Democracy Indian court’s quota ruling a stab in the back for the poor

Indian court’s quota ruling a stab in the back for the poor

The church should have studied and discussed the judgment in detail before rushing to welcome it.

India’s Supreme Court upholding the economic criteria for granting educational and job quotas to the privileged upper castes could be the final nail in the coffin for the country’s affirmative action program for historically disadvantaged groups such as the Dalits or former untouchables and the indigenous tribal people.

The Eastern-rite Syro-Malabar Church deserves its share of the blame for missing the woods for the trees by welcoming the decision and expressing its readiness to ignore the historical injustices unleashed on the marginalized sections of Indians in the name of the caste system.

For centuries, people in the lowest strata of Indian society were ostracized from public life. The idea of educational and job reservations for the ‘outcastes’ was to enable them to have a level playing field with the so-called upper castes.

India’s constitution-makers, fully aware of the rampant poverty in the country, decided that the criteria for reservations should be the social poverty that a community faces, and not economic poverty.

However, a 1950 presidential order limited the affirmative action program only to people from the Hindu religion on the grounds that casteism was practiced only by them. It excluded people of all other religions from the benefits.

The order was amended on two occasions later to include lower caste people who had become Buddhists and Sikhs. But Christians and Muslims of lower caste origin continue to be excluded on the logic that, unlike Hinduism, Christians and Muslims formed an egalitarian society.

“It would effectively mean setting aside a 10 percent quota exclusively for upper caste people, excluding all others from the lower castes”
Christians of lower caste origin, who make up 60 percent of Indian Christians, suffer all the limitations of lower caste Hindus as a change of religion did nothing to their social poverty, as shown in several studies. But their demand for reservation benefits has been ignored by successive governments.

The Supreme Court last month appointed yet another commission to study the implications of including Christians in the reservations list.

It needs some explanation to see how these two judgments are linked in the case of socially poor Indian Christians.

The Nov. 7 judgment of the Supreme Court said 10 percent of seats for education and jobs in government-run institutions will be reserved for the economically weak sections (EWS) from those communities not covered under the current system meant for lower caste people, tribal people and Other Backward Castes (OBCs).

It would effectively mean setting aside a 10 percent quota exclusively for upper caste people, excluding all others from the lower castes.

The vast majority of lower caste Christians are Protestants and Latin rite Catholics, while the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala, including the Syro-Malabar Church, see themselves as of higher caste origin.

The Nov. 7 judgment makes people from the EWS among the St. Thomas Christians eligible for reservations along with other higher castes from Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist religions.

Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, chairman of Syro-Malabar Church’s Public Affairs Commission, welcomed this saying the Supreme Court’s order saying it “will open the door for justice to those who have been deprived of its [reservation quotas or affirmative action] benefits for ages.”

Incidentally, Archbishop Thazhath was elected president of the national bishops’ conference last week.

“The 10 percent reservation for the upper castes based on economic criteria destroys the reservation policy”
It may look like the order will open reservation benefits to all EWS not covered in the earlier reservation categories, and therefore Christians of Dalit origin will also benefit from it. But the reality is different.

Dalit Christians come under specifically named castes in a schedule of the constitution — called Scheduled Castes (SCs) — which are covered in the caste reservation and so shall be excluded from the 10 percent reservation allotted for the upper castes. If they need to avail the benefits of the 10 percent reservation, they have to declare that they don’t belong to a lower caste.

However, the economically weak among St. Thomas Christians can benefit from the latest judgment as they are not listed in the categories of SCs, Scheduled Tribes (STs), or OBCs.

By welcoming the judgment, the Christian community is abdicating its capacity to demand reservation benefits for Dalit Christians.

There are other issues. The 10 percent reservation for the upper castes based on economic criteria destroys the reservation policy, which was aimed at ending the historical injustices perpetuated by Hinduism and its age-old exploitive social order based on the caste system. It now indirectly reiterates the caste system.

The current dispensation running the country works for the establishment of Hindutva — a nation based on orthodox Hindu principles that advocate a caste system with the upper caste at the top of the social hierarchy.

The reservation policy focused on uplifting the SCs, STs and OBCs was introduced for three specific reasons. First, to end the historical injustice which Hindus perpetrated on them; second, to aid the inclusion of these communities in all democratic processes and institutions; and third, to ensure adequate representation for these historically excluded peoples.

Reservation was never meant as a tool for economic advancement.

The move appears skewed also from the point of justice. The reservation policy so far set aside 50 percent of all existing jobs and educational seats for SCs, STs and OBCs. In earlier judgments over the past several decades, the courts said reserving more than 50 percent of seats will impair the efficiency of the system because at least 50 percent should remain based on merit.

Hence, the SCs, STs and OBCs, who constitute an estimated 75 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people, were allotted a 50 percent quota. Now, the upper caste, who account for 25 percent, will enjoy 10 percent of the quota. The weaker sections among upper caste are estimated to be around 3.5 percent of their population, which means 3.5 get to avail 10 percent of the cake.

The upper castes already dominate the other 40 percent of educational and job quotas. The additional 10 percent will only add to their domination. It is estimated that of the 49.5 percent of actual seats available in the competitive general category, 33.5 percent is taken by upper castes.

Two of the judges wrote a differing note on the 3:2 split verdict citing some of these reasons. The Indian Church should have studied the differing note and conducted wider discussions before welcoming the judgment.


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