ABROGATION OF ARTICLE 370 DONE…TIME NOW TO REVIEW RESERVATIONS?

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This is a layman piece. I am no political analyst, social scientist or economist. Just a confused citizen like many others. I am glad that the government has taken it upon itself, to clarify matters to confused citizens about the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35 (A) of the Constitution, that conferred special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. So much so, that the Prime Minister himself considered it appropriate to reach out to the people through a self-authored newspaper article in leading dailies, a victory message of sorts, in which he lauded the Supreme Court on delivering a historic judgement, formalising the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35 (A)  by the Parliament in 2019.

Among several things that the Prime Minister highlighted, one was aimed at clearing confusion in people’s minds about the accession of the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) to the Union of India. In the case of J&K, we suffered a mindset of duality. J&K’s accession was total just like the other princely states that acceded to India. So why should there have been any special status in the first place? The sharp divide between the ruling dispensation and some others point to unhappiness in some quarters about dissolution of the special status, the resultant stoppage of the inflow of funds on this account and the blowing away of the latter’s old way of life. Be that as it may, the government’s intention of bringing J&K into the development mainstream with an umbrella of security is laudable.

One hopes that the internal situation in J&K will improve soon and statehood will be restored at the earliest. One also hopes that conditions will be created for Kashmiri Pandits to return to their homes, reclaim their property, restart their businesses and live without fear of terrorism. This must be done, whatever it takes, including the harshest of measures. It will send a message to supporters of separatism and terrorism that the Government of India will follow through on this historic judgement with finality. As a normal citizen, I want to believe that this will indeed happen.

The next major task that I would like to propose at the national level is the review of reservations. Most readers will stop reading this piece here and now, as they may think that I am writing nonsense. For those who will read on, I will write on. Reservations have been the subject of many a disagreement, controversy and riot. It is an exceptionally versatile political tool. Reservations divide society into sections and each of these sections is a veritable vote bank. Whether on the basis of population, religion, caste, sex or backwardness, they divide. Vote-bank politics make political parties grant benefit after benefit to these sections at the expense of the majority; to the extent that a certificate denoting such a section for whom reservations are made everywhere, is a much sought after commodity – damn the caste, community or stars under which anyone was born. That certificate is the passport to the green channel of opportunities.

For the moment, I am not at all hopeful that any concrete measure will even be discussed by any political dispensation about casting any form of reservation away. The manner in which chief ministers of states and their deputies are being appointed seem to suggest the very opposite. Political parties even have presidents of reserved category ‘morchas’ within their own organisations, to signal their support to such categories. Further, general elections are too close for any political entity to meddle around with this hot potato. Any discontent created along reservation lines by any political dispensation would provide ammunition to the other side in the run up to the elections in 2024.

The Constituent Assembly debates on reservations are interesting and is recommended reading for those interested. The architects of our Constitution had created a provision for reservations to benefit the socially and educationally backward classes, based on the situation prevalent in the late 1940s. That may have been the call of the time and was provided initially for ten years, to uplift the underprivileged. It left open the decision to review the need to the state, thereafter. Even at that time, there were strong voices against reservation, as it laid a premium on backwardness and inefficiency. The term ‘backward classes’ itself, was and is, still inadequately defined. Its scope can therefore, be misconstrued.

The Mandal Commission, set up in 1979, sought to enhance reservations. This led to widespread protests across the length and breadth of the country when the VP Singh government displayed an intention to implement its recommendations. Seventy-six years have passed since independence. Where the need for reservations should have declined gradually with the improvement in our economic situation over the years, political expediency has ensured that these have only increased in every sphere – from education to government jobs to promotions, appointment to political bodies and beyond.

Even competitive examination evaluations for undergraduate professional education favour ‘special’ candidates who can secure admissions with much lower performances. It is a curse to be a general category male student in India and this curse is one of the primary reasons for bright young people moving abroad for education. I am convinced that if one is a general category male, doing well in India, that individual is among the best of the best in any field of activity, given the tremendous barriers that must be surmounted for a reasonable degree of achievement.

I would like to suggest to subsequent elected governments at the Centre and states, to formulate policy that will cease most categories of reservations within the next twenty years. Do not differentiate on the basis of population, caste, class, sex or religion. Let physical or mental disability, and economic status be the only arbiters of reservation and special status. Even economic status of individuals must be continuously evaluated so that it is not misused to garner undeserved gain. Also, the benefit of reservation must be applicable only once in the lifetime of an individual and not at every stage in life. Details of all such preferential treatment must be made public and transparent, so that records can be verified.

This can only be attempted by a government that has, not just a majority mandate but a whole lot of guts. After the courageous step of abrogating Articles 370 and 35 (A) of the Constitution, the bull of reservations must also be taken by the horns. As Justice Jamshed Burjor Pardiwala of the Supreme Court had opined, “Reservation is not an end but a means – a means to secure social and economic justice.” One can understand that reservation is a means for positive affirmation but it cannot go on endlessly.

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