WHEN THE Constitution was being written in the period between Independence and November 1949, it was clear to the enlightened minds that crafted it that the historical wrongs done to Hinduism’s so-called “Untouchables” needed to be redressed. As such, a system of quotas for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SCs and STs) found widespread acceptance.
As the years passed, discrepancies and angularities slipped in. From a short-term corrective, Dalit reservations became self-perpetuating. Today, it is impossible to imagine caste being replaced by any other parameter of deprivation. Electoral politics will simply not allow it. Nevertheless, given the nature of Indian society, there is an instinctive sympathy for Dalit reservations that, say, quotas for OBCs simply lack.
The matter of reservations in promotions has been less straightforward. While fast-track promotions for Dalits have been legal for close to 60 years, they have been challenged by the courts several times. In the past 20 years, easing promotions for Dalits has necessitated two constitutional amendments, with a third now proposed under the Constitution (117th Amendment) Bill.
The first of these amendments came in 1995. The then Congress government was faced with a Supreme Court judgment that said the idea of reservation was confined to initial appointment and not any subsequent promotion. The second amendment came in 2001, when the NDA government accepted the principle of reservations in promotions, “with consequential seniority”.
The third amendment, mooted by the UPA government, follows another Supreme Court judgment, one that holds that every case of reservation in promotion would need to be supported by “compelling reasons” related to backwardness, poor representation in the upper echelons of the government and overall efficiency of administration. The new Bill proposes SCs (and STs) be deemed backward ipso facto. As such, there will be no need to provide the “compelling reasons” and adhere to the court’s verdict.
What does this amount to? A manual labourer who happens to be Dalit will be accorded the same “backwardness” as an additional secretary to the Government of India who is seeking promotion to the rank of secretary and whose father may also have been an IAS officer of the rank of secretary.
Essentially, what is being created is not a fast track but a parallel track that will run through a candidate’s or government servant’s entire career.
While the amendment will have an all-India impact, the battle is being fought out, really, in Uttar Pradesh. The principal beneficiaries of an unfettered promotion quota will, of course, be serving bureaucrats. Dalit bureaucrats in Uttar Pradesh, especially those of the Jatav sub-community that has provided the BSP its intellectual ballast since its Dalit Soshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (DS4) avatar, are patently interested parties.
However, it is not inevitable that the 117th Amendment Bill will go through. The 1995 and 2001 amendments preceded Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. This time, the election is over. The BSP has been defeated but neither the BJP nor the Congress seriously believes Mayawati’s Dalit vote can be weaned away. Congress MPs are already talking about this Bill become a “second Women’s Reservation Bill” — the provision for reservation of Lok Sabha seats for women being obstructed by OBC-centric regional parties.
Even if the amendment does get parliamentary approval, the number of officers who will be promoted will be small. By itself, this will be too minor a phenomenon to make life different for Dalits or to seriously block chances of advance for non-Dalit aspirants to the civil services.
Yet, with economic growth falling and with the job market anything but buoyant, narratives of victimhood and counter-victimhood find the soil more fertile than at any time in the past decade. That is what gives Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Samajwadi Party the inducement to take on the quota for Dalit promotions, target even upper caste youth with their message, and spread the word in Lucknow that “junior senior ban jayega” ( junior will become the senior).
There’s an old expression for this: déjà vu.
Ashok Malik is Contributing Editor, Tehelka.