From the constituent assembly to the Indra Sawhney case, tracing the debate on economic reservations

28 March 2019
The constituent assembly debated the nature and scope of reservations in India.
The constituent assembly debated the nature and scope of reservations in India.

On 12 January, the Indian constitution was amended through the 103rd Constitutional Amendment to introduce a reservation of up to 10 percent in government jobs and educational institutions for “economically weaker sections” of citizens. The pool of eligible citizens excludes those already covered by Articles 15(4) and (5), and Article 16(4) of the constitution—which pertain to reservations for the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. In effect, this reservation will only apply to persons from the upper castes. As opposed to the existing reservations that focus on remedying the disadvantage of socially marginalised groups, the 10-percent quota focuses solely on individual economic disadvantage, and will apply only to upper-caste families who earn an annual income of less than Rs 8 lakh.

Shortly after its introduction, the anti-reservation non-governmental organisation Youth for Equality, the lawyers Reepak Kansal and Pawan, and the political commentator Tehseen Poonawalla, filed separate petitions challenging the amendment in the Supreme Court. The petitions questioned the use of economic criteria as the sole basis for reservation, excluding persons in the SC, ST and OBC categories. The court decided to hear the petitions but declined to stay the operation of the amendment. On 28 March, the apex court will hear arguments on whether the petitions need to be referred to a constitution bench comprising five judges.

The arguments for and against reservations based on economic criteria are not new, and find their oldest articulations in the constituent assembly debates. However, the constituent assembly never considered a disadvantage defined solely in economic terms as a criterion for reservation. Even those members who supported an economic basis for reservations did so for groups that they considered socially disadvantaged or backward in some other respect. Following the adoption of the constitution, several government-appointed commissions have deliberated on the nature of reservations in India.

The constituent assembly—founded in 1946 to frame the constitution of independent India—was concerned with reservations as a political safeguard for securing representation of minorities. The uncontested overarching principle guiding the debates was that every section of the population, whether a “numerical or political minority,” ought to have “proper representation and a proper voice in the administration of the country.” The house only differed on how to realise such representation.

The Advisory Committee on Fundamental Rights, Minorities and Tribal and Excluded Areas—a committee appointed by the constituent assembly—recommended reservation for Scheduled Castes in the legislatures, on 30 August 1947, and reaffirmed its view before the assembly when the question arose again in May 1949. The proposal was then put to the constituent assembly. S Nagappa, an elected member from the Madras state legislative assembly and a prominent participant in the Quit India movement, argued in support of reservations. He said that Scheduled Castes were “an economic, political and social minority,” for whom representation ought to be secured through reservations. “Even today, here and now, I am prepared for the abolition of the reservation, provided every Harijan family gets ten acres of wet land, twenty acres of dry land and all the children of Harijans are educated, free of cost, up to the university course and given one-fifth of the key posts either in the civilian departments or in the military departments,” he said.

Malavika Prasad is an advocate and doctoral fellow at the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research. She teaches democracy and the Indian Constitution through experiential learning.

Keywords: reservations Scheduled Castes Scheduled Tribes Constituent Assembly of India Constituent Assembly Debates