both the backward and forward castes or sections.
The reservation system which was put in place in Mysore by its Prince was an authoritarian policy. There was a system of Monarchy, where a king decides the fate of the people of his kingdom. It is inferior to Democracy, where equality prevails and people decide their fate themselves. Reservations, although not justified anywhere, can prevail in monarchies. But, reservations have no place in modern day Democracies which are based on the ideals of Justice, Equality, Fraternity.
The next major instance of reservations in India was in 1882, when the Hunter Commission was appointed by the British Government for a thorough inquiry into the prevalent condition and functioning of the Primary and Secondary education in India. Based on its findings, The Commission made various recommendations for the improvement of the functioning of the primary and secondary education system in India which were accepted by the British Government. These recommendations included –
1) In selecting persons to fill the lowest offices under Government, preference be always given to candidates who can read and write.
2) Entrusting the District and Municipal Boards with the work of the management of primary education was recommended.
These recommendations were strongly criticised by social activist Jyotiba Phule who considered these proposals a way to launch ‘reservations for the elites’. He argued that the government’s theory that education should flow down from the upper class of the society to the masses was an ‘utopian approach’. He demanded free and compulsory education for everyone upto the age of 12 years and proportionate reservations in government jobs for the backward sections of the society.
This incident highlights the fact that the Britishers first tried to divide the Indian society by giving reservations to the higher castes which were well educated, and to the intellectual class. But, in the wake of protests by social activists like Jyotiba Phule, the Britishers reversed their strategy and later gave the ‘Separate Electorates’ and the ‘Communal Awards’ to lure the backward sections including Muslims. Hence, The Britishers revived the system of reservations in India and brought out its more lethal form by giving it a communal flavour. Reservations were nothing but a strategy of the Britishers to divide India.
In 1902, Rajashri Chatrapati Shahuji Maharaj introduced reservations in his kingdom of Kolhapur. Therefore, although the idea of reservations first came from Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, it was first implemented in India by his intellectual heir and follower Shahuji Maharaj, who was also a follower of Dr B.R.Ambedkar. Shahuji Maharaj implemented a reservation policy in which 50% reservation was given in state services to the backward communities (i.e. excluding four jatis of Brahmins, Parsi, Shenvi, Prabhu). He provided for special schools and hostels for the backward communities, facilitating thereby the education of the Dalit children. He provided economic assistance for their higher education. These efforts of Shahuji Maharaj paid rich dividends as there was a noticeable increase in the number of girls and boys of the backward castes studying in schools and colleges.
The efforts of Shahuji Maharaj for Dalits and its success in the area of education is a clear message for the modern-day governments that the system of reservations should be replaced by a system of provision of economic assistance to the backward sections so as to help them attain quality and valuable education which would enhance their skill and not make them dependent on reservations. Also, it can be said that Shahuji Maharaj favoured a temporary reservation policy in jobs for the backward communities. This is because he was a staunch supporter of Dr. B.R.Ambedkar, who had clearly stated that reservations in India should exist only till 1960.
The base for the modern-day reservation system in India was laid down by the British Government in 1909 by introducing the system of ‘Separate Electorates’ through the Indian Council Act, 1909. The system of Separate Electorates in India emanated from the British strategy of ‘Divide and Rule’. However, separate electorates were the brainchild of Prince Aga Khan and his colleague Nawab Mohsin-ul-Mulk, who were leaders of Muslim organisations and were protecting Muslim interests. They demanded the system of separate electorates from the Viceroy Lord Minto at Shimla. The system entailed that the Muslim people voted only for Muslims and the elections in their designated areas were managed by them only. The system of separate electorates according to Muslim leaders would have led to reduction in the gap between Hindus and Muslims in terms of political representation. The Britishers took advantage of the situation to shore up communal tensions. The principle of communal representation which was accepted under the Morley-Minto Reforms was retained and was pushed further in the Government of India Act, 1919.
In 1919, Srikrishnaraja Wodeyar IV, the King of Mysore, accepted the recommendations of the Miller’s committee on reservations. As a result of this development 75% reservations were given to the so-called backward classes which included everyone other than Brahmins, Anglo-Indians, and Europeans. The Lingayats, Muslims, Mudaliars and Vokkaligas were in the forefront of the beneficiary sections of this reservation policy.
It was noticed that a major chunk of the benefits of this reservation policy was taken away by powerful and rich backward classes like the Vokkaligas who took large and undue benefits from these reservations for the backward classes. Secondly, The King of Mysore, Srikrishnaraja Wodeyar IV, was greatly influenced by leaders like Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Buddha. All these personalities were famous for their views and work on Equality of all people irrespective of castes among other things. Thus, we can easily comprehend that King Srikrishnaraja was a strong believer in the concept of equality of human beings. Also, through his attainment of Western education, he was a firm believer in Justice, Freedom, Fraternity, and Collective Welfare, all of which are against the very concept of Reservations.
Looking at the growing disparities between Dalits and rest of the Hindu Community, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar borrowed the idea of separate electorates from the Muslim League and voiced demand for separate electorates for Dalits. The report of the Simon Commission finally granted reserved seats to the Depressed Classes but the recommendations remained in-operational for a long time. To break the inaction, a Conference was held in London in 1930 and then a Second Round Table Conference in 1931 was conducted. Owing to this, the Communal Award was announced on August, 1932 which recognized the right of the untouchables to have a separate electorate. Hence, after the separate electorates were given to the Muslims in 1909, separate electorates for Dalits were proposed in 1932. This move was severely criticised by Mahatma Gandhi who saw a situation of endless differences among people, in case the Ambedkar’s demand was accepted. Hence, to avoid such a situation, ‘The Poona Pact’ between Gandhi and Ambedkar was reached. Under this, a system of reserved seats, in which 148 seats (instead of 71 as put forward by the Communal Award) were granted to the Untouchables in the Legislative Council. The Poona Pact led to the replacement of the separate electorates by the reservation of seats in the Legislative Council.
Hence, one type of reservation was replaced by another which sowed the seeds of discontent, disagreement and division in India just before independence. Thus, the concept and system of reservations in India was revived and brought into the most lethal form for the nation by the British. It is an irony that today, Indians are fighting among themselves on a concept given by foreigners, who exploited and caused multi-dimensional harm to our society and country. We can say that apparently India is free today, but it is still not free of the ill-conceived and ill-intended policies of the Britishers like the reservation system. The need of the hour is to shun Colonialist practices like the reservation system, foster greater unity and equality among Indians, and take the country to great heights through a system based on capability and merit.