P.K.BALACHANDRAN | 10 JANUARY, 2019
Upper caste reservation and citizenship amendment bill show desperation
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constitutional amendment bill to extend reservation to the upper castes on economic criteria was passed in Parliament. And the citizenship amendment bill was passed by the Lower House of Parliament (the Lok Sabha) earlier, and is awaiting clearance in the Upper House (the Rajya Sabha).
A widely held opinion is that these bills of far reaching importance had been drafted with a view to garnering the votes of the upper castes Hindus and other non-Muslim communities in India in the 2019 parliamentary elections.
And the intention is to reap immediate partisan political benefits rather than meet long term political interests and the larger and long term interests of the country as a whole.
The opposition Congress party supported the bill on reservation for upper castes in the Rajya Sabha. But it also raised pertinent questions over its timing and implementation. Congress Rajya Sabha member Anand Sharma said that the bill was introduced considering the Lok Sabha elections, which are scheduled to be held in May.
Fellow Congress MP, Kapil Sibal said: "There are three hurdles that this will have to surpass - the first hurdle is that according to me there is complete non-applicability of mind on the part of the government in bringing this bill. The second hurdle is the constitutionality of this bill. And the third hurdle is the implementation of this bill."
The two bills were presented in a desperate bid to shore up the fortunes of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the context of the drubbing it had received in State Assembly elections held in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh recently.
The bills are meant to re-activate flagging Hindu consciousness and regain support for “Hindutva” , an ideology propounding Hindu dominance in all spheres of life, especially politics.
But Modi’s strategy is based on incorrect premises, and is therefore likely to boomerang on him and the BJP in the coming elections.
The 10% reservation for the poor among the Hindu upper castes (namely Brahmins,Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and other socially forward Hindu communities) is motivated by a desire to get the votes of communities which have, in recent decades, been complaining of inadequate representation in government and educational institutions.
Castes like the Jats in Haryana, the Marathas in Maharashtra, the Kapus in Andhra Pradesh, and the Patidars in Gujarat, have staged violent agitations to press their claims.
The amended Citizenship Act allows immigration of Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsees, Buddhists, Christians and other non-Muslim groups from neighboring Muslim-majority countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
This bill is meant to please the Hindu majority and non-Islamic minority communities in India which apprehend a threat from militant Islam.
However, both the reservation and the citizen bills have been received with jeers rather than cheers, indicating that the gambit may not pay in the 2019 elections.
State governments which had, in the past, given reservation for the upper castes on the basis of low income, had had to designate these castes as “Socially and Educationally Backward” in order to provide reservations under the Indian constitution.
The constitution has no provision for reservation based on economic criteria. Reservation is allowed only on the basis of “social and educational backwardness.” Furthermore, the total number of reserved seats cannot exceed 50% of the total seats available.
Some State governments had re-designated these upper castes as “socially and educational backward.” But the courts had struck these down ( as in the case of the Jats and Marathas) because of a lack of compelling data backing their claim to social and educational backwardness.
It is pointed out that Backward Castes, which are economically well off, could still suffer from social discrimination. Educational opportunities may still be denied to them because of their low caste.
In the watershed Indra Sawhney case, the Supreme Court held that “economic criteria” were unconstitutional since the category of “poor” did not necessarily reflect “social backwardness”. For the court, ‘social backwardness’ meant extreme marginalization in terms of social status, primarily in the form of caste.
Furthermore, income and wealth may change over time making the implementation of the reservation system problematical.
The new reservation bill is to amend Article 15 and 16 of the constitution. For that, a two-third majority in Parliament will be required. And the bill may also run into trouble with the courts because it will exceed the 50% limit fixed by the Supreme Court. The 10% reservation envisaged is to be in addition to the existing 50% for the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and the Other Backward Classes, taking the total quota to 60 per cent.
It is pointed out by statisticians that if one goes by economic criteria, almost all Indians will be eligible for reservation. One study shows that 86% of those with landholdings will qualify for reservation. The monthly income of most rural families is less than Rs 66,666, even if all five members are earning. This means that more than 99 per cent of all rural households will qualify for reservation.
In this context, therefore, reservation appears to be meaningless and also unmanageable.
The bill to amend the immigration law to allow immigration of non-Muslims from Muslim majority South Asian countries has already run into a storm in Assam, the eastern Indian State which has been facing a problem of illegal immigration from Bangladesh for the past 60 years or more.
The Assamese fear that the bill will encourage Hindus and others to enter Assam easily from Bangladesh, where they may feel discriminated against. Few will migrate from Pakistan and Afghanistan because very few Hindus and non-Muslims live there now, most having migrated to India in 1947.
Therefore, in a bid to win plaudits from the Hindu majority in the rest of India, Modi has alienated the Assamese, and all communities in the North East. And he is unlikely to impress the Hindu majority in the rest of India because they are not affected by immigration.
Only a few months ago Assam had elected the BJP to power in the State because it seemed to be bent on stopping illegal immigration from Bangladesh. The BJP has been working on a fresh National Register of Citizens (NRC) to identify and weed out illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. So far, 40 lakh Assam residents have been deemed illegal migrants and are likely to be deported.
While for the NRC the cutoff date for legitimate residence in Assam is March 24, 1971, in the case of the new immigration bill, it is December 31, 2014. This makes non-sense of the NRC.
Assamese politicians and political parties are up in arms against this. The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) quit the BJP-led coalition government in Assam. The Congress and Left parties have strongly opposed the bill, saying "it is against the spirit of India’s secular constitution,” because the bill discriminates against the Muslims.
The BJP’s allies, namely, the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT), the National People's Party in Meghalaya, the Mizo National Front and most other regional parties have demanded the withdrawal of the bill.
The State Assemblies of Meghalaya and Mizoram have adopted resolutions against the bill. In Nagaland, the NDPP-BJP alliance government has decided to ask the Centre to reconsider the bill. In Mizoram, the Mizo National Front, which is part of the BJP-led NDA and North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), has announced that the state government is strongly against the bill. It supported the 11-hour hartal in the Northeast called by the North East Students' Organisation (Neso) against the Centre's bid to pass the bill in Parliament.