At some point, sooner rather than later, the central government has to realise that postponing the issue of increased caste-based reservation by groups that cannot possibly be considered backward simply isn’t going to work. Earlier this year, in an attempt to quell the bloody Jat agitation for reservations, the state government in Haryana, also led by the BJP, passed a Bill declaring them to be backward classes. This, however, is being challenged in the Punjab and Haryana high court—when the UPA had tried something similar in 2014, this was struck down by the Supreme Court which also spoke of the need to move ‘away from caste-centric definition of backwardness’. When, in 2016, the SC ruled against SC/ST who were trying to claim quotas as a right in government job-promotions, the Centre set up a committee in the department of personnel and training to come up with suggestions on how to retain the quota in promotions.
Given this background of appeasement, it is not surprising that Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis should seek to quell the Maratha agitation by, among others, promising to try and get the Backward Classes Commission to complete its report and submit it to the Bombay High Court at the earliest. While the state can push for the maximum punishment for the dalits accused of raping and murdering a 14-year-old Maratha girl—one of the demands of the agitating Marathas—it is difficult to see how it can possibly accept another demand of scrapping the Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act since that will lead to SC/ST protests. The problem, as Fadnavis knows, is that he simply cannot deliver on reservations for Marathas given how many commissions, going back to Kalelkar in 1955, have rejected this demand. Indeed, when the Congress-NCP government in the state granted a 16% reservation to Marathas just before the 2014 elections in the hope this would help it retain power, it ran into trouble in the Bombay High Court. Like his counterpart in Rajasthan, who demanded this when she sought to provide reservations for Gujjars, it is possible Fadnavis will also ask the Centre to place his Bill under the Ninth Schedule—given how, in IR Coelho, in 2007, SC had ruled Ninth Schedule protection was not sacrosanct, it is not clear how this will fly.
In which case, instead of trying to postpone the problem, prime minister Narendra Modi needs to come up with possible alternatives to address the issue—given how admissions in colleges are more a function of school education than reservation, any solution has to revolve around this. But in order to do that, it has to be made clear to all groups that more reservations are simply not possible.