Overview: Reservation in India: A Controversial Topic Explored
Nov. 09, 2023 • Priyanshi Lekhwar
Reservation in India is one of the most controversial topics in Indian history, with various aspects that are highly debated. It is a very wide concept that numerous people support, but many people oppose it. What is a reservation? It is simply to give a certain number of seats to uplift and improve the condition of underprivileged members of society in social and educational institutes. Reservations are given to those communities that were suppressed or discriminated against by other sections of society in the past. And because of this historical injustice and discrimination, the caste-based reservation system originated.[i]
William Hunter and Jyoti Rao Phule conceived the idea of reservation in 1882. The Hunter Commission was also established in 1882, in which Jyoti Rao Phule urged to give free and mandatory education and government employment under it. In 1902, India’s first official notification came to establish reservations for the benefit of underprivileged groups in society. 50% of the reservation was given to economically disadvantaged people in the state of Kolhapur. In 1908, a reservation was instituted to support suppressed castes and communities. In 1919, provisions for reservation were introduced under the Government of India Act 1919 (Morley Minto Reforms), which contained provisions made in 1919. In 1921, the Madras presidency took action and allocated reservations to several groups of society: 44% for non-Brahmins of society, 16% for Muslims, 16% for Anglo-Indian Christians, and 8% for scheduled caste peoples. On September 16, 1921, the first Justice Party (the South Indian Liberal Federation) government passed the first communal government order of reservation.
Need and Purpose
The backward classes of society and the suppressed caste people have faced many injustices throughout history. They were treated very badly and many times even not allowed to practice their basic rights like education or worship in temples. There were many injustices like these due to the caste system, which led to the formation of reservations based on caste. The main purpose of the reservation was to give relief and also to confer benefits to the backward classes of our country to uplift, empower, and help them get proper education, good jobs, and a better standard of living. This allows them to stand equally with others and also ensures their participation in the decision-making process in a democratic state like ours.
Types of Reservations
The terms ‘vertical reservation’ and ‘horizontal reservation’ are used in Indian contexts to refer to the distribution of reserved seats among several particular groups. ‘Vertical reservation’ describes the distribution of seats or positions that are reserved for particular groups or categories, such as EWS, SCs, STs, and OBCs. Each of these groups is allotted a specific percentage of seats, for instance, in government job openings or educational institutions. To rectify historical and socio-economic inequities, this will guarantee that people from these groups have access to equal opportunities and representation. Conversely, ‘horizontal reservations’ span the vertical reservation categories and are intended for particular groups within those categories that experience additional difficulties or disadvantages. This guarantees an equitable allocation of opportunities to all qualified individuals, regardless of their particular classification, such as accommodations for people with physical disabilities, veterans, women, and other marginalized communities. Major categories based on which reservations have been elaborated below:[ii]
Gender-based reservation: The major question that arises is why should we give gender-based reservations, be specific to women. As women faced many difficulties and violence against them, they needed to step out of their traditional roles and start practicing in different areas of society other than being enclosed in the four walls of their homes. This was to maintain the gender ratio in different work fields. As per the inter-parliamentary union, the participation of women in parliament in India is far less than in many other countries.
Women’s Reservation Bill: After a long wait, the Women's Reservation Bill, which had been unanimously approved by both houses of parliament, was officially signed into law by the president of India in September 2023, on the first day when the parliament began its sitting in the new parliament building of India. It aims to allocate one-third (33%) of the seats in the Lok Sabha, state legislatures' upper houses, and the legislative assembly of Delhi to women. Additionally, it also adds horizontal reservation to the women's quota for women who belong to the SCs and STs. However, according to the Act, women's reservations will be in place for fifteen years, starting with a delimitation process that happens after the next census.[iii]
Caste-based reservation: This is the most controversial type of reservation. This is given to the SCs, STs, and OBCs, who get the reservation based on caste. They are given a total of 50% of the quota for different sections, like education institutions and government jobs.[iv]
Income-based reservations: This is based on the financial condition of people. Many people considered it a better option than a caste-based reservation, as it is good to provide reservations to poor people. This 10% reservation, is given to the economically weaker section who don’t come under any caste reservation. To get this reservation, family income must be below 8,00,000 per year, farmland must be less than 5 acres, and houses must be smaller than 1000 square feet. This reservation is also seen as a poverty alleviation move.
Reservation of differently-abled people: This reservation is provided to differently-abled people who have any disability of 40% or more, which includes blindness, visual defects, hearing disorders, etc., and should be certified by a doctor. These people get equal rights and opportunities by reservation, and 3% of seats are reserved for these people in government educational institutes and jobs.
The Mandal Commission
Mandal Commission was appointed in 1979 under the leadership of B.P. Mandal as per Article 340 of the constitution. It was the second commission for backward classes in India. Before, caste-based reservation was only given to scheduled tribes and scheduled castes, but the Mandal Commission recommended 27% reservation for other backward classes in government institutions, as the Commission reported that 52% of the country's population was comprised of other backward classes. In 1992, in Indra Sawhney v. Union of India, the nine-judge bench of the SC upheld 27% reservation for OBCs based on the Mandal Commission report and also defined the term backward classes of citizens.[v]
Constitutional Provisions [vi]
Article 15(3) provides for making special provisions for women. In that context, any reservation of seats for women in educational institutions will not be violative of Article 15. The state aims to protect and uplift women.
Article 15(4) of the Indian Constitution states that nothing in this article or Article 29(2) shall prevent states from making any special provisions for SC, ST, or any education of socially backward classes for their advancement. Article 16(4) states that nothing in this article shall prevent the state from making laws on the reservation or appointment of posts for backward classes or suppressed people who are not adequately represented in services under the state in the opinion of the state.
Article 46 states that the promotion of education for SC, ST, and other weaker sections of the state shall provide special care, like educational and economic interest, and protect them from social injustice and any kind of exploitation.
Articles 243D and 233T provide reservation of seats for SCs and STs in every Panchayat and Municipality (one-third representation) respectively. Articles 330 and 332 provide for specific representation through the reservation of seats for SCs and STs in the Parliament and in the Legislative Assemblies of the States respectively.
State of Madras v. Champakam Dorairajan: It is one of the important rulings regarding reservation in India. This landmark decision by the Supreme Court amended the Constitution for the first time, inserting clause (4) into Article 15. The decision also stated that the directive principles of the state policy cannot override the fundamental rights provided by the constitution.[vii]
Indra Sawhney v. Union of India (known as the Mandal Case): In 1992, nine judges on the bench of the Supreme Court gave a judgment in which 27% of reservations were provided to socially and educationally backward classes and divided them into two parts: creamy and non-creamy layers. The Supreme Court also put a 50% cap on reservations and said reservations should not increase more than 50% of the total number of seats. This case examined the exact scope and extent of Article 16(4) of the Constitution.[viii]
M. Nagaraj v. Union of India: Later in 2006, the Supreme Court while upholding the validity of Article 16(4) specifically mentioned that there should be three compelling reasons to uphold any reservation as valid. These include backwardness, inadequacy of representation, and overall efficiency in administration.[ix]
Janhit Abhiyan v. Union of India: In 2019, a bench of five judges of the Supreme Court gave a judgment in which 10% reservation was given to economically weaker sections (103rd Amendment).[x]
Pros and Cons of Reservation System
There are several advantages to reservation: giving it to backward classes can promote them and help them get good jobs and living standards. Monetary benefits are also given, which help them get concessions in fees and save their money. This also provides social justice and equality. It reduces some of the gap between rich and backward classes. Better opportunities are provided to them, which also helps them reduce the poverty line.
There are also many disadvantages, like the fact that many times opportunity does not reach needy people. In the general category, students do not get as bright a chance to grab opportunities if they are from poor families. One of the major disadvantages of this is dirty politics. Politicians provide more reservations to win the election, which divides the nation. They play with the emotions of people and use this only as a winning opportunity rather than improving people's conditions.[xi]
Initially, the caste-based reservation system was implemented for ten years, but the period was further extended. The 95th Amendment extended the period of reservation to 2020. The period of reservation was further extended to 2030 by the 104th Amendment to the Constitution.
Do We Still Need It?
Yes, we still need the reservations in our country because we think that now, based on caste, we do not discriminate against people and treat everyone equally, but the ground reality is very different in rural areas from urban areas, where many people still follow these conventions. It is the duty of the state to provide equality to its citizens. India has come so far after its independence, but the cry for reservations has only risen in numbers. We need it now, but that does not mean it will be needed in the future as well. Reservations in India are a burning and sensitive issue, literally a vote-bank issue in India.
The Supreme Court of India said in an economically weaker section quota verdict that reservation policy cannot last for an infinite period. Justice Bela M. Trivedi said reservation policy must have time spent at the end of 75 years of independence, as the reservation system should be revised for the greater interest of society as a whole.[xii]
In India, there has been great debate and discord regarding the reservation system. While it has been crucial in rectifying historical injustices and giving opportunities to neglected communities; it has been criticized for creating divisions and failing to serve the most deserving people adequately. The problem is that our reservation system is not perfect to cover all needy people in society but also not so imperfect to eliminate it from our Constitution; it is semi-perfect. There is still the need for reservations, but with the changing times, it’s time to switch the methods by which they are made available to people in need. With our society being modern, our approach to solving problems should also be modern. Anyhow, the complicated nature of India's attempts to attain social justice and equality is reflected in the ongoing debates about the reservation system.
[ii] Types of reservations: https://articles.manupatra.com/article-details/Reservation-A-Sin-or-a-Blessing
[iii] The Women’s Reservation Bill, 2023.
[vi] The Constitution of India, 1950
[vii] State of Madras v. Champakam Dorairajan, AIR 1951 SC 226.
[viii] Indra Sawhney v. Union of India, AIR 1993 SC 477.
[ix] M. Nagaraj v. Union of India, AIR 2007 SC 71 : (2006) 8 SCC 212.
[x] Janhit Abhiyan v. Union of India, Writ Petition (Civil) No. 55 of 2019.
[xi] Monika Chopra, Reservation system in India: advantages and disadvantages, International Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol.15(1), pg.30–37 (2021). Retrieved from: https://ijeponline.org/index.php/journal/article/view/4
[xii] Supra note (x).
Disclaimer: The author affirms that this article is an entirely original work, never before submitted for publication at any journal, blog, or other publication avenue. Any unintentional resemblance to previously published material is purely coincidental. This article is intended solely for academic and scholarly discussion. The author takes personal responsibility for any potential infringement of intellectual property rights belonging to any individuals, organizations, governments, or institutions.
About the Author: Priyanshi Lekhwar is a first-year BA.LL.B student at Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, Pitampura, New Delhi.