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The 124th Amendment and the Politics of Retrieving Slipping Votes

 

Omprakash Mahato

om mahtaoWith the Lok Sabha elections approaching closer, one can observe different political parties indulging in lot of political gimmicks and electoral gambling. These electoral gimmicks and vote bank politics are not limited to a specific political party, it is rather a general political rhetoric that has evolved as a trend ahead of elections in this era of populist politics. Recently the Congress party, after forming their government in Madhya Pradesh, had declared waiver of farmers' loans--this is part of the same populist agenda that the voters have been witnessing for decades.

The failure of BJP, in the past four and half years of their governance, in delivering the promises made during 2014 Lok Sabha election in their manifesto has created concerns within the party. After the failure of the state to address the farmers issues, demonetisation, GST, Jan Dhan Yojana, Ujjwala Yojana, inability to generate employment for the youth, and bring ‘achhe din’ for the poor masses, the ruling political party has brought in two dramatic amendments, which in return would provide political mileage for the BJP, in luring those votes who had earlier been loyal to the party.

This article highlights two recent bills that have been brought in by the BJP, one approved by both the houses and the second by the lower house of the Parliament. First, the introduction of 10% reservation for the upper castes, emphasising only economic criteria, through which BJP hopes to reconcile the upper caste vote. Secondly, the Joint Parliament Committee which was appointed to look into the matter of ’Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 gave it a green signal and it was later passed by the Lok Sabha. With the implementation of the Citizenship bill, Hindu, Sikh, Jains, Parsis, Christians and Buddhist minorities who came from the neighbouring states of Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan without any legal document in recent years would now be able to avail legal citizenship of the Indian state.

The context in which reservation was provided to SC, ST and OBC

The cabinet decision to pass an ordinance of giving 10% reservation to those upper castes who are economically poor was backed by the CPIM, BSP, AAP, RLD, Congress, CPI, RLSP, and others who seem to share a short-sighted understanding of the context in which reservation was introduced in India. Article (15) and (16) of the Indian Constitution say that all those who belong to socially and educationally backward category can avail the benefit of reservation. Even the parties that pretend to fight for the cause of social justice have gone against the very idea of social justice and have fallen prey to the hands of their savarna masters. Going by the constitution, there are two contexts as argued by Gurpeet Mahajan in which reservation has been provided to SC, ST, and OBC category. SC and ST community get reservation because they have been historically excluded in social, political and educational spheres of everyday life. These communities were socially ostracised, culturally boycotted, politically not represented and educationally left behind. It is ironic that even after seven decades of independence, the Maha-dalits still face an extreme form of social segregation in the rural villages of Bihar. The occupation of ‘Musahars’ is still hunting rats for their everyday survival. Since these communities were discriminated historically and the practice of untouchability made it practically impossible to interact within different communities, reservation came as a result of negotiation between Ambedkar and Gandhi, to bring them to the mainstream society. For reservation, Ambedkar was forced to compromise with the separate settlement and separate electorate for Dalits granted by British Raj through the Round Table Conference held in 1932.

However, reservation for OBC was not provided in the context of discrimination as in the case of SC and ST but rather in the context of OBC being disadvantaged. OBC community also faced social discrimination from the upper caste communities, however, they were not ostracised the way untouchables were. It is not to say that OBC were never discriminated but the process of discrimination was not in the form of forced exclusion. OBC communities who were known as Shudras in the ancient time were forced to remain the servants of upper three varnas of Hindu social order, they were denied the right to education, bear arms or accumulate wealth and deprived of political rights. The OBCs were disadvantaged as they were educationally backward and politically under-represented. Thus the constitution provides reservation to the SC, ST, and OBC on the grounds that these communities are socially and educationally kept backward. In this background, providing 10% reservation to the economically weaker section among upper castes dilutes the very essence of reservation. Art. 15(4) of the constitution does not have any provision to provide reservation on economic ground. Further, if we analyse the evolution of reservation, one can see that the target of reservation was specific groups that faced exclusion at different junctures in history, in their socio-cultural, political and educational spheres. Now, even if we borrow the argument brought in by BJP, that certain provision should be made for the economically weaker upper castes, there has to be a differential treatment for both the groups. As both the communities face a different set of problems, different sets of treatment are required. Just as ‘paracetamol’ cannot be the same medicine for two different patients, one suffering from headache and the other who has broken legs.

Apart from social and educational backwardness, there has been constant and long struggles and sacrifices by the backward classes for availing reservation. In contrast, upper castes who have been the ruling class historically and the at same time oppressors of the former communities are now going to avail the same benefit without any logical ground. The reservations for SC/ST and OBC has been stigmatised, criticised and opposed by the upper castes, politically by the left, right and centrist parties (Communist Parties, BJP and Congress) primarily dominated by upper castes. There is no need to mention what had happened during the Mandal era of reservation. Ironically, at present when the savarna is going to avail the reservation, even the parties which claim to be champions of social justice are not only silent but giving full fledged support in parliament as well as outside.    

Reservation not a poverty alleviation scheme

It is also important to note that reservation is not a poverty eradication welfare scheme. For the poverty eradication programme, there are certain policies such as MANREGA, Indira Awas Yojana etc. that target all those communities that are economically poor. There is BPL (Below Poverty Line) and APL (Above Poverty Line) list introduced by the government for both the upper and the lower castes by which those families falling in the BPL list can avail the schemes and assistance provided by the government. Therefore, it seems that the ordinance brought in by the ruling government to provide 10% reservation for the economically backward upper castes, is nothing but an electorally calculated move to consolidate those upper caste Hindu votes that seem to be going into the pockets of Congress or other political parties. Moreover, the country that suffers from acute poverty, keeping Rs. 66666.66/month or 8 lakhs per year as a bar for the economically poor category, is something that even economists have failed to understand.

The case of Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016

In another case, the process of re-establishing aspirations and providing hope to the Hindu community has been backed by the ‘Joint Parliament Committee’ with its approval to implement ‘Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016’. In the campaign for 2019 Lok Sabha election in Silchar, Modi stated that the Citizenship bill is the ‘redemption of past injustice’ and it will take care of ‘blood relations’ of Hindu sons and daughters of Bharat Mata. This bill was introduced in Lok Sabha to grant citizenship to those Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Christian, Parsis and Buddhist minorities who have entered India before 31st December 2014 from the neighbouring states of Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

In the first case, the ruling party through its rhetoric is consolidating upper caste vote, and through the ‘Citizenship Amendment Bill’, the second bill, is in the process of expanding its vote banks by granting Citizenship tp Hindu immigrants from neighbouring countries. However, the attack perpetrated on farmers in the protest march in Madhya Pradesh, UP and the continuous violence on Dalits shows that there is little concern for the 'Hindu' people living in India. The impact of this citizenship bill is worst in Assam leading to agitation from different political groups as there are already lakhs of illegal immigrants from all religious groups residing in Assam. The diabolic irony of Indian democracy is that the ruling regime of the Indian state wishes to protect some indigenous communities of Assam by granting them Scheduled Tribe status while at the same time it is hell-bent on destroying Assam by passing the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016. The important point in both these bills is that they got approved in the lower houses within two days. It is nothing less than making history with regard to the efficiency and energy with which the parliament has worked for this.

In both the bills there was neither ample discussion on the subject nor any commission formed to look into the subject as had happened in the case of Mandal Commission and the Kaka Kalekar Commission earlier, a process which took more than 3 decades to see its final shape.

The way in which the social justice parties have responded to this bill is also disheartening. In politics, the parties not taking decision on the bill, simply means that the parties are letting others decide on behalf of them. Since the 124th Amendment reservation bill did not go through any scrutiny, it produces more doubt about the intentions of the government. Moreover, the caste census data had not been collected since 1931 and the new data from SECC 2011 has not been released fully. Therefore it makes it more difficult to locate and determine the socio-economic status of any household. The state's policies, even if they aim to enhance the economic condition of upper castes, should not be at the cost of social justice. The newly independent India promised that every citizen in the state would have equal say in democracy and thereby gave equal rights to all the citizens. Therefore, it must conduct the caste census and bring the question of proportional representation to the mainstream debate.

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Omprakash Mahato is a BAPSA activist and PhD scholar in Center for Political Studies (CPS), JNU.

 

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