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Modi government's new 10 percent reservation for upper castes: 10 key things to know

Jan 7 (AZINS) The Union Cabinet of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday approved reservation of 10 percent for economically backward sections of upper castes. The government is likely to move Constitutional amendments to set up this quota in Parliament on Tuesday.

Here are 10 things to know about the proposed quota:

   1.   The proposed quota is aimed at reserving 10 percent of government jobs through direct recruitment and seats in higher education institutions for economically backward upper sections of upper castes. The documentation however is likely to refer to this section as those who are 'not covered by existing schemes of reservations' or as members of the 'general category' or 'open category' or 'non-reserved', rather than as 'upper castes'.

   2.   The new quota would also cover economically backward members of upper castes of other religions. While faiths like Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Sikhism are scripturally egalitarian in character, some converts in the Indian context have continued to retain their caste identities, leading to caste-based distinction within religions that do not traditionally have them.

   3.   The 'economically backward' tag would be applicable to 'upper caste' members who have an annual income below Rs 8 lakh, own less than five hectares of agricultural land, own homes smaller than 1,000 sqft, own residential plots below 100 square yards in notified municipalities or 200 square yards in non-notified municipality areas. Not meeting the requirement on even one of these factors could disqualify from eligibility for the quota.

   4.   The announcement of the Cabinet's approval comes just months ahead of the notification of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Reservation for economically backward sections of upper castes has long been on the wishlist of groups like the RSS, which has close links with the ruling BJP. The RSS has for long opposed reservations based purely on community of birth, which is what the language of the Constitution allows.

   5.   The new quota would be implemented in a '50+10' formula, taking total reservation past the 50 percent cap placed by the Supreme Court in 1992. The court had struck down a similar notice in Indra Sawhney Etc. Etc vs Union Of India And Others, Etc. That office memorandum had been issued by the government of VP Singh on September 25, 1990, just 11 days before he resigned. The court struck down the notice on the basis that it is not justifiable under the clauses of Article 16 of the Constitution. The Supreme Court's landmark order had come the day before the retirement of Chief Justice Madhukar Kania.

   6.   That is why the Modi government has okayed Constitutional amendments to allow it to happen. Amendments to Articles 15 and 16 are likely to be introduced in Parliament on Tuesday. That means there won't be enough time for it to be taken up in a meaningful way in the ongoing Winter Session. It is also a matter of doubt if the Constitutional amendments can be passed in the coming Budget Session, or whether the government has enough support in the Rajya Sabha to achieve this goal in time for the elections.

   7.   Even if the amendments are not passed, the issue is likely to become a key plank for the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections. The proposal would be expected to help the BJP consolidate upper caste votes, which were once seen to be the core of the party's support base. It would also leave some opposition parties unable to oppose it meaningfully considering their own vote banks in upper castes.

   8.   The Constitutional amendments are likely to make changes that would specifically address the 1992 Supreme Court judgement, considering this matter can be expected to come up for judicial scrutiny again. Likely changes, among other appropriate steps, include the insertion of the word 'economically' in Clause (4) of Article 15. Another critical amendment would be to change the language of Clause (4) of Article to 16 to negate the Supreme Court's "irresistible conclusion" in 1992 that reservations "should not exceed 50%".

   9.   The move is a massive rearrangement and recharacterisation of India's reservation regime. Opposition parties sought to express opinions even as they showed restraint to examine its repercussions. Some pointed out that in the existing scheme of things, reservations on the basis of economic backwardness do not have a place in the Constitution. Others argued that the idea of reservations was meant to be affirmative action in favour of historically marginalised, oppressed and disadvantaged communities that were denied the opportunity to accrue social capital, irrespective of economic standing.

   10.  However, a vast majority of opposition voices dismissed the BJP's move as a 'gimmick' or 'jumla' aimed at the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Many pointed out that the move had come just ahead of the polls, and that Constitutional amendments would probably not get made before the elections.