Why Modi's Latest 'Assurance' on the SC Sub-Classification Doesn't Exude Confidence

The answer to the long-pending issue is either through Centre's intervention in the ongoing judicial process or through a constitutional amendment. However, the PM chose to announce yet another committee to push the issue into cold storage at the recent MRPS meeting in Hyderabad.

In a high drama in Hyderabad on November 11, at a historical rally organised by the Madiga Reservation Porata Samiti (MRPS), demanding internal reclassification of Scheduled Caste reservation, Prime Minister Modi made three pompous but blatantly duplicitous declarations and promises:

  • That he apologises for the failure of the governments of the last 30 years in solving the reclassification problem.
  • That he would fight along with Krishna Madiga, the president of MRPS for the cause
  • And that he would constitute a committee to look into the issue.

After all that pomp, just one another committee, really?

Later on, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president of the Telangana unit and Union minister, G. Kishan Reddy, issued a clarification that the committee promised by the prime minister would act as a “task force” to intervene in the impending judicial process and for its faster implementation.

The hypocrisy and fraudulence in the confession and the deceit in the solution provided are obvious to those who are barely acquainted with this issue.

There has been a decades-long demand for the internal reclassification of the SC reservation since benefits are allegedly accruing to a few untouchable castes within the category which were historically in an advantageous position to make use of the provisions.

While many states like Punjab and Haryana, Tamil Nadu addressed the issue at the state level way back in the 1970s by providing one or other form of reclassification within the SC category, the issue still remains unaddressed in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. In fact, the Chandrababu Naidu government in the erstwhile undivided Andhra Pradesh government did heed to decade-long massive movement led by Krishna Madiga under the banner of Madiga Dandora and reclassified the SC reservation, but it has been since challenged in the courts.

MRPS meeting in Hyderabad on November 11, 2023. Photo: Facebook/Narendra Modi.

In 2004, the Supreme Court quashed the SC reclassification order of the AP government in the E.V. Chinnaiah vs State of Andhra Pradesh case, declaring that further reclassification of SC reservation is “unconstitutional”. It also asserted that a state government does not have legislative competence to legislate on the said issue.

After the Chinnaiah judgement, the hitherto state-level reclassification in AP became null and void. Still, when the Punjab government resorted to providing preferential reservation for the most disadvantageous groups within the SC category during the 1990s, it was challenged against the SC order of 2004. In 2020, another five-judge bench of the Supreme Court, in the Davinder Singh vs State Of Punjab case, upheld reclassification as constitutional. But both judgements had to be referred to a higher bench since judgments, that in favour of and against reclassification, were pronounced by the benches of equal strength, of five judges.

Also read: Hyderabad: With Modi Attending MRPS Meeting, Will Dalit Sub-Categorisation Gain Steam?

This order was pronounced in August 2020. Later in 2022, even though it came before the then Chief Justice Ramana, the solicitor general of the Modi government did not press for the speedy constitution of a seven-judge committee and the case remained in the cold storage till recently.

In the meanwhile, since the Chinnaiah judgement foreclosed any legislative initiative of the state governments to provide social justice to the marginalised within the SC category, on a unanimous plea made by the AP assembly, the then United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the centre constituted Justice Usha Mehra Commission to look into the ways in which internal reclassification could be provided.

The Usha Mehra committee gave its report in 2008 in which it recommended the inclusion of Clause (3) in Article 341 through a constitutional amendment empowering state legislature to enact reclassification of the SC category subjected to Presidential confirmation.

Thus after the Chinnaiah judgement and the Justice Usha Mehra Commission report, there are only two ways to reach solutions for the larger question of the constitutionality of subclassification of Scheduled Caste reservations, both of which are in the domain of the powers of the Union government:

The first option available is that the Union government should initiate the process of constitutional amendment to insert clause 341 (3) which will allow reclassification of the Schedule caste reservation and enable state legislatures to enact the same. The second option would be to appeal for the expeditious constitution of a seven-judge bench in the Supreme Court.

But what has the Modi government done on both counts?

Judicial option 

Let us first look at the judicial option and the Modi government’s response.

The judgement favouring the reclassification of SC reservation by the constitutional bench of five judges in Davinder Singh vs State of Punjab came on August 27, 2020. The Bench itself had placed the appeal before CJI to constitute a higher bench along with its order.

It’s been more than three years since that verdict, but no Bench has still been constituted.

Even though the petition appeared before the then Chief Justice of India’s Bench regularly there has been no pressure or appeal by the Union government headed by Modi at any point. When it came before a three-judge Bench headed by the then CJI N.V. Ramana just before his retirement in August 2022, the CJI had even asked the petitioner why had not they prayed for an expeditious hearing by a seven-judge Bench.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty.

Even though the next CJI U.U. Lalit expedited constitutional matters and constituted many constitutional Benches, including one for EWS reservations, the issue of subclassification of Scheduled Caste reservation was not taken on the board. The reason being there was no urgency expressed or pressed by the Union government contrary to the way it was expedited in the EWS reservation case.

What changed then?

Kishan Reddy has unveiled the real story, though unintentionally, in the press conference that he addressed after Modi’s speech at the MRPS meeting in Hyderabad.

According to Reddy, in the wake of the fast-approaching Telangana elections, the leaders of the MRPS had called on Modi in Warangal in July 2023. This was followed up with another meeting with Union home minister Amit Shah in Delhi. It was only then the solicitor general “moved the petition to expedite the issue“.

Thus Modi was totally untrue when he said that the BJP has always fought for the cause of the marginalised Dalits relentlessly. If not for elections, the government would have not pressed for the expeditious hearing.

But no one could be sure about the judgement. In fact, sub-classification among SCs is a policy issue. Thus a legislative rather than judicial intervention is more prudent, democratic, and certain. Even the Justice Usha Mehra Commission recommended the same way back in 2008.

In fact, though the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government constituted the commission, it did not take any steps to conjure the non-partisan consensus required for a constitutional amendment, since it did not command the required strength in the Upper House. Congress as a party was never inclined towards antagonising entrenched interests for any noble cause with uncertain electoral gains.

Thus the UPA government and the Congress betrayed the Dalit community in this respect. But at least it had the pretext of not having adequate numbers.

But, the BJP government had adequate numbers in both the 16th and 17th Lok Sabha. Since 2014, when the BJP assumed power, it has shown cunning prowess to muster a majority even in Rajya Sabha where it does not have a majority. It is how many anti-people and anti-social justice Bills like EWS reservation, UAPA amendments, Triple Talaq, abrogation of Article 370, etc., became laws, especially after Modi’s re-election in 2019.

Also read: Sub-Classification of Scheduled Castes: Why the Chinnaiah Judgment Must Go

Thus, if the Modi government had been sincere to the cause of the reclassification of SC reservation, it could have moved the amendment to include clause (3) to Article 341, immediately after coming to power in 2014. In fact, it had even promised the same in its 2014 and 2019 electoral manifestos within 100 days of assuming power. But, the Modi government has never looked into it thus far.

In the last 10 years, many a time questions have been asked about the government’s stand on the issue. And, every time, it has been evasive.

In the month of July, even after promising Krishna Madiga about the sub-classification, the Modi government made it very clear to the parliament that it does not have any plans to legislate on that issue. This response needs a little more attention.

G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, a BJP MP, had asked a question about whether the government is considering amendments to the constitution to empower states to provide internal reclassification.

In the answer given on July 26, the Modi government did not give any answer to this question by stating it as sub judice. In response to another question, however, the Modi government made it clear indirectly that it would not venture to do that since most states are against it.

In the same reply, the Modi government stated that out of 20 states and two Union territories, that responded to the query sent by the Union government about their stand on internal reclassification, 13 states and one UT opposed the proposal and only seven states have agreed upon it!

Here lies the reason for the reluctance of the BJP, and for that matter all previous governments in pressing for fuller social justice. Here also lies the clue as to how and why the BJP and Modi government are likely to renege on their promise made at MRPS meeting in Hyderabad.

The irony is that when Modi said the Dalits have been betrayed by the governments in the last 30 years, one-third of that period, which is 10 years, the country has been under the Modi-led BJP government. When he said in that rally that he is with the MRPS in its struggle for justice, what does he mean? Does he mean he is fighting against his own government, helmed by him?

Like the Congress, the BJP is never going to antagonise the entrenched interests for a noble cause. If not, the Modi government, which is the only government which has had required legislative strength in the last 30 years, could have initiated the process of constitutional amendment long back.

Now the constitutional process is relegated to backstage since the case is sub judice.

PM Modi never ventured to promise or hint even indirectly, in the Hyderabad rally, that if the judgement goes against the idea of sub-classification, he would go in for a constitutional amendment to ensure reclassification, as he did in the case of EWS reservation or in the case taking control of Delhi administration, etc.

Thus, the previous conduct of the Modi government and the evasive and hypocritical stand it has taken in the parliament in the last 10 years as explained above, and its ideological antipathy against social justice are testimonies to prove that Modi betrayed the Dalits once again in Hyderabad.

Shivasundar is an activist and a freelance journalist based in Bangalore.