The Mirage of the Sadashiva Commission Report Exposes BJP's Politics in Karnataka

The ruling party knows full well that no state legislature can implement sub-classifications in the SC reservation list at this point. So why make promises it really cannot keep?

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No election season in Karnataka passes without grandiose promises from the contesting parties about the implementation of the Justice Sadashiva Commission Report.

The Sadashiva Commission had been constituted by the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) government in 2005 to look into the need for and means of sub-classifying Scheduled Caste reservations in Karnataka. 

For myriad reasons including administrative apathy, the commission took seven years to file the report. It was finally presented in 2012 to the then Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government headed by Sadananda Gowda. But even though every political party and interest group has a very vocal opinion of the report, the report itself has still not been presented in the assembly. The press release issued by the commission when it filed the report in 2012 is the only authentic information about the commission’s recommendations in the public domain.

According to this press release, the commission endorsed the need for the reclassification of Scheduled Castes in the state’s reservation quota. 

There are 101 castes on the list of Scheduled Castes in Karnataka. Unlike in many other states, some ‘touchable’ castes, such as the Bhovi, Lambani, Koracha and Korama castes, are also on the list. They were included in the SC list the time of the Maharaja of Mysore, prior to independence, on the justification that though they were notionally ‘touchable’, their social and economic plight was comparable to that of the ‘untouchable’ castes. After independence, the same list was included in the presidential declaration of Scheduled Castes in Karnataka and this list continues to be in use today.   

The recommendations

According to the press release it issued, the Sadashiva Commission, after its years-long survey and study, recommended the division of the 101 castes on the Scheduled Castes list into four categories:

1) The Holeyas and the 24 ‘right hand untouchable’ castes that together comprise 32.01% of the SC population;

2) the Madigas and the 29 related castes that together comprise 33.47% of the SC population;

3) the remaining non-Holeya and non-Madiga ‘untouchable’ castes who comprise 4.65% of the population; and

4) the ‘touchable’ castes who together comprise 23.64% of the SC population.  

Based on this categorisation, the then 15% reservation for Scheduled Castes in state employment was to be divided according to each group’s proportion in the population. 

The SC reservation was increased by an ordinance last week to 17%. This will take the overall proportion of reservations in Karnataka to 56%, higher than the prescribed 50% upper limit. Even though the Nagmohandas Commission, which suggested the increase, filed its report in 2020, the BJP government has taken the ordinance route to implement it just prior to the elections. That there is no strategy or empirical data to justify the increase exposes the government’s lack of commitment, and the possibility that this is a political gimmick.

The press release issued by the commission also highlighted some interesting features of the backwardness of the different groupings of the Scheduled Castes in the state. For example, the combined share in state employment of the Madiga groups and the Holeya groups compared to the entire population of the state was a meagre 3.5% (Holeyas 2% and Madigas 1.5%). On the issue of whether the ‘touchable’ castes on the Scheduled Castes list took greater advantage of the opportunities available to them than the ‘untouchable’ castes, several interpretations of the report are in circulation which will continue to exist until the whole report is finally tabled and made public. Nevertheless, no one disputes the grounds for such an observation.

Lastly, the commission’s press release implied that the non-Holeya, non-Madiga ‘untouchable’ castes were the most underprivileged of all the castes on the list.    


Political manipulation

Because the report has never been tabled in the assembly, the 10 years since it was filed have been filled with rumours about the recommendations it made. 

Some rumours were floated with political calculation and others stemmed from the lack of authentic information about the recommendations. Some people professed with authority that the commission recommended keeping ‘touchable’ castes out of the purview of SC reservation, while others claimed that the commission favoured the Madiga group at the cost of others. Yet others questioned the methods the commission had adopted to arrive at the numbers, since the report itself suggested that a huge number of interviewees refused to register their sub caste. 

All these apprehensions could have been put to rest if any of the governments that followed the release of the report had tabled it in the House and allowed an informed public debate on the recommendations. But none of these governments, whether led by the BJP or the Congress and the JD(S), did so. 

Instead, each one of these political parties encouraged scepticism about the report, using the animosity thus generated between the different groupings of the Scheduled Castes to politically manipulate them. 

The Holeyas are considered to be traditional voters of the Congress party, which is reflected in the number of Holeya members of the legislative assembly compared to the Madigas. Thus, in the last two elections, the BJP successfully mobilised the resentment of the Madigas against the Congress in their favour. 

Nevertheless, BJP has proved to be worse than predecessors as far as the Sadashiva Commission report is concerned. 

Even though the BJP government in Karnataka has dusted off the Justice Nagmohan Das Commission report, which in 2020 recommended the increase of reservations for the Scheduled Castes communities by 2% and for Scheduled Tribes communities by 4%, and gazetted it via the ordinance route as mentioned earlier, it has not bothered to table the Sadashiva Commission report in the house. 

The BJP’s reluctance to implement the recommendations of the Sadashiva Commission is worse than that of the other parties because it has sufficient legislative power at both the Union and the state to constitutionally and politically resolve this issue. 

Reluctance or betrayal?

According to Article 341(1) of the Constitution of India, the list of Scheduled Castes eligible for reservation is to be prepared by the state and then notified by the President of India. The removal or the inclusion of any caste or part or group of such caste from the list shall be done by parliament through a law, according to Article 341 (2). 

However, the constitution is silent on the internal sub-classification of  any existing Scheduled Caste reservation. 

In spite of this, the Punjab state government, way back in 1976, provided for an internal classification of Scheduled Caste reservation. In 1994, the Haryana government also implemented internal reclassification. During the late 1990s, a people’s movement of Madigas demanding the sub-classification of SC reservations raged in undivided Andhra Pradesh, which culminated in the constitution of the Justice P. Ramachandra Raju Commission in 1997, whose report recommended sub-classification. 

Accordingly, the Andhra Pradesh government passed an Act and framed rules in 2000 implementing sub-classification. But this was challenged in the high court, which had also ruled in favour of the sub-classification.

Also read: Tamil Nadu: Understanding the Impact of the 7.5% Reservation for Govt School Students in NEET

E.V. Chinnaiah judgment

In turn, the high court judgment was challenged in the Supreme Court in a case titled E.V. Chinnaiah vs State of Andhra Pradesh and Others, which was heard before a five-judge constitutional bench headed by Justice Santosh Hegde. 

The constitutional bench deliberated whether the internal sub-classification of reservations was against the very scheme of Scheduled Caste reservation and whether the state assemblies had the legislative competence to provide such sub-classification. Finally, in 2004, the bench ruled in the negative on both questions, declaring in its wisdom that the Scheduled Castes are by definition the most backward sections of society and any further classification of backwardness in that group would amount to disturbing the constitutionally provided reservation. 

The bench added that since Article 341 (2) clearly states that inclusion to or exclusion from the Scheduled Caste list can only be made by law in parliament, state legislatures do not have the legislative competence to enact any sub-classification. 

Though several legal experts later argued that the bench had misread many constitutional provisions and legal precedents before ruling on the case, the fact that the order was passed by a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court made it a law. Hence the sub-classification made by the Andhra Pradesh government was struck down and Punjab and Haryana also withdrew their respective orders. 

The case for Article 341 (3)

In 2007, on the requests of many state assemblies including that of Andhra Pradesh, the Union government constituted the Justice Usha Mehra commission to look into both the necessity of sub-classifying Scheduled Caste reservation and the way to implement this sub-classification in the wake of the Supreme Court judgment against it. 

The Usha Mehra Commission filed its report in May 2008. It endorsed the need for the reclassification of Scheduled Caste reservation. But to overcome the judicial impediment, the commission recommended that article 341 of the constitution of India be amended to include a third clause, which would say:

“341(3) Parliament may by law provide for sub-categorisation or de sub-categorisation of caste, race or tribe of part of or group within any caste, race, or tribe specified in a notification issued under clause (1) or by law made by parliament under clause (2), upon receiving a resolution from legislature of a state / U.T. passed unanimously.”

The Sadashiva Commission of Karnataka had taken note of both the Chinnaiah judgment and the Usha Mehra Commission report. Thus it recommended a constitutional amendment on the lines of the Usha Mehra report. 

Meanwhile the Tamil Nadu government and the Punjab government chose some ingenious ways to overcome the judicial impediment to sub-classification. While the Tamil Nadu government passed an Act providing first priority to the Arundhatiyar castes in filling the Scheduled Castes quota, the  Punjab government framed rules in 2010 which not only gave Mahjabi Sikhs and Balmikis first priority in the Scheduled Castes quota, but prevented other castes entitled to Scheduled Caste reservation from even applying under the quota unless there were no applicants from among the Mahjabi Sikhs and the Balmikis.

Davinder Sing judgment

These rules made by the Punjab government were challenged in court and subsequently climbed the legal system to finally arrive in the Supreme Court. The Davinder Sing Vs The State of Punjab case was heard in 2020 by a five-judge constitutional bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra. The bench unanimously concluded that Scheduled Caste reservation could be reclassified, that backwardness is  not static, and that state legislatures do have the legislative competence to enact laws for reclassification. 

This judgment was the complete opposite of the Chinnaiah judgment. But since the two benches of 2004 and 2020 were equal in strength – both had five members – the conclusions drawn by the Justice Arun Mishra bench were ineffectual and the bench itself suggested that the matter be referred to a seven-judge constitutional bench. 

Supreme Court of India

Supreme Court of India. Photo: Pinakpani/CC BY-SA 4.0

Supreme lip service

Since then, the case has been pending. The last time a petition for a seven-member bench was heard, it was by a three-judge bench headed by the then Chief Justice of India N.V Ramana just before his retirement in August 2022,  where he asked the petitioner why they had not prayed earlier for an expedited hearing on the seven-judge bench!

The next time a petition on the subject of reclassification will be heard, according to the Supreme Court website, is November 11. The hearing is for a related case in which Manda Krishna Madiga, the leader of the sub-classification movement in Andhra Pradesh, has been allowed to implead. 

Even though Chief Justice of India U.U. Lalit has expedited constitutional matters and set up many constitutional benches including one for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) reservation, the case of the sub-classification of Scheduled Caste reservations has not been taken on board. 

Two possible solutions 

As of now, there are only two ways to reach a solution for  the larger question of the constitutionality of the sub-classification of Scheduled Caste reservation. 

  1. The Union government could initiate the process of a constitutional amendment to insert clause 341 (3) which will allow the reclassification of the Scheduled Caste reservation and enable state legislatures to enact the same.
  2. An appeal to expedite the constitution of a seven-judge bench in the Supreme Court.

This means that the onus of finding a solution to the problem of sub-classification lies squarely on the BJP, which is in power both at the Union and in many states, including Karnataka. Only the BJP at this time has the constitutional power to initiate either of the solutions described above. 

In 2019, just before the Lok Sabha elections, it was the BJP that geared up both the houses of parliament and the opposition parties to pass the EWS reservation through a constitutional amendment. 

The sub-classification of Scheduled Caste reservations demands the same political resolve from BJP. 

A superfluous demand

The demand for the implementation of the Sadashiva Commission report by interested parties is thus superfluous. 

Unless one of the two solutions described above is provided, no state legislature, including the Karnataka assembly, has the legislative competence to implement sub-classifications in the SC reservation list. 

This means that the political promise invariably made by every major party in the state at the time of elections, especially the ruling BJP, of implementing the Sadashiva Commission report, is not only false but also a cruel deception – the manipulation of a gullible electorate for votes.

Even so, the BJP in Karnataka has doubled its propaganda about the implementation of the Sadashiva Commission report. It has declared the constitution of a committee to look into the recommendations of the Sadashiva Commission, knowing full well that it cannot be implemented as of now. 

In the spread of this propaganda, not one of the BJP’s state or central leaders has said a word about the need for a constitutional amendment to reclassify the reservation, or an appeal before the Supreme Court to expedite a seven-judge bench. 

Astonishingly, even the opposition parties have not challenged the BJP on this point. The various interested groups demanding sub-classification also seem reluctant to make the BJP responsible and answerable.