Full Support or Silence – Why the Opposition Reacted to EWS Quota Judgment the Way It Did

Political parties have been apprehensive about opposing such a move despite the fact that it upends the principal motives of reservation.

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court’s majority judgment approving the economically weaker sections quota for the poor belonging to caste groups other than Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes was met with either full support from some of the biggest opposition parties or silence that only went on to indicate the tricky nature of the newly introduced quota in India’s affirmative action provisions.

Exclusion of historically marginalised groups from the EWS quota would effectively ensure that only the upper caste groups or dominant communities end up as the primary beneficiaries of the new provision in the reservation system. Dalit groups have been opposing such a system as they believe that the reservation system was introduced not as a poverty-alleviation scheme but to give proportionate representation in jobs and education to SC/ST/OBC groups who bore the brunt of social exclusion in the Hindu caste ladder. Caste-based reservation, thus, was believed to give some sort of a level-playing field to these groups at least in government jobs and public-funded education institutions.

However, political parties have been apprehensive about opposing such a move despite the fact that it upends the principal motives of reservation as espoused by the founding fathers of India. Ever since the 10% EWS quota was introduced by the Union government through the 103rd Constitutional Amendment, opposition parties have either hesitated, or been careful, in their opposition to the move in fear of alienating the both socially and politically-influential upper caste groups across India.

The Supreme Court’s decision on Monday has further cemented such an apprehension among different political parties. Only the Tamil Nadu’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) unequivocally opposed the decision, even as it made clear that it would launch state-wide agitations against any quota for the upper caste groups.

The principal opposition party Congress rushed to support the decision, and attempted to take the steam away from the BJP-led Union government that has been relentless in taking credit for implementing the EWS quota. In doing so, the grand-old party credited itself for making the first moves during the UPA government for introducing reservation for the poor among upper castes.

Also read: EWS Quota a Stupefying Inversion of the Idea of Equality

Welcoming the Supreme Court decision, the chief spokesperson for the party Jairam Ramesh said, “The amendment itself was the result of a process initiated by Dr. Manmohan Singh’s government in 2005-06 with the appointment of the Sinho Commission that submitted its report in July 2010. Thereafter, widespread consultations were held and the Bill was ready by 2014.”

“It took the Modi Sarkar five years to get the Bill enacted. It also bears mention here that the Socio Economic and Caste Census was completed by 2012, when I myself was the Union Rural Development Minister. The Modi Sarkar has yet to clarify its position on an updated Caste Census, something that the Congress party supports and demands,” he added.

In a similar vein, Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot said, “This will help the poor get justice. Our spirit should be that a poor person, irrespective of which community he belongs to, gets justice.”

Similarly, the Trinamool Congress also supported the judgment. Member of Parliament and TMC leader Saugata Roy termed it as a “historic judgment” and said that the decision is “a big step towards achieving economic equality in the country”.

TMC MP Derek O’ Brien, a fervent critic of the Narendra Modi government, supported the EWS quota but not without a degree of hesitation. On Monday when the SC decision came, Brien shared an opinion article that he wrote earlier outlining his reservation for the exclusion of SC/ST/OBCs from the quota for the economically disadvantaged groups.

Socialist parties which built themselves on the principles of Bahujan politics advocating greater affirmative action for the SC/ST/OBC were more hesitant but nonetheless stayed clear of opposing the SC’s stamp on the current system of EWS quota.

The Teajshwi Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal took the opportunity to renew his demand for a caste-census purported to delineate the different degrees of economic deprivation among various sub-castes among marginalised groups. RJD was among the three parties other than DMK and Asaduddin Owaisi-led AIMIM which had opposed the EWS bill in the Parliament in 2019.

Manoj Jha, RJD MP, said that the RJD had raised important concerns about the 103rd amendment in the Parliament but did not oppose the move in principle. He demanded that the EWS quota should be implemented only after the government collects scientific data on economic disadvantages of different groups. He urged the government to keep in mind the spirit of the constituent assembly debates while implementing the EWS quota and went on to demand proportional representation for every group.

Proportional representation will effectively mean greater representation for non-upper caste groups who are much fewer in numbers but disproportionately occupy important government positions.  However, many observers believe that proportional representation will also defeat the very purpose of the reservation system that was meant to uplift SC/ST/OBC from their socially and economically disadvantaged positions.

Both the Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party chose to remain conspicuously silent on the decision, even as most others supported or remained unclear about their stance. Earlier in 2019, when the decision was taken by the Union government, Mayawati had supported the EWS quota although she had said that it was an “election stunt” by the BJP that will mean no substantive gains for the poor.

In the South with a militant history of social justice movements, the Dravidian parties were much more critical and categorical. Tamil Nadu chief minister and DMK supremo M.K. Stalin said that the Supreme Court decision was a “setback to the century-long social justice struggles”. “From the land of Tamil Nadu, which made the first constitutional amendment to protect social justice, I request like-minded organisations to unite to make the voice of social justice resound throughout the country,” Stalin said, adding that the party will take the next step to agitate against the move after studying all legal aspects of the SC judgment.

Also read: ‘Exclusionary, Strikes Death Knell to Equality’: Key Quotes from Justice Bhat’s Dissenting Opinion

Tamil Nadu-based Ambedkarite organisation Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) chief Thol. Thirumavalavan said that the EWS quota will only benefit the upper castes and it was a mistake to think of it as a reservation system based on economic criteria. “The judgment is against the principles of social justice. This is gross injustice,” he said.

AIMIM also stayed away from commenting on the apex court’s judgement but it had opposed the executive decision in 2019 based on the criticisms that most Dalit groups had against the exclusion of socially-disadvantaged groups from the EWS quota.

The BJP, on the other hand, moved swiftly to take credit for the judgement and project the EWS quota as a Modi government’s measure to ensure “social justice for all”, meaning that even the poor among upper caste groups should not be excluded from India’s affirmative action.  The Sangh parivar has historically believed that reservation system should be premised on economic criteria instead of a social criteria – a belief that RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat also repeated in 2019. The RSS that was primarily dominated by an upper caste leadership has in fact been advancing similar thoughts ever since the reservation system was implemented after independence. It has equated the extension of the reservation system based on social marginalisation with ruling parties’ politics of appeasement, or what is often termed as “vote-bank politics”.

Keeping in view such an understanding, senior BJP leaders attacked the opposition parties for being anti-upper caste groups, even when they raised the slightest opposition to the EWS quota. Former deputy chief minister of Bihar and senior BJP leader Sushil Modi said that the RJD did not have the right to ask the upper caste groups for votes as it opposed the EWS quota system. He qualified that opposition to the EWS quota shows RJD’s “anti-upper caste mentality”, in a comment that many observers believe only goes on to reflect that the 10% quota for the poor was only meant to accommodate upper caste groups in the reservation system.