The Supreme Court verdict asking the government to move away from caste-centric reservation for backwards deals a blow to politics of reservation often played in the most blatant manner just before polls.
The verdict is landmark for several important reasons. First, it forces the policy makers to think creatively beyond caste for identification of socially and educationally backward classes. For decades successive governments have found caste-based quota an easy way out to achieve the constitutional goal of equality to undo historic injustice to backward castes in Hindu society.
Second, the fact that the SC rejected old data to justify inclusion of Jats in the OBC category and emphasised that all citizens were advancing on every front - social, economic and education — should serve as a reminder to politicians and bureaucrats who are not in sync with the changed social realities and continue to have a 20th century mindset. The top court has given them a jolt.
The constitutional mandate under Article 16(4) and Article 15(5) that deal with reservation in jobs and education respectively is to ensure equality of opportunity in matters of public employment and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.
The government’s affirmative actions are based on positive discrimination.
But the manner in which reservation policy has been pursued by successive governments — irrespective of their political ideology — created social discord and deprived many deserving socially and educationally backward groups of its benefits.
Reservation policy, if not properly thought out, becomes even more discriminatory, rather than a means of achieving social justice.
Be it the 1990 decision of VP Singh’s government to introduce quota in jobs for OBCs or the 2008 decision of the UPA-I government to extend it to education — the decisions led to prolonged agitation and social unrest. In both the cases the SC verdicts had the calming effect as it enjoys public confidence more than that enjoyed by the legislature or the executive.
What made the 1992 Mandal verdict acceptable was the court’s decision to put a 50% ceiling on reservation and exclude the creamy layer among OBCs.
The top court has once again shown judicial statesmanship by displaying a progressive and realistic approach to reservation that would ensure that “only to the most distressed” benefit from it.
A similar approach is needed to rationalise reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes by excluding the rich among these communities. This would ensure that only the most deserving SC and SC candidates get the benefit of reservation.
Left to politicians, such progressive decisions would never happen. If judges can innovate, why can’t politicians?