On November 11, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to speak at a massive meeting organised in Hyderabad by the Madiga Reservation Porata Samithi (MRPS), which has been fighting for the cause of Madigas. In the past, it was mostly the leaders from opposition parties who attended the meetings organised by this rights-based body in the Telugu states to win the political support of Madigas, who constitute a majority among Dalit sub-groups in Telangana. Is the presence of Modi, in his capacity as prime minister, an acknowledgement by the Indian state of the demands that MRPS has been raising? Or does the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) see an inherent political opportunity to woo the Madigas, as well as various Dalit sub-groups across the country?
The moot question now is whether the prime minister accedes to the longstanding demand of MRPS and the Madigas. In the wake of impending elections in Telangana, it is to be seen if the BJP uses it to its advantage to counter Congress’s social justice politics at the national level by announcing Dalit sub-categorisation.
The three-decade-old movement by the MRPS has foregrounded the problem of how some influential sections of the Dalit community disproportionately benefit from the Scheduled Caste reservations at the cost of others. To remedy this, MRPS has been pushing for what is called the ‘rationalisation of reservations’, or ‘categorisation’, to ensure each Dalit group gets to benefit from reservations commensurate with their population in their respective states. For instance, in Telugu states, Malas and Madigas are numerically preponderant Dalit sub-groups. In comparison, Malas are better off than Madigas in various aspects, due to various historical factors. They benefit disproportionately from reservations at the cost of Madigas and other less well-to-do Dalit subgroups.
To fight such disparities among Dalit sub-groups, MRPS was established on July 7, 1994, under the leadership of its founder-president Manda Krishna Madiga. Despite being a rights-based movement, it has since established itself on par with mainstream political parties with village-level committees, ground-level cadre, and a strong organisational network spread across various states. Any observant student of politics and rights-based movements in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana can vouch for the MRPS’s standing, its reach, and its influence on social justice politics in the past three decades. During these 30 years, the movement has significantly influenced the discourse surrounding reservation categorisation, shaping the stances of political parties, and manifestos in favour of equitable distribution of the reservation pie among various caste groups.
But the categorisation of Dalit sub-groups for reservation purposes remains unaddressed.
A movement against historical injustice
In 1965, the B.N. Lokur Committee, constituted to revise the lists of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, recommended to the government to remove 14 tribes and 28 castes from the hitherto existing SC and ST lists. Notably, it proposed the exclusion of the Mala caste group from Andhra Pradesh, highlighting its progress.
A 1996 commission set up by the Andhra Pradesh, under the leadership of Justice P. Ramachandra Raju, also confirmed yawning disparities in the utilisation of reservations among Dalit sub-groups, recommending to the government categorisation of SCs based on their population for the purpose of reservations. It suggested that Dalits in Andhra Pradesh be categorised into four groups on the basis of the level of backwardness and population.
Between 2000 and 2004, the Andhra Pradesh government moved to implement these recommendations. However, a counter-movement launched by the Mala community proved an impediment to Dalit sub-categorisation, culminating finally in a Supreme Court directive asking the government not to proceed forward. The court noted that the categorisation of reservations was only possible through a constitutional amendment.
What seemed a victory for the MRPS was only short-lived, prompting the organisation to renew its struggle with more rigour by demanding successive governments to push for constitutional amendments by the Union government.
The Justice Usha Mehra Commission (2007), constituted by the Union government, also proposed categorisation among Dalits to ensure fair distribution of reservation benefits. It suggested that the state government may invoke the enabling provision of Article 16(4) of the constitution. This particular constitutional provision enables a state government to draw up a reservation plan for appointments and decide the extent of such reservations in proportion to the population of caste groups. To tide over any legal issues, the Committee suggested an amendment to Article 341 of the constitution, which empowers parliament to notify castes and tribes as Scheduled.
The Commission further observed that Dalit sub-groups such as Madiga, Relli, and Adi-Andhra had been socially and economically disadvantaged and should be granted SC reservations as per their population among Dalit sub-groups.
Although the issue of sub-classification among SCs and STs may not have received as much attention as the issue of sub-classification among OBCs, it has been entangled in a constitutional and legal battle.
A constitutional Bench, led by Justice Arun Mishra, in 2020, delivering its verdict in State of Punjab vs Davinder Singh, aptly noted that reservation has created inequalities within the reserved castes, and noted that Dalit groups in the Scheduled Caste list should not be treated as a “homogenous group”. More importantly, it said states can sub-classify Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the Central List to provide preferential treatment to the “weakest out of the weak”. The Central List of Scheduled Castes and Tribes is notified by the President under Articles 341 and 342 of the constitution.
Although adding or dropping any caste/tribe from the List may need parliament’s approval, the bench noted preferential treatment to certain sections among reserved groups does not amount to “tinkering” with the List.
This verdict, in effect, borrows from B.R. Ambedkar’s view of caste that no two castes are equal even if they were grouped under the overarching heading of Scheduled Castes and Tribes. Because caste constitutes a graded hierarchy.
The same is reflected among Dalit sub-groups across the country. In the case of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana specifically, the Malas look down on the Madigas. This, in effect, translates into opportunities secured by Malas in comparison to Madigas in terms of education and employment through reservation.
Half-hearted efforts of political parties
The ruling Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS), in its avatar as Telangana Rashtra Samithi, asserted during the statehood movement that self-rule of Telangana primarily meant empowerment of its Dalit community, which had been neglected in the erstwhile united Andhra Pradesh. In advancing such a view, the BRS (then TRS) committed itself to the Dalit sub-categorisation in the new state.
After assuming power in 2014 in Telangana, the BRS government forwarded two resolutions passed in the Telangana assembly to the Union government pressing for Dalit sub-categorisation. In doing so, it has passed the buck on to the BJP-led Union government while also trying to win the trust of the Madiga community.
The BJP, which had in the run-up to the 2014 General Election promised to complete the classification of SC reservations within 100 days of assuming power, has still not honoured its commitment. The MRPS has been following it up with the Union government through several representations and delegations calling on the Union ministers. In November 2016, M. Venkaiah Naidu, in the capacity of Union minister, attended an MRPS meeting to reiterate his government’s commitment towards Madigas. However, seven years later the issue remains unresolved.
As regards the Congress party, its approach towards the issue has been further disappointing. The Congress government headed by Y.S. Rajashekar Reddy in the undivided Andhra Pradesh in 2009 passed a similar resolution in the state assembly and led an all-party delegation to Delhi to press for Dalit sub-categorisation. However, nothing came of it. After the formation of Telangana state in 2014, the Congress state unit committed itself to deliver the long-standing demand of Madigas. The same is being reiterated by Congress this time around ahead of Telangana polls. Had Congress been committed to the issue, it should have delivered in 2009 – when it was in power both in Andhra Pradesh and at the Centre.
Therefore, in the wake of impending elections in Telangana and the foregrounding of social justice politics by the opposition at the national level, Modi’s scheduled speech at the MRPS meeting in Hyderabad assumes significance. From a political point of view, it could prove a potent move for the BJP to earn the support of the Dalit community, especially the Madigas, who are among the highest in number among Dalit sub-groups in Telangana. The Malas, on the other hand, have been traditionally associated with the Congress.
The question is whether Modi greenlights Dalit sub-categorisation, or will he become part of the laundry list of political leaders who made promises but reneged on them? It is a matter of speculation. A favourable announcement, however, will mark a great victory not just for Madigas, less well-to-do Dalit sub-groups, and social justice politics but also for a grassroots people’s movement like the MRPS at a time when issue-based political mobilisations are facing unprecedented challenges.
Suman Damera is an assistant professor at the Department of Public Administration, Pachhunga University College (PUC), Mizoram University, Aizawl.