Fast track caste politics

Pre-Election Mood

By Dr.S.Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)

In recent days, one cannot help noticing that some of the long pending demands of caste groups are moving on fast track. Those who make the demands are getting more and more vociferous and concerned respondents are equally more and more inclined to lend their ears. Elections are approaching. It is the best time to raise demands for the clients; and also to concede or promise them for the power holders and power seekers.
And so recognised caste groups in our society, though never dormant for any reason, have become extra active to utilise the opportunity to gain support for concessions and privileges as political parties are in election mood. It is Parliament elections. More than individual castes/communities which are seen active during State elections, groups such as OBC, SC and ST appear on the scene.
Jats, Lingayats, Patidars, Marathas, Vanniars, Kapus, etc., may go in the background for a while. The stage is taken by SC and ST, OBC, and MBC collectivities. Bigger “vote banks”-partly notional and partly real – try to appropriate the field. Three major developments can be seen in this politics of caste-group appeasement vigorously pursued by all parties.
Parliament, with unanimous support of all parties passed a Bill on 6th August to restore all provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act including restoration of the provision for automatic arrest for offences under the law which was diluted by the Supreme Court insisting on a preliminary enquiry before arrest.
Law has overturned the Supreme Court’s ruling banning anticipatory bail in such cases and introducing preliminary enquiry of the complaint before arrest. Noteworthy is the fact that all political parties are against dilution of the Act in any manner. Some even went to the extent of blaming the government for Supreme Court’s ruling to gain advantage through incorrect political propaganda.
Doubtless, it was an opportunity for all parties to profess and exhibit their unflinching support to the cause of SC and ST. That caste discriminations still go on without hindrance is an altogether different matter. That even temple entry is denied to these castes in many places despite being in the forefront in constructing these temples seems to be a non-political issue to these parties.
Close on the heels of this dramatic gesture, the government has given a big push to the question of reservation in promotions termed as “accelerated promotion with consequential seniority” for members of SC/ST in public employment. The reason for this sudden urgency is cited as “1000 years of deprivation”!
The government has suddenly realised that its hands are tied due to the judgement of a 5-judge Constitution Bench in 2006 that barred the government from introducing quota in promotion unless it is proved that the particular Dalit community is backward and inadequately represented, and such a reservation in promotion would not affect the over-all efficiency of public administration. The Court had also ruled that the stand of the government should be supported by adequate statistics.
There are several court decisions in the matter that are not consistent with one another. Separate verdicts have been passed by Delhi, Bombay, Punjab and Haryana courts. In view of this, the apex court had ordered “status quo’ in the matter in 2015.
Now, the government wants the verdict to be re-examined by a larger Bench. A host of petitions pending in the Supreme Court on reservation in promotions for SC/ST communities has been taken up and arguments on either side have been heard by a 7-judge Bench of the Supreme Court. The court has reserved judgement on these petitions for re-examining the earlier court decision.
Textbooks on public administration teach that promotion means elevation from a given position to a higher one with enhanced pay carrying more difficult type of work and involving responsibility. Designation gets changed and with it internal staff positions. The normal administrative practice is to take into account length of service, efficiency, professional requirement of the concerned posts, etc., in granting promotions.
Primarily, promotion is nobody’s birth right. It is a reward and acknowledgement for good work. It is given in recognition of a person’s ability to take up higher responsibilities in an organisation. Opportunities for promotion act as incentives and transform even the dull office atmosphere to a happy set up conducive to efficiency and interest in work.
Today, in the context of applying the Reservation Policy to promote caste equality and remove stagnation and deprivation, it is felt that initial recruitment by preferential treatment is not enough. Further elevation is considered necessary. In this thinking, promotion is delinked from its real administrative content and is understood and projected as higher emoluments and greater authority, more privileges, and superior social status. Promotion becomes a tool for social elevation and not efficient administration.
Quota-based promotions will upset the hierarchical relations and will worsen the office atmosphere unless accompanied with suitable administrative changes. The beneficiaries and the hopefuls assured of promotions should not lose inclination to learn, work, and earn their fitness to the promotions. While boosting the morale of the benefited employees, quota-based promotion should avoid creating a sense of alienation among the members superseded in the process.
Towards this, it is necessary to link promotion by reservation with transfers to other departments/ offices. Further, elementary sense of justice demands that no person should be favoured with multiple benefits meaning that those who enter under reservation quota should be barred from quota-based promotion; and no person should be given this benefit more than once. In any case, promotion should not be automatic, but should be earned under any system. Such rules are necessary to prevent cornering of preferential treatment by the “creamy layer” which will widen inequality among the SC and ST.
It is believed that expanding the benefits of Reservation Policy should not be done without reliable data on the existence of castes and their actual social and economic conditions. Here comes the third significant step proposed to be launched by the government.
As a preliminary, the National Commission for Backward Classes set up in 1993 as a statutory body was made a Constitutional body by 123rd amendment of the Constitution. In 2011 census, the previous UPA II government undertook a caste census breaking the census policy made in 1951 to stop caste census done by the British Government from 1871 to 1931. It was called Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC).
Huge data were collected in 2011 and an expert group was appointed in Niti Aayog to decide on sub-classification and categorization of the SECC data. The task was stupendous and unmanageable as the data threw up 46 lakh castes, sub-castes, and clans with no clue for their classification. In 2021, a list of pre-decided castes will be provided to the enumerators and every person will be counted under one caste.
Inter-caste marriages are becoming common and the number claiming to belong to more than one caste is increasing. Caste census is going to expose the confusion in the caste system and may produce data far removed from reality.—INFA