The announcement that reservation for OBCs is to be extended to IITs and IIMs has provoked much debate in the press. Critics say the move will undermine the functioning of these institutions by devaluing the principle of merit. Cynics add that the announcement was a consequence of the HRD Minister’s wish to outstage and embarrass the Prime Minister. On the other side, there are those who see the extension of reservation as both necessary and overdue. The upper castes, they say, have dominated these institutions, and it is time they shared their privileges with the socially disadvantaged.

As is not uncommon in India, the debate has generated more heat than light. Those who oppose the move dismiss its supporters as ‘populists’. They, in turn, are charged with being ‘elitists’. This article seeks to move beyond the polemics to analyse the issue in its wider social and historical context. What is the logic of reservation? And why does reservation find such favour among the political class?

To answer these questions, we need to go back to August 1990, when Prime Minister V. P. Singh announced that 27% of all Central Government jobs would henceforth be reserved for OBCs. Mr Singh was here endorsing and implementing the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, constituted in 1978, and which submitted its report two years later. This Commission argued that caste was still the main indicator of ‘backwardness’. It identified, on the basis of state surveys, as many as 3743 specific castes which were still ‘backward’. These collectively constituted in excess of 50% of the Indian population. Yet these castes were very poorly represented in the administration, especially at the higher levels. By the Commission’s calculations, the OBCs filled only 12.55% of all posts in the Central Government, and a mere 4.83% of Class I jobs.

To redress this anomaly the Mandal Commission recommended that 27% of all posts in the Central Government be reserved for individuals from these castes, to add to the 22.5% already set apart for Scheduled Castes and Tribes. For ‘we must recognise’, said the Commission, ‘that an essential part of the battle against social backwardness is to be fought in the minds of the backward people. In India Government service has always been looked upon as a symbol of prestige and power. By increasing the representation of OBCs in Government services, we give them an immediate feeling of participation in the governance of this country. When a backward caste candidate becomes a Collector or Superintendent of Police, the material benefits accruing from his position are limited to the members of his family only. But the psychological spin off of this phenomenon is tremendous; the entire community of that backward class candidate feels elevated. Even when no tangible benefits flow to the community at large, the feeling that now it has its “own man” in the “corridors of power” acts as [a] morale booster.’

The most acute assessment of the Mandal Commission came from the pen of the sociologist André Béteille. He argued that reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (which was already in existence) was undeniably motivated by the imperatives of social justice. For centuries, these communities had been stigmatized, discriminated against, and condescended to. The move to reserve 22.5% of government jobs for them was an acknowledgement of the need to redress a historical injustice. On the other hand, reservation for OBCs was motivated by the imperatives of power. These castes had benefited substantially from the agrarian reforms undertaken after Independence. Once tenants-at-will, they had now become (sometimes very substantial) owner-cultivators themselves. At the same time, since they were also very numerous they had become influential in electoral politics. Through the 1960s and 1970s, more and more OBCs became legislators and parliamentarians, State Ministers and Chief Ministers, and Union Ministers.

Economically and politically, the real beneficiaries of Indian democracy had been peasant castes such as Jats, Yadavs, Gujars and Kurmis in the northern states of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Haryana; Marathas in Maharashtra; Vellalas and Gounders in Tamil Nadu; Reddys and Kammas in Andhra Pradesh; and Lingayats and Vokkaligas in Karnataka. These castes now had more land; and a greater presence in political parties and in the legislatures. What they lacked was administrative power. By virtue of the privileges granted them by the Constitution, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes had begun entering government service. Lacking a tradition of education, the OBCs were still kept out. This deficiency was sought to be overcome by reserving a percentage of state jobs for them.

That, in sum, was the logic of the original Mandal Commission. The recent extension of reservation to elite educational institutions is—the word is inescapable—a logical extension. For in the recent, impressive gains made by the Indian economy the OBCs have not benefited proportionately. Upper castes—that is, Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas—constitute less than 20% of the Indian population. Yet they claim perhaps 80% of the jobs in the new economy, in sectors such as software, biotechnology, and hotel management.

In the popular mind, the IITs and the IIMs are something of a passport to the new economy. Entry into one or the other is a virtual guarantee of a handsomely paid job. The Brahmins and Banias crowd into these institutions because generations of practice and social conditioning have made them adept at passing the examinations required to gain entrance. Scheduled Castes and Tribes already have 22.5% of seats reserved for them. But the OBCs remain at a disadvantage; hence the pressure to reserve seats for them, too. What is crucial here is that the IITs and IIMs are publicly funded institutions; started by the state and kept going by the state. This makes it obligatory for them to honour the Constitutional mandate to promote equality of access and opportunity.

In this respect, ‘Mandal II’ follows logically upon ‘Mandal I’. It is a further extension of OBC power and influence into a sector where it previously had scarcely any presence at all. When Mandal I was endorsed by VP Singh in 1990, there were howls of protest from Communist MPs, who thought ‘class’ should also take precedence over ‘caste’. The Congress President Rajiv Gandhi also came out strongly against the proposal. And the BJP leader L. K. Advani sought to answer Mandal with (the Ram) Mandir. This time, however, the criticisms have been confined to the English language press alone. Across the political spectrum, the proposal has been taken as a fait accompli. For no party dare come out openly against a move that has the support of such a numerous and politically powerful section of the Indian population.

My own personal opinion is that in a deeply divided society such as ours, some form of reservation is indeed necessary. Indians born in castes historically denied access to quality education do need special care and support. However, I believe that in schools, colleges and offices alike, reservation should never exceed 33.3%. I also think that for SCs, STs and OBCs alike, family income should be used to determine eligibility for reservation; that only one generation in a family should be granted the privilege; and that children of Class I officials, MLAs and MPs should not be allowed to avail of it. The first restriction would permit institutions to function more autonomously and efficiently than is the case when fully half of its posts are filled on considerations other than individual merit. The second restriction would allow the benefits of reservation to percolate more widely among the population.

But I am only an ordinary writer, with no political affiliation or influence. What I (or my readers) think hardly matters. The principle of reservation is written into the very logic of Indian politics and Indian democracy. In dismissing a petition filed against the Mandal Commission, the Supreme Court imposed a limit of 50% for reserved jobs and posts. I myself think this is excessive; that one in three would work much better than one in two. Others might argue that we should thank the judges for their small mercies—for had they not specified a figure, there might have been no limit at all.