From Hardik to Vasundhara, and Bhagwat

Rajasthan’s reservations for economically backward upper castes and RSS chief add heat to debate

7th pay commission report

sunil jainWith Hardik Patel trying to revive his agitation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat talking of the need to relook reservations, and the Rajasthan government going and increasing reservations in the state to 69%, the reservations pot has truly come to a boil. Hardik Patel, whose disappearance prompted the Gujarat High Court ordering the government to find him, has now resurfaced, alleging he was abducted and his life threatened if he did not give up the demand for reservation for Patels.

And in the middle of all this, with Bhagwat’s statement looking like it could become an election issue in the Bihar assembly polls—politicians such as Lalu Prasad who have run their entire political career only on the basis of reservations are trying to gain ground by arguing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is going to abolish reservations—communications minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has said the government is not planning on relooking its reservations strategy. What will emerge from all of this is unclear, but certainly the Rajasthan action will not only give a fillip to Hardik Patel, it will bring the judiciary into the picture as well.

For one, with fresh reservations of 14% for the economically backward among the forward castes—a bit like what Hardik says many Patels are—and 5% for the special backward castes that includes the Gujjars, Rajasthan’s reservation levels are way above the 50% the Supreme Court prescribed in MR Balaji vs State of Mysore in 1963 and reiterated in Indra Sawhney vs Union of India in 1992. While there have been exceptions to the principles laid down in these judgments, the 50% rule has, by and large, been accepted as the Lakshman Rekha of reservations.

Two, while Rajasthan has asked the Centre to place the law under the Ninth Schedule to the Constitution which technically puts it beyond the reach of the judiciary, this is likely to result in a faceoff with the judiciary. In IR Coelho vs Tamil Nadu in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that laws enacted and included in the Ninth Schedule after April 24, 1973, would not enjoy judicial immunity—the Ninth Schedule was initially brought in by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to ensure zamindars could not challenge the takeover of their land but was later abused by bringing in other laws as well. The then chief justice YK Sabharwal had opined that if laws in the Ninth Schedule abridged or abrogated fundamental rights or violated the basic structure of the Constitution, they would be struck down.

All of which suggests the Centre is unlikely to agree to include Rajasthan’s laws in the Ninth Schedule. But if the Centre does agree to Rajasthan’s suggestion, this will weaken Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel’s negotiating hand—her biggest counter to Hardik Patel has been that further reservations which would take the total to over 50% will run afoul of the Supreme Court’s previous directions.

Such debates over the future of reservation, interestingly, are not restricted to the BJP alone. In Uttar Pradesh, Congress leader Jitin Prasada has been arguing for relooking non-SC/ST reservations that, he says, have been cornered by dominant OBCs while the economically backward among the upper castes have been left out.

This, in fact, is the precise point that Hardik Patel is making, that while Patels may seem a prosperous group of people, there are several among them that are economically badly off. Indeed, as the NSS, NCAER and PRICE surveys have shown, OBCs are not even economically backward as a group, and they are certainly not socially discriminated against. According to the PRICE all-India survey (see tables), while the average household income level across India in 2014 was Rs 1,97,686, that for OBC families was not too different at Rs 1,90,844—compared to this, the average SC household earned Rs 1,66,449 and the average ST household earned Rs 1,56,311.

The disaggregated data tells an even more interesting story, the story that Rajasthan seems to be telling through its 14% reservation for economically backward upper castes and the one Hardik Patel has been narrating for several months now. With 16.8% of SC and ST households—a coincidence—having at least one matriculate member, the average household income in 2014 was Rs 1,72,030 for this category of SC households and Rs 1,62,949 for ST households. In the case of upper castes, by a strange coincidence, around the same proportion—17.5% actually—of households do not have even a matriculate member. For those upper caste households where everyone is illiterate, the annual household income was a mere Rs 87,862 in 2014, Rs 1,26,733 in cases where at least one member had reached primary school and Rs 1,48,696 where one member had passed primary school.

Other parameters certainly matter—those employed in industry earn more than those in agriculture and those in cities earn more than those in villages, but by far the biggest boost is that provided by education. That chance is what the forward castes are asking for, that is what the Rajasthan government has agreed to, and that is what Hardik Patel wants. Getting entrenched OBCs or even privileged SC/STs to give up what has been granted to them for so many decades isn’t going to be easy, so a certain amount of tension is certain. How much it can be contained depends upon how Gujarat and the central government handle Hardik Patel and what the consequences will be if the Rajasthan proposals are struck down by the court. Given the wide differences in income resulting from access to education, however, the agitations are likely to gather strength with the passage of time.

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First published on: 24-09-2015 at 00:24 IST