The concept of reservation, which was discussed in great detail during the Constituent Assembly debates, is much older than the drafting of the Constitution. The Members of the Assembly, along with many of the minority groups that they represented, were wary of the implications of reserving seats in the Legislative Assembly, claiming that it would serve to exacerbate differences that people felt with one another and increase separatist tendencies. They also identified that promoting reservations, ironically, came with a certain degree of exclusion.
There was exclusion of religion. The motion originally did not apply to many Christian, Sikh or other non-Hindu groups. Lower or backward castes of different religions had to institutionalise themselves into the group “Scheduled Castes” just to be able to express that they had been oppressed and needed representation. There was exclusion of lower caste communities that were less populated than others and had less probability of representation. And finally, there was exclusion of poor people of upper castes.
With this, most Members of the Assembly expressed worry that reservation was not the ideal way of achieving true representation. Even Muslim and Sikh Members knew that it would create a series of sub-castes that would further worsen the relations between and within the existing communities, making it difficult to achieve adequate representation. Further, many believed that trusting the elected representatives, even if they were part of majority communities, was a part of democracy.
The Members of the Assembly also believed that a fundamental part of democracy was the changing nature of the public. This comes through in Vallabhai Patel’s certainty that social justice would be seen in democracy’s natural course, without the need for political intervention, which is apparent when he says, “What brought about the abolition of slavery? Was it safeguards granted to them by anyone? No, it was the awakened conscience of the various countries.” As with other social evils worldwide, he believed that caste discrimination would eventually become unacceptable in Indian society.
The Members talked about uplifting the backward classes. But the fact that identifying these people was a point of contention shows the ambiguity of the term. Mahavir Tyagi said, “The term Scheduled Castes is a fiction…there are some castes who are depressed, some castes who are poor, some who are untouchables…How is Dr Ambedkar a member of the Scheduled Castes? Is he illiterate? Is he an untouchable? Is he lacking in anything?…I do not believe in the minorities on community basis, but minorities must exist on economic basis.”
This identified the final goal of reservations, which was and is to provide equal opportunities and representation to everyone, irrespective of social status. As Brajeshwar Prasad said, the Scheduled Castes’ “downtrodden nature is not political, it is cultural and economic and educational.” Clearly this is an economic problem in our country, as shown by Tyagi’s further assertion: that it was not the scheduled castes that needed special provisions “but “cobblers, washermen, and similar classes,” along with farmers, who did not enjoy this very urban provision. Many identified it as an economic problem in our country, including Dr P S Deshmukh, who said, “there are millions of people in our country whose obstacles are in no way different from those of the Scheduled Castes; and I wish to leave room for such people.”
Reservations were finally agreed upon even by those who were uncomfortable with it, because it was initially only supposed to be in place for ten years, and because the reasons expressed for the need for them could not be disputed – it could not be denied that lower castes and minorities had faced appalling atrocities from other communities in their history, and needed justice. However, no distinction was made between social and economic backwardness in the drafting of the articles. It may have just been easier to distinguish the latter from the former because of the significant overlap. It is also important to note that the Poona Pact had already taken place by this point and that reservations in the Assembly had been acknowledged as preferable to separate electorates, which would have been even more dangerous for the notion of equality.
Interestingly, it was also brought up during the debates that the sense of justice with which Indians were judging caste discrimination, was a product of British rule, and that the myriad of communities and their relations had been reduced to the British-introduced majority-minority binary. This binary made the extent of discrimination all the more apparent.
The fact that reserving seats in the Legislature has not eradicated the social evil that is the caste system supports the contention that social evils and economic inequality cannot be solved with political changes. What the Members of the Assembly fundamentally wanted was to provide some form of equality. There are more appropriate ways to achieve the same goals as political representation without the use of political representation. This is particularly desirable in the current context, wherein placements in government enterprises are less valuable than they were fifty years ago. Identifying people on the basis of income level or standard of living, and providing them with education, land, employment or subsidies, as many contemporary programs do, offers more empowerment to individuals than does political representation. Providing backward castes with “functional capabilities”, as Amartya Sen defines them, brings about a more sustainable approach to real progress and equality.