|Political parties in Tamil Nadu, which has a century-old tradition of reservation, unanimously oppose the stay.|
Chennai's arterial road Anna Salai wears a deserted look on March 31, when a state-sponsored 12-hour bandh was observed.
IN Tamil Nadu, which has seen long and ardent struggles from the pre-Independence days for equitable access to education and employment in government services, reservation remains embedded in the collective conscience of the people, particularly the oppressed, as a successful tool for affirmative action against discrimination. It is, therefore, not surprising that there was instant protest from almost all political parties in the State when the Supreme Court stayed, on March 29, the implementation of the Central Act that provides for 27 per cent reservation of seats for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the Central institutions of higher education.
Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi called the order "shocking", summoned a meeting of the leaders of the ruling alliance and announced a 12-hour bandh on March 31. The bandh was total, with the closure of all industrial and commercial establishments and the withdrawal of all road, rail and air transport services. Karunanidhi said the bandh brought life to a standstill, "demonstrating people's support for the cause of social justice".
All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam general secretary Jayalalithaa expressed "shock and agony" over the judgment and sought corrective steps from the Union government. She, however, termed the bandh "an eyewash". Her political ally, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam general secretary Vaiko, who opposed the judgment, had a dig at Karunanidhi for calling the bandh on a Saturday, a holiday. Jayalalithaa said in a statement that the Union government and the parties supporting it should own responsibility for the stay. She faulted the Centre for not adopting "a correct approach" on the issue of providing 27 per cent reservation to OBCs "from the very beginning". The Centre ought to have put forth its arguments more effectively, she said.
The Tamil Nadu Assembly, on March 30, unanimously passed a resolution stating that the Supreme Court order had "caused a setback to social and educational advancement of the oppressed classes" and impinged on the privilege of Parliament. The resolution, moved by the Chief Minister, requested the Union government to convene a joint session of Parliament to take an appropriate decision to ensure that the Backward Classes were not affected.
In a quick follow-up, Karunanidhi brought the Assembly resolution to the attention of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, besides Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee and Rajya Sabha Chairman Bhairon Singh Shekhawat through identical letters. Karunanidhi observed in the letter: "The people of Tamil Nadu, cutting across party lines, are greatly upset over the stay given by the Supreme Court... They now look up to the Government of India to come to their rescue and protect their right to reservation." He reminded the Prime Minister and others that reservation was a product of years of struggle.
A.N. Sattanathan, who headed the first Tamil Nadu Backward Classes Commission, handing over the report of the Commission to Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi in 1970.
The struggle in Tamil Nadu for reservation of jobs in government establishments and seats in educational institutions is a century-old one. The Madras Presidency, which comprised present-day Tamil Nadu besides some areas in Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, was the first presidency in British India to use reservation as an instrument of affirmative action to ensure justice to the deprived. The dawn of the 20th century saw the beginning of the initiatives by prominent Chennai-based non-Brahmin leaders such as Pitty Theagaroyar and T.M. Nair to "protect the interests of the non-Brahmin employees of the British administration".
In the administration, which was in its nascent stage then, there were complaints of domination by Brahmins, who outnumbered others and also occupied senior positions. The Brahmin majority in the administration was a natural corollary of the fact that the community had the largest number of graduates, by virtue of its greater access to education thanks to the prime place it enjoyed in the caste hierarchy. For instance, in 1896, Brahmins, who accounted for 3.2 per cent of the population, occupied 53 per cent of the 140 posts of Deputy Collector, 71.4 per cent of the 18 posts of Sub-Judge and 66.4 per cent of the 128 District Munsif posts. In 1912, their presence increased to 55 per cent, 83.3 per cent and 72.6 per cent respectively
The South Indian Liberal Federation, founded around 1916, championed the cause of non-Brahmins in government service. Representations were made to the then government of the Madras Presidency. In 1921, the Independent Ministry headed by Akaram Subbaroyalu Reddy responded with a Government Order that provided for reservation. The G.O. confronted instant protests and therefore had to be shelved.
Social reformer `Periyar' E.V. Ramasami, who was in the Congress then, pressed his party to support reservation. When the party refused, he quit. He toured the State and mobilised support for the enforcement of the G.O. Only in 1927, the Independent Ministry headed by P. Subbaroyan facilitated the implementation of the Communal G.O., as it was known. The G.O. provided for reservation of 44 per cent of all posts to non-Brahmin Hindus, 16 per cent each to Brahmins, Mohammadens, and Christians and Anglo-Indians, and 8 per cent to Scheduled Castes. In fact, these figures also did not correctly reflect their percentage in population. While Brahmins, Mohammadens, and Christians and Anglo-Indians enjoyed over-representation, the share of the other two sections was not in conformity with their percentage in population. EVR termed it "a compromise" but had to accept it.
This order, based on English School literacy, which was then only around 7 per cent, was in vogue until the country became independent in 1947 and for a few years more post-1947. The Constitution of India came into operation in 1950. Soon, the Madras High Court quashed the Communal G.O. on the grounds that it was violative of the Constitution. The Supreme Court upheld the judgment. EVR spearheaded the Statewide protest against the judgment.
By this time, the Congress also came around to support the struggle to protect reservation. Chief Minister K. Kamaraj took the issue to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who intervened to help amend Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution. Articles 15(4) and 16(4), which empower the States to provide reservation for the educationally and socially backward classes in educational institutions and government service, were introduced.
Successive governments in Tamil Nadu have given special attention to implement reservation. A 2003-04 policy note of the State government claimed that the reservation policy, from its inception in 1921, "has paid good dividends and contributed to substantial educational, social and economic advancement of these [the deprived] classes.... The extent of reservation has been growing upward from time to time consistent with the needs of the majority of the people and it has now reached the level of 69 per cent [18 per cent for S.Cs, 1 per cent for S.Ts., 30 per cent for OBCs and 20 per cent for the Most Backward Classes and Denotified Communities]." This 69 per cent reservation has been in operation for about two decades now, although it is not in conformity with the Supreme Court ruling that reservation cannot exceed the 50 per cent limit. In view of this ruling, the State government passed an Act in 1994 to include the Reservation Act in Schedule 9 of the Constitution, which puts the Act beyond the pale of judicial review. A case against this Act is now pending before the Supreme Court.
Former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. The OBCs got their due, when her government raised to 69 per cent the reservation in educational institutions, through the Tamil Nadu Reservation Act of 1994.
Researchers and education experts often cite the experience of the southern States, where large numbers of seats in professional colleges have been brought under reservation, to convince the critics of reservation who argue that reservation will inevitably lead to a fall in the quality of education. Social scientist Jayati Ghosh writes: "In Tamil Nadu, for example, reservations account for around two-thirds of such seats, even in private institutions, and in Karnataka they are close to half. Yet there is no evidence of inferior quality among the graduates of such institutions; instead, it is widely acknowledged that graduates from the medical and professional colleges in the South are among the best in India" (Economic and Political Weekly, June 17, 2006). She adds: "Surely no one would contest that Vellore Medical College [in Tamil Nadu], for example, is one of the best medical colleges in India; yet, it has consistently operated with an extensive system of reservations accounting for more than half of the seats."
A researcher, Santhosh Mehrotra, who has made a comparative study of the impact of the movements to mobilise Dalits and the other backward communities in Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, has found that the latter has managed to transform the social indicators much better than the former in respect of health and education. He attributes this difference, among other things, to the objectives of the mobilisation and the quality of State interventions in the two States. In the case of Uttar Pradesh the focus of the mobilisation which has happened in the last two decades (unlike in Tamil Nadu where mobilisation of the two sections dates back to the pre-Independence period thanks to the Dravidian movement) was exclusively on capturing power and the gains to the two communities have been only symbolic. On the other hand, in Tamil Nadu, according to the researcher, "the mass mobilisation was broad-based enough to create the space for an all-round advance in the well-being of the entire population of that State." The State intervention to benefit the poor and the needy, which made this advance possible, was basically rooted in the nearly century-old social justice movement in Tamil Nadu. Mehrotra identifies the longer presence of the reservation system in Tamil Nadu (reservation for OBCs came to Uttar Pradesh only around 1990) as one of the many reasons for the State's better show in health and education. He writes, "A major social change introduced in Tamil Nadu relates to the reservation policy in higher education. As a result, in the past 40 years higher professional education has become available to middle castes and classes from district towns. Consequently, a cadre of doctors with roots in small towns is willing to work in primary health centres in villages at commuting distance."
The supporters of the policy of reservation in Tamil Nadu are agitated by the Supreme Court stay on the Act. They fear that prolonged litigation will disappoint prospective students, who were excited over the opening up of the privileged Central institutions of learning for them. The relevant petition, which challenges the Act, has contended that the identification of backwardness is an imperative requirement and cannot be bypassed on any ipse dixit referring to outdated data based on the 1931 Census.
V. Anaimuthu, a Dravidian movement veteran who was closely associated with the reservation movement for over 40 years, did not agree with the contention that the 1931 data were not appropriate for the present moves with regard to reservation. He pointed out that all the Backward Classes Commissions appointed by the Central and State governments, from Kakasaheb Kalelkar to Mandal, had all along been relying on the basic data projected properly to the later periods. Neither the Supreme Court and the High Courts, nor Parliament and State legislatures had raised objections on this ground, he said. It should be noted that the 1931 Census provided the last collection of data based on caste-based, door-to-door enumeration. According to Anaimuthu, the 1941 data were not very dependable because it was taken during the war period. Caste-based enumeration did not take place post-Independence. He blamed vested interests in the administration for that decision.
Anaimuthu, who is also the general secretary of the Marxist-Periyarist Communist Party, said his party wanted the 27 per cent reservation provided in the Act to be implemented "at one go" and not as proposed - starting with 9 per cent in the first year and adding on 9 per cent each in the subsequent two years.