So, we are all Dalits now?

So, we are all Dalits now?

D Shyam Babu

The nation seems to have missed the irony in how ‘New India’ is reducing social justice to a joke. The Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh sought to increase the number of Scheduled Castes (SCs) or Dalits in the state, declaring 17 Other Backward Classes (OBCs) as SCs. In other words, thousands of hitherto ‘touchable’ persons are to be rendered ‘untouchable’. The legalese that Dalits are former ‘untouchables’ is just that; in vast swathes of rural India, untouchability is an everyday reality even today. The chief minister’s act amounted to spreading untouchability, nothing less.

And consider this, assuming the state government succeeded in its mischief-making: the day after an OBC became an SC, any violence on his person or an affront to his identity would trigger the invocation of the 1989 SC/ST Atrocities Act!

The ‘Old’ New Game

The fact that the state government has no jurisdiction to tinker with the SC List and that the Centre also opposed the move cannot be much of a consolation. There is a precedent, a template from Rajasthan where a plains caste, the Meena, became a Scheduled Tribe (ST) in the 1950s. It continues to grievously harm the interests of real tribals in Central India and elsewhere.

Taking the cue from the ‘success’ of the Meenas, the Gujjars in that state have been clamouring for ST status for decades. What Adityanath did is to set the stage for similar demands from those 17 OBC castes and more to be included in the SC List. So, it is wrong to assume that he’s been stopped in his tracks. In fact, his game has just begun.

Recently, while upholding the quotas for ‘socially and educationally backward’ classes among Marathas in Maharashtra, the Bombay High Court held that the Constitution in no way affects the state’s legislative competence to grant reservations to new groups as well as to go above the 50% limit for all quotas set by the apex court in 1993.

So, the project to smuggle in non-SCs into the Dalit tent is bound to succeed one day or the other. All it needs is a bench in some court to hold that the proposed new Dalits are as worse off as the old Dalits.

Doesn’t the Constitution preclude the government’s competence to expand reservations to more and more groups?

The Constitution

The framers of our Constitution tackled inclusive development under two assumptions. One, they rightly regarded that they needed to provide special protections for the SC/STs as these two groups were excluded from regular social and economic intercourse.

Hence the reservation for them in education, public employment and in legislature as well as special laws to ensure that they were no longer subjected to exclusion and violence.

Two, the founding fathers were sure that other groups might be in need of State support, but not on the magnitude of the SC/STs. Their reasoning can be found in Article 340 of the Constitution, which is the heart and soul of quotas for OBC groups. The Article reads, “a Commission…to investigate the conditions of socially and educationally backward classes…and to recommend steps…to remove such difficulties… and as to the grants that should be made for the purpose…”

The Constitution merely envisages that to ameliorate the condition of OBCs, the government must set aside more resources for the cause. No stretch of Article 340 can yield the logic that it somehow grants legislative competence to the executive to expand reservations to such an extent that the whole system loses coherence and legitimacy.

Is it the case that the condition of new groups like Marathas has deteriorated so much that it resembles that of the SC/STs and hence they need similar remedies? Interestingly, the Bombay High Court used Article 340 to justify the expansion of quotas in the Maratha case but ignored the crucial clause in the same article, “as to the grants that should be made for the purpose,” which would have strained its reasoning.

The Dalit Nation

We have committed a cognitive hara-kiri on ourselves in smudging the well-defined moral precepts and constitutional provisions that incorporate them. The Bombay HC even cited, to buttress its reasoning, the fact that a majority of the farmers who committed suicide in Maharashtra were Marathas.

In all non-SC/ST demands for reservations, invariably the political argument which, in time, is leavened by legal justification, is that the community in question is in as dire a condition as the SC/STs. Though it is a travesty, any other justification self-destructs itself. So, most of these groups — some of which neatly fit the sociological description  ‘dominant castes’ — don’t hesitate to voluntarily slide down the social hierarchy to claim quota benefits.

As a result, today, upward of 80% of India’s population comprises of the SC/STs and those who are worse off than them, like the Marathas! Please also recall that the Sachar Committee found Muslims to be below Dalits on most human development indices.

In 70 years of independent existence, India has accomplished tremendous progress, including bringing down poverty drastically. In fact, the list of its achievements is rather long. But its legislatures advance arguments that find echo in judicial verdicts that more and more groups are near destitution, making quotas the only solace for them. Having strayed from the truth, we have hardly any strength to take a U-turn.

(The writer is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi)