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Determining backwardness

March 19, 2015:The Hindu

Sometimes political mobilisation and not socio-educational backwardness decides the distribution of the benefits of reservation for specific communities in education and jobs. While striking down the inclusion of Jats in the Central list of Other Backward Classes (OBC), the Supreme Court voiced its opposition to the State’s tendency to go by the “perception of the self-proclaimed socially backward class" in deciding the beneficiaries of reservation quotas. The Jats spread across nine States are relatively more prosperous than many other communities in northern India but they used their numerical superiority to influence and pressure the government into including them in the OBC quota. The state should not be influenced by political considerations and it must exercise great care in identifying emerging forms of backwardness. Past mistakes or “wrong inclusions" in the reservation list, according to the judgment, could not be the basis for further additions. However, the court was careful not to dismiss any change to the list of OBCs. On the contrary, Justice Ranjan Gogoi who wrote the judgment directed the government to recognise emerging socially and educationally backward groups such as transgenders, who are among the most distressed, for the grant of reservation benefits. The judgment is thus important not only for its articulation of the rationale for identifying the groups that need to be kept out of the reservation system — politically dominant and economically prosperous caste groups — but also for its support for the inclusion of heavily disadvantaged groups such as transgenders, who cannot ordinarily be classified as a social class.

Closely linked to the setting of norms for identifying new groups for reservation benefits is the court’s downplaying of the importance of caste in deciding reservation benefits. While caste was indeed a prominent reason for historical injustice in the country, it could not be the sole decider of backwardness of a class. Instead, new practices, methods and yardsticks would have to be continuously evolved moving away from the caste-centric definition of backwardness, the court ruled. Surely, the fact that the previous United Progressive Alliance government notified the reservation for Jats despite advice to the contrary from the National Commission for Backward Classes played no small part in counter-posing historical injustice to emerging forms of backwardness in a changing society. But the question that arises is about the exclusion of castes and social groups already in the reservation list in a continuously evolving society. The court might have left a small opening for revisiting the whole list of reservation beneficiaries in the light of new socio-economic realities.

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