It’s a political question and the answer has to be political.
Reservation in jobs and educational institutions for backward classes was a political project in India even before it was born; and the idea naturally got reflected in the Constitution as an enabling provision in the form of Article 16 (4) which allowed the state to provide for reservation for “any backward class of citizens which, in the opinion of the state, is not adequately represented in the services under the state” and of Article 16 (4A) which extended constitutional guarantee for promotion in jobs. While the affirmative action with respect to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes got going when the Constitution came into being, the same for the other backward classes took another three decades and a tricky political situation to take effect. Even then, it was resisted with violent protests though there was solid data, collated by the Mandal Commission, to prove that the OBCs had no “adequate representation” in government services.
Reservation has never been a settled issue for two reasons: one: it started off as a temporary measure for 10 years and unfailingly got a 10-year extension when the period expired; and two, there has been no official data on the question of “adequate representation”. Hence the judgment of the Supreme Court this week annulling a decision of the Uttarakhand high court striking down a state government notification in 2012 to fill government jobs without providing for reservation calls for special attention. Reservation and promotion in jobs is not a fundamental right, the apex court ruled, and left it to the discretion of the state to take a decision. And should the government decide in its favour based on data, it has constitutional protection.
It may be noted that the court, which gave the state the freedom to scrap reservation, however, refused to remind the state that it needs to ensure adequate representation in its absence. It can be argued that it is not the job of the courts to compel the state to order reservation as long as the statute does not classify it as a fundamental right. It’s a political question and the answer has to be political.
The political parties who have jumped to champion the reservation cause can do justice to its beneficiaries and those who oppose quotas by coming out with the data on representation or lack of it and settle the issue. The Constitution is clear on two things: one; reservation is an enabler, and two, it must be backed by data and logic. They are mutually reinforcing, not undermining. Hence the beneficiaries of reservation should not grudge an effort to present before the nation the number of people from among them in government service as all available data points to inadequate representation. It will then cease to be a sign of the grace of a benevolent state and become a legitimate tool in the hands of a society which, in the preamble of the Constitution, offers justice and equality. Political parties, social organisations and rights groups must demand immediate launch of an effort to come up with data instead of banking on emotions.