Punjab was closed on August 4. The issue: Reservations. No, it was not Mandal,
version I or II. This protest was against a few castes cornering the benefits of
the existing SC reservations, and about ensuring that the most backward among
Dalit communities can benefit from them as well.
An anguished Darshan Ratna Ravan, the leader of Adi Dharma Samaj — a socio-religious organisation of Dalits, mainly the Balmikis — discovered that the same media that had lapped up any reservation-related news had no space for their bandh. He could sense a caste hierarchy within reservation debates: Reservation becomes a national issue only when it upsets upper castes.
Likewise, when the Union cabinet decided last week to constitute a commission headed by former Supreme Court judge D Raju to go into this question of sub-division of scheduled castes, it went practically unreported in the media.
The 'big' story from that cabinet meeting was the decision to grant a routine instalment of 5 per cent DA to central government employees! Perhaps most of the newspersons did not know what this issue of sub-division was all about.
Or perhaps they knew that it did not concern 'people like us'; it was some mess concerning 'their' quota. On the face of it, this is a legal dispute.
The dispute began with the Andhra Pradesh Scheduled Castes (Rationalisation of Reservations) Act, 2000. This Act sub-divided the reservations in state government jobs for the SC into four categories and fixed separate quotas for different castes within the SC.
The basic idea was to distinguish between castes like Adi-Andhra and Mala, who have cornered most of the benefits of reservations, from Madiga and other Dalit communities who have lagged behind in taking advantage of reservations.
The Act was challenged in the courts, and finally a five-member Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court ruled that this Act was unconstitutional.
It ruled that the Constitution visualised SC as a single category and in any case the state legislature had no right to pass legislation on classification of the SC.
Following the Andhra judgment, the Punjab and Haryana high court has struck down the sub-categorisation of SCs in both these states, in operation since 1975 in Punjab and since 1995 in Haryana.
The Andhra assembly and the Punjab government have appealed to the Union government to make a law to restore this categorisation.
Hence the appointment of the Raju commission. This issue is not confined to these three states. All over the country, the operation of reservation for scheduled castes has led to disproportionate advantage to some castes.
In most states of north India, the Jatavs or Ravidasis (leatherworkers by traditional occupation) community, has gained a disproportionate share of the benefits of reservations, leaving the Balmiki (traditionally scavengers) and other Dalit communities way behind.
Virtually every Dalit IAS officer you come across from north India, 104 out of 107 in the Punjab cadre according to one estimate, is from the Ravidasi community.
But in Maharashtra the leatherworkers, Charmakars, and Matangs lag behind the Mahar community.In Karnataka, the Madigas are way ahead of Holaya community.
In Bengal, the Namashudras have moved ahead of the Rajabangshis and other Dalits. The same issue concerns categories
like the OBC, ST and the Muslim. It would not be fair to call the relatively advanced communities the 'creamy layer'.
It would be wrong to blame them for the disadvantage of other communities. Yet it would be grossly unjust not to recognise this difference and incorporate it in the policy of social justice.
If the mainstream media and intellectuals have been indifferent to this question, the supporters of social justice have maintained a disturbing silence.
Try raising this question with Dalit activists and intellectuals — most of who naturally come from advantaged communities within Dalits — and they offer the same arguments that are used against them by 'brahmanic' intellectuals.
First of all, there is a simple denial: Why are you exaggerating the difference between different communities?
Then there is distancing: Why should I be punished if these lazy, backward communities do not want to study and take advantage of reservations?
Finally, there is distrust: The attempt to create sub-division is politically motivated, aimed at dividing the Dalit community.
The Raju commission would need to view this issue in a broad frame, beyond the legalities of the matter. The commission could begin by analysing the information on educational attainments of different castes within the SC provided by the Census of India 2001.
Similarly, the commission could ask for information of the caste composition of central and state government employees belonging to the SC.
If the commission's findings confirm the popular impression that the benefits have been cornered by a few castes, it can recommend a central legislation or even a constitutional amendment to implement the sub-categorisation.
A simple provision can be introduced to ensure that the sub-categorisation is not used to scuttle reservations: If any of the sub-quotas is left unfilled, the vacant seats should be transferred to the other sub-group within the SC and not to general quota.
The central government can make an enabling legislation about it and leave the exact sub-categorisation to state governments.
Yogendra Yadav is with Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. This article was first published in The Times of India