Affirmative action[1] and discriminatory measures are complex and controversial issues. The purpose of affirmative action is to speed up the establishment of a representative and unprejudiced workforce in addition to assist those who were in the past deprived by unfair discrimination to fulfill their highest potential.[2] The term itself invokes emotions that range from fear and rage to satisfaction[3]. Affirmative action has encouraged an ongoing debate regarding the legal, moral and economic questions arising from the preferential treatment of certain groups of people in society.[4]  Underlying this debate are various concerns about the notion of reverse discrimination or unfairly disadvantaging individuals who bear no responsibility for past or present discrimination practiced by others.

This article states the current position with regard to the caste system of and the reservation of jobs in the Republic of India in the context of affirmative action and the achievement of equality in the workplace. Its purpose is to highlight the extreme division of opinion about what is socially acceptable, namely, caste. Further, it provides the reader with an understanding of the need for affirmative action in the first place in India and thereby creates a powerful tool for understanding discrimination and the need for affirmative action measures. Another goal is to provide useful guidelines and information to all persons involved in implementing affirmative action programmes. It serves to show that if affirmative action measures and/or discriminatory measures are not properly thought out then affirmative action becomes burdensome and even more discriminatory rather than a means of achieving equality and redressing past wrongs.

Keywords: Affirmative Action, Indian Constitution, Caste, Discrimination.


There are many other countries and nations that are characterized by inequalities including social inequalities but in India these inequalities are highly structured in the form of caste. Caste has existed in India for such a long time and has undergone considerable change but it still involves millions of people. The continuation of superiority and inferiority by reason of one’s skin colour, religion and economic and social status is a world-wide phenomenon. The caste system was not the creation of a single person like the raja (king). To a certain extent it developed out of a system of social practice that became a norm or way of life over several thousands of years.

The issue of caste is a very complex and complicated one. Caste is perceived as “an exclusively Indian phenomenon which is not paralleled by any other institution elsewhere in its complexity, elaboration and inflexibility”[5].  Kroeber describes the caste system as a “system of social stratification, examples of ranked aggregates of people that are usually rigid, birth-ascribed, and permits no individual mobility”.[6]  In the caste system everyone is classified. The castes, like the system of apartheid and racial discrimination, teach us a fundamental social principle; hierarchy.[7]  This classificatory system assumes that certain traits, qualities; functions, characteristics or powers are inherent in and definitive of each of the varnas. This system of caste is enormously complicated and not easily understood. The following paragraph attempts to simplify the issue of caste so as to give the reader an understanding of how the system works.

There are many and varied theories about the establishment of the caste system. These include religious, biological and historical theories.[8]  According to the caste system a person is regarded as a part or member of the caste into which he or she is born. Such person therefore remains within that caste until their death, although the exact standing of that caste may vary among the regions of India and over time. Thus, caste is a many-layered social hierarchy developed several millenniums ago. In Hindu custom the caste system owes its origins to the four varnas.[9]  One of the religious theories gives details on how the four varnas were founded.[10]

Accordingly, there are five different levels or categories of this system. They are the Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra, and Harijans ranked in accordance of hierarchy. Within each of these categories are the actual “castes” or jatis. It is within these ranked categories that people are born, in which they marry, and in which they die. This system has worked well for Indian people in segregating them and even now plays a fundamental role in contemporary India.  It therefore becomes interesting to see how positive discrimination has affected the caste system and its people therein.

It has been argued that in the general sense, some societies are actually or were caste-based in nature and these include countries like South Africa during the era of apartheid and the South of the United States of America until the Civil Rights movement.   Nevertheless, differentiations arise when comparing caste-like systems in other nations to India. In other countries, like South Africa and the United States of America, the separation between one group and the other was typically along ethnic or racial lines.[11]  In India, the separation was more indistinct as one caste in India would appear very much like another. Like race, caste is something one is born into. However, caste in India is more of a social structure, in contrast to the situation in the US, where “race is a fixed and obvious physical condition”. [12]

Another theory relating to the beginnings or origins of caste has to do with the time that India was colonised by the British. India was once a British colony. The British left behind them in India a legacy of their ideologies and culture and even today it is evident that English, the language of their oppressors, is a very important and respected language in India. The British influence is apparent even in most of the laws in India. Some laws, as in South Africa, have been directly adopted and adapted from the English laws.

Some researchers propose that the resultant representation of the caste system was to a great extent the product of European racialist theories, and the benefit of colonial rule as a phenomenon grounded in Indian cultural realities.  Contemporary researchers further propose that preceding the colonial period castes were much more open and flexible. This proposition is supported by various passages in the Vedas which indicate that the four varnas were originally based on occupations and not simply decided by one’s birth. It was at a later stage that the present inflexible caste system came into place.

However, with regard to the caste system, the first effect of importance that the British had on the caste system was to reinforce it. It has been argued that the British saw the advantages in preferring some groups to others. As the Brahmins were once very powerful in influencing the people of India, they gave returned to the Brahmans special privileges that the previous Muslim rulers had taken away.

Even though privileges were given to certain of the groups in India, for the most part the discriminatory practices that were practised amongst the various groups were completely ignored by the British. Some have argued that this attitude was seen as a form of indirect support for the caste system by the British. The overall British policy towards caste was seen as a policy of non-interference.[13]

While researchers hold opposing views on the origins of the caste system in India, they hold the same opinion that it is a very ancient institution that has led to vast inequalities in Indian society. The extreme manifestation of such inequalities in India led to a growing awareness of the need for reform.[14]  Affirmative action was needed to outweigh the imbalances of the past. In India, affirmative action is known as “preferential treatment”, “protective discrimination” or “reverse discrimination”. It is known by the name of reverse discrimination because it involves discrimination in favour of those who, until recently, had themselves been the victims of discrimination.[15]  The phrase “reverse discrimination” may mean different things to different people. The phrase is sometimes charged with being a term of prejudice and is restricted to refer to those situations where an absolute preference is given to the preferred groups.[16]  In India the term most commonly used is positive discrimination.[17]

In the preamble to the Constitution of India,   negative public discrimination on the basis of caste is forbidden. However, ranking according to one’s caste and caste-based interaction have transpired for centuries and   it seems that they will carry on doing so well into the predictable future.  As stated earlier, caste systems in India and caste-like groups   are ranked. Within most communities or townships (villages), the relative rankings of each locally represented caste is known and people’s attitudes toward one another are continuously fashioned by this knowledge. The   caste system is seen as a   closed assembly whose members are strictly confined in their choice of employment and the amount of social involvement.   One’s status in society is decided by the caste of one’s birth and may hardly ever be transcended. A specialized labour group may function as a caste inside a society otherwise free of such distinctions.[18]  In general, caste serves to uphold the status quo in the Indian social order.

It is because of this hierarchal  construction, with its rising order of opportunities and  its  sliding order of disabilities, which has been in operation for about 3000 years, that there was and continues to be an overwhelming majority in the nation that are socially, economically, educationally, and politically backward. These victims of entrenched backwardness comprise the present Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). These classes are generically called the “backward classes”, but each class’s nature and magnitude of backwardness are not the same. [19]

Development of Reservation Policies in India

The origins of affirmative action policies in India can be dated to the British colonial period. Although these policies were never intended to give the Indians power, the British did encourage groups within Indian society to seek political representation. They perceived Indian culture to be naturally divided by the “religious, linguistic, and regional variations within Indian society.” Therefore the manifestation of separate political representation for each group seemed reasonable.

The British had two primary motivations in encouraging the different Indian factions and ethnic groups to seek separate political representation. They wanted to protect their Indian political allies, notably the Muslims, in order to re-solidify their weakening grip on India. The second reason was to restrain the ambitions of the Indian National Congress by creating internal dissensions within the Indian government. The British were in fear of the recent gain of strength of the Indian National Congress. In creating disunity between competing factions, this served to decrease the momentum of the Indian National Congress to act as representatives of India.

“Historically speaking, the pre-independent political struggle was aimed to end exploitation of the Indian masses which meant that political freedom must include the economic freedom of the starving millions.”[20]

The Morley-Minto reforms of 1909, the Montagu-Clemsford reforms of 1919, and the Simon Commission tour in the later 1920s were the initial attempts of the British to incorporate the Indians into the political process and establish political representation for each faction.These first policy reforms worked to increase Indian involvement in general positions of power, allowing them partial input into governing their own affairs. However, the Indian National Congress was hesitant to cooperate with these reforms, realizing that they would never lead to Indian autonomy. In response, the Indian National Congress in the 1930s, attempting to weaken the British position, began to negotiate with untouchable leaders the terms of separate political representation. The untouchables, agreeing to give up separate electorates, were granted reserved seats within Congress. This marks the beginning of reservation policies in India.

Reservation policies were further developed in the Round Table Conferences (RTC) of the 1930s. These conferences were held to discuss the role of Indians in government and to insure political representation for each group. Present at the Conferences were representatives from the British government and from the “major and minor Indian social and economic groups.”  The purpose of the Conferences was to develop an Indian Constitution, however, the Conferences only revealed the profound divisions present within Indian Society.

The historical divisions present within India led to development and expansion of Affirmative Action policies. The RTC brought to the political forefront many of the issues affecting disadvantaged minority groups in India, predominately focused around issues affecting the untouchables. The Conferences resulted in a stalemate between the Indian National Congress and the minority factions over separate political representation or joint electorates. The solution to this stalemate was the introduction of preferential treatment policies. The Communal Award (1932) is credited with being India’s first affirmative action policy. It gave Muslims and other minority groups separate electorates. However, the untouchables received the greatest benefits. They were granted voting rights, special electorates, and reserved seats in Congress. These policies were maintained after Indian independence, eventually being incorporated into the constitution. They were expanded to include many different disadvantaged classes, influencing government employment and higher education.

Independence and the Constitution: Framing Reservation Policy

On May 16, 1946, the British government released the Cabinet Mission Statement, a set of proposals to guide the framing of a new Indian constitution. By this time, the wheels for India’s independence had already been set in motion by Clement Atlee’s Labor Party government in London. Among other recommendations, the Cabinet Mission laid out a detailed plan for the Constituent Assembly’s composition, such that the body be “as broad-based and accurate a representation of the whole population as possible.” Three categories from which to draw delegates were proposed. In addition to divisions for Muslims and Sikhs, the Cabinet Mission suggested a “general” category which would include all others groups—Hindus, Anglo-Indians, Parsis, Indian Christians, the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, and women, among others. Delegates were appointed on the basis of indirect elections in the provincial legislative assemblies.

In March 1947, Britain sent Lord Louis Mountbatten, war hero and royal relative, to New Delhi as the King-Emperor’s last Viceroy. His mission was to transfer power to an independent Indian government. In the end, power was transferred to two successor entities, Pakistan on August 14, 1947, and India on August 15, 1947.

Under the Cabinet Mission plan the Constituent Assembly was to consist of 389 seats, 296 of which were filled by delegates elected from the directly-administered provinces of British India and 93 of which were allotted to the princely states. The total number of seats was based on an undivided India, and, overall, represented a cross-section of the population of the country. Given the Muslim League’s boycott of the Assembly, the impact of partition and subsequent migration, and the lengthy process of integrating the princely states, the number and distribution of seats continually fluctuated from the time of the first meeting on December 9, 1946. With the 1947 partition, many Muslim delegates left for Pakistan, terminating their membership in the Assembly. As a result, the body was reorganized. By November 26, 1949, it consisted of 324 seats, divided among the provinces and the princely states and representative of all major minority groups.

The make-up of the Constituent Assembly reflected the reality of what groups wield power in India, then and now. An analysis of membership in the most important advisory committees of the Constituent Assembly found that 6.5 percent were SCs. Brahmins made up 45.7 percent[21].  Minority and Scheduled Caste delegates did have some influence during the Assembly proceedings, with several holding significant positions. Dr. H.C. Mookherjee [22], an Indian Christian, was Vice-President of the Constituent Assembly as well as Chairman of the Sub-Committee on Minorities. However, by far the most important was Dr. Ambedkar.

Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), India’s first Prime Minister and dominant political figure until his death, had already selected Ambedkar, an accomplished lawyer, as his Law Minister. A Brahmin himself, Nehru sought to build a secular India free from caste discrimination. He was among the “many educated Hindus” opposed to the caste system as noted by Gandhi in his 1933 Harijan exchange with Ambedkar (above). Given Nehru’s views and Ambedkar’s talents, it is not surprising that Ambedkar became chairman of the drafting committee for India’s new constitution. It was also an astute political move for both leaders. For Nehru, it kept the independently minded Ambedkar “on board” with the government at a critical time; for Ambedkar, it was an opportunity to influence preparation of the new constitution and protect Scheduled Caste interests.

From the outset, the Constituent Assembly laid out clearly its objectives and philosophy for the new constitution. Several of the framers’ main goals, articulated in the “Objectives Resolution,” included guarantees of equality, basic freedoms of expression, as well as “adequate safeguards…for minorities, backward and tribal areas, and depressed and other backward classes.” These principles guided the delegates throughout the Constitution-making process.

The Assembly set up a special Advisory Committee to tackle minority rights issues. This committee was further divided into several subcommittees. The Subcommittee on Minorities focused on representation in legislatures (joint versus separate electorates and weightings), reservation of seats for minorities in cabinets, reservation for minorities in the public services, and administrative machinery to ensure the protection of minority rights. After extensive research and debate, the Subcommittee on Minorities drafted a report of its findings for submission to the Advisory Committee. The latter supported most of the Subcommittee’s recommendations[23].

Vallabhbhai Patel (1875-1950), Chairman of the Advisory Committee and the most powerful member of the governing Congress party after Nehru, submitted the Report on Minority Rights to Rajendra Prasad, President of the Assembly, and on August 27, 1947, the Assembly convened to discuss the Report. Patel opened the debate by presenting the Advisory Committee’s main recommendations. Rejecting separate electorates—Congress wanted no repeat of the separate electorates granted to the Muslims by the British—and a “weightage” system, the Report endorsed the creation of joint electorates and proportional representation. Reservations were approved for minorities, as long as the reservations were in proportion to the population of the targeted groups. Some minorities, like the Parsis, voluntarily gave up this right.

Treatment of the Scheduled Castes was extensively debated. Efforts by Ambedkar and his allies to craft a provision requiring a “tripwire” 35 percent of Scheduled Caste votes in a constituency reserved for the Scheduled Castes failed. The principle of common voting and reserved seats in legislative bodies throughout the country was retained despite strong opposition from influential Constituent Assembly members like Nehru[24].  However, the colonial-era system of having the Scheduled Castes choose candidates for reserved seats through local “electoral colleges” was dropped. Throughout the debate, caste Hindus permitted nothing that would suggest splitting off the Scheduled Castes in an electoral sense from the Hindu community[25].

Reservations: An Analysis

The Indian government has a policy of compulsory compensatory discrimination which comprises various preferential schemes. The policy initiative most commonly utilized by them to offset the inequalities of society is a policy of reservations.[26]

Reservations are a type of affirmative action whereby a proportion of seats are set aside for the previously disadvantaged. Reservations take place in the “Parliament of India, state legislative assemblies, central and state civil services, public sector units, central and state government departments and all public and private educational institutions”.  According to the Indian Constitution the exception lies in the minority and religious educational institutions for the socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, who are perceived by the government to be inadequately represented in these services and institutions.[27]   Therefore the term “reservations” indicates a set allocation of certain public service positions for  recognized  minorities. This term encompasses the allocation of seats in educational institutions as well. [28]

The stated reason for the implementation of reservation is the necessity to advance the needs and interests of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens, such as the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, who had been subjected to discrimination for more than thousands of years by the upper caste men of India.[29]

Preferences in India are of three basic types. Firstly, there are reservations. These reservations assign or make possible access to esteemed positions or resources.[30] Secondly, there are programmes involving expenditure or the provision of services for e.g. scholarships, grants, loans, land allotments, health care, and legal aid to the beneficiary groups[31].  Thirdly, there are special protections.[32]  Reservations together with other welfare initiatives comprise the heart of affirmative action for these previously disadvantaged groups.[33]  To indicate the scale of this policy the central government has set aside twenty-seven percent of all government jobs and places in institutions of higher education for the socially and educationally backward classes.[34]

Specifically, the Constitution of India provides for “reservations” in favour of two disadvantaged groups; namely, the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and the Scheduled Tribes (STs). These reservations exist in the following areas:

(a)        In the state legislatures and the union legislature or parliament,

(b)        In services under the states, and

(c)        In educational institutions.

Apart from reservations in educational institutions, other programmes for the upliftment of the backward classes include:

(a)        Exemption from school fees,

(b)        The provision of stipends or scholarships,

(c)        The provision of facilities like book grants, and

(d)       The maintenance of hostels, or assistance to hostels for SC students.[35]

The central government further sponsors the following:

(a)        College scholarships,

(b)        The award of travel grants, and

(c)        A seven-and-a-half percent reservation in favour of SCs in merit scholarships,

(d)       assistance by way of special coaching for the SC students residing in hostels, and pre-examination coaching facilities for SC students appearing in competitive examinations[36],  and

(e)        in some states, reservations in services under the state and in educational institutions in favour of OBCs. Reservations coupled with other welfare programmes constitute the core of affirmative action for the upliftment of these groups[37].

In Parliament and in state legislatures political reservation is only for the benefit   of the SCs and the STs But not for the other OBCs.  Political reservations are written into the Indian Constitution and the provisions make known the uncertainty of the architects of the Constitution as well as of policy makers in modern day India[38].

The constitutional provisions relating to political reservations for the SCs and the STs are compulsory.  However, when the   provisions were made obligatory in 1950, it was determined that this would be valid only for ten years, so they would last for a single decade only. However, since then the Indian Constitution has had to be amended every ten years to continuously extend political reservations for the SCs and STs.

The second category of reservation, which is even more controversial than the first, is identified as job reservations.[39]  Job reservations pertain mainly to government appointments at union and state level and also to organizations which are significantly subsidised by the government. The provisions for job reservation apply not only to the SCs and STs But also to the OBCs as well.  It has happened that over the years there has been an extension of job reservations for the benefit of the OBCs.  This has now become the most controversial issue among positive or affirmative action measures in India. The question is whether or not the wholesale expansion of job reservations for the OBCs is in harmony with the will of the Constitution or not. For job reservations, unlike political reservations, the provisions are not obligatory; they are enabling provisions since the Indian Constitution states that the state may take such measures as are necessary for the special benefit of the OBCs.

Finally, the third category of reservation is reservations in education. As far as admissions are concerned, it is possible that the different States of India may grant concessions short of outright reservation to handicapped persons, for e.g., the awarding of stipends and scholarships etc. As there is no legislation mandating the equal and fair representation of disabled persons in the workforce? These concessions may prove to be inadequate.[40]  These, again, are debatable, because reservations are present not only in general arts and science courses but also in medical and engineering schools.  The reasoning behind reservations in India is that special opportunities should be given for some, over and above the general provisions for equality of opportunity for all.

The  key aim for providing reservations for  SCs and STs  in civil posts and  the  services of the Government is to provide jobs to some persons belonging to these communities and thereby increase their representation in the services; so as to facilitate their social and economic advancement and make due place for them in society. Article 16(4) of the Constitution specifically empowers the State to make any provision for the reservation of appointments or posts in favour of any backward class of citizens which is not adequately represented in the services under the State. With the same end in view, the Constitution envisaged in the Directive Principles of State Policy and elsewhere the economic and educational development of the weaker sections, particularly the SCs and STs.


Countries looking to implement affirmative action policies will do well to look at India’s affirmative action policies, as India is the country with the most extensive quota system in the world, and it is a country where the government enforces these preferences. Quotas are enforced through this system of reservations, whereby at least forty percent of seats are reserved for persons from the SCs, STs and OBCs. Mitchell describes the quota system as a “numbers game enforced by a policing system supported by industrial courts” and warns that the quota methods can prove to be counter-productive with companies resorting to filling quotas without developing skills. [41]

Like the quota system in other constitutions[42], seats and jobs are reserved for persons from disadvantaged groups.[43]  This policy of special or preferential treatment of the disadvantaged sections of society is called by the name of “protective discrimination”[44] or “protective measures”, “compensatory discrimination programmes”[45] or “reverse discrimination”[46].  These phrases however, have the same import and are not dissimilar to the concept of affirmative action as used in the US context. As can be seen, reservation policies in favour of the backward classes in India are quite extensive and form the major part of the preferential policies designed for their upliftment.

Beneficiaries of affirmative action in India

Like race, caste is something one is born into[47].  However,  because caste in India is a “social construction”, in contrast to  the  beliefs in the  US  that “race is an obvious physical condition”,  it is believed that the “Indian jurisprudence has advanced well beyond American law in constructing and justifying affirmative action in terms of underlying social features”.[48]

Attention has focussed on protective discrimination or preferential treatment for three major classes; the SCs[49], the STs[50], and more recently the OBCs. Included among the OBCs are a few tribal and nomadic groups, as well as converts to non-Hindu religions from the scheduled caste and in some areas the Denotified Tribes.[51]  The inclusion of the category of the OBCs widens the principle of affirmative action in education and government employment from the   untouchables to “socially and educationally backward classes of citizens”[52],  of assisting “backward” groups, “backwardness” or the “depressed classes”[53] , it  should be understood as a comparison rather than a depreciatory or  condescending  phrase.[54]

Another group that receives preferential treatment in India is women and children. Under clause (3) of article 15 of the IC, special provision for the benefit of women and children may be made by the State and such special provision will not be open to attack as contravening articles 14 or 15[55].

The making of reservations as “compensatory discrimination” in India does not look to eradicate the caste system; it simply aims to boost some oppressed castes, whether at the bottom or the middle of the caste ranking.  The Indian government’s model of “affirmative action” is different in a way from that in other Constitutions[56]  as these other societies do not have any inflexible caste-based pecking order of jati  (the endogamy  family) and varna (class based on purity level) as  the Indians do,  but only classes fashioned by economic inequality. In such a culture, the economic progression of an individual, family unit or group brings about a confirmed position in a privileged class.

However, in the Indian system, affluence alone has not improved the status of a caste (jati) into a higher varna.  It is submitted that the reservation of government positions for OBCs should not be construed as a narrow exemption to the constitutional guarantee of equality, but rather as a way of achieving true, substantive equality, notwithstanding the concomitant problems. To combat the problems entailed in the identification of beneficiaries, the identification of a group as an OBC cannot and should not be based on economic criteria alone.



The Constitution of India does not contemplate affirmative action/reservation and special treatment as a general principle of operation. With a view to making justice – social, economic and political justice- effectively available to all, the Constitution of India makes special provision for certain members of society. The IC contains several provisions for the protection and amelioration of the lot of the SCs, the STs and the OBCs.

Affirmative action programmes ought to aspire to help the underprivileged sectors of society by allowing them to catch up with the standards of competition set up by society at large. However, it is submitted that numerical quotas or reservations are intolerable as they impose unfair burdens on those excluded and they involve the suspension of standards.

In the Indian situation there is definitely no question of discarding affirmative action programmes in favour of the socially disadvantaged persons as the designated beneficiaries are still very much disadvantaged. Affirmative action is part and parcel of a just society, so there should be no question of abandoning affirmative action programmes for the designated groups at present. However, these programmes must be carried out in a way that is constitutionally acceptable.

In India, the need really is to make these affirmative action programmes more effective, instead of confining them to reservations alone. For example, programmes for special training and the development of skills, and measures to encourage the previously disadvantaged to pursue excellence should be taken up. Reservations or quotas alone can never be the answer.

The Indian experience cautions one about the difficulties of assessing affirmative action programmes. Further, it has shown that compensatory discrimination does not necessarily extinguish commitments to merit. On the other hand, it does not automatically produce the sought-after redistribution and it is not costless[57], since, in India, in order to fill quotas, candidates from the lower classes are accepted even though they are not suitably qualified.

Sometimes some positions that are reserved remain unfulfilled as there are too few candidates from the lower classes to fill them. This causes tension between the castes. There are tensions over reservations between the lower castes as well.

In the order of precedence for a place set aside for the OBCs, candidates from the SCs are preferred over candidates from the STs, who in turn are preferred over candidates from the other OBCs. According to central government policy, OBCs constitute about fifty percent of  India’s population, but only  twenty percent  of the  OBCs  are actually entitled  to  positive discrimination. Some OBC communities are organising politically to be recognised as backward classes entitled to positive discrimination. The STs, who are seen as the aborigines of India, have ownership and certain rights over the land. Many communities in India also claim to be aborigines of India, and they are claiming the same rights as the STs.

The term “Scheduled Castes” itself refers to a list of castes prepared in 1935 by the British government in India.[58]  Such a list is kept today, supplemented by lists of other STs and OBCs, and includes three thousand SCs, STs and OBCs. According to the central government policy these three categories are entitled to positive discrimination. Sometimes these three categories are defined together as “Backward Classes”. It is these groups that benefit from positive discrimination. In accordance with constitutional provisions and various laws, the state grants dalits or the untouchables a certain number of privileges, including reservations (quotas) in education, government jobs and government bodies.

The implementation of legal provisions contained in the Protection of Civil Rights Act[59] and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act attempts to protect these castes from discrimination.[60]  The Constitution therefore permits the privileging of the SCs, STs and OBCs. It specifically provides reserved seats in the lower house of Parliament[61] and in the lower houses of the state legislatures for the SCs and STs.[62]  The Constitution of India itself does not define these groups, nor does it provide detailed standards by which they may be determined. In the case of SCs and the STs, it does prescribe an agency and a method for designating them[63].  Not only are the OBCs left undefined in the Constitution, but no such method or agency for their determination is provided.[64]

This list of beneficiaries in India is perhaps one of the largest lists in the world, as no other country provides for positive measures for such a large group of beneficiaries. Reservations are proposed to increase the societal diversity in campuses and workplaces by decreasing the entrance criterion for particular groups that are grossly under-represented in proportion to their numbers in the general population. Caste is the most frequently used criterion to identify under-represented groups.  The Indian government’s prolonged attempt to identify the castes that are illegible for positive discrimination has led to the ramification of a multiplicity of castes and has only reinforced the caste system.

The caste distinctiveness has become a topic of political, social and legal analysis. Communities who get listed as being permitted to benefit under positive discrimination are not removed from this list even if their social and political conditions improve. In many cases the legal system is involved in deciding if a certain person is entitled to positive discrimination.  Notwithstanding these positive discrimination policies, most of the communities who were previously low in the caste hierarchy remain low in the social order even today.  Further, the communities which were high in the social ranking remain high in the social ranking even today.[65]

The reservation system in India seems to be a drastic measure taken to achieve the goal of equality. It is believed that reservations in favour of distinct groups help in attaining a diverse student body which promotes an atmosphere of “speculation, experiment and creation — so essential to the quality of higher education”.[66]  However, the reality is that there are no set criteria to select persons outside of the backward classes. When a policy like preferential treatment, reservations or affirmative action is adopted, the reservation policies in India will have to be so arranged that they must not materially affect the right of equality of opportunity, if the advancement of the backward communities is be achieved[67]. Therefore, affirmative action policies must ensure that the preferential relief employed to correct a particular situation is the least drastic means of remedying discrimination[68].

Looking at India’s system of achieving equality through its use of quotas and reservations, some cautionary lessons are advised. For example, affirmative action is now over fifty years old and each year that equality is not achieved, affirmative action is extended. The government in countries that implement affirmative action must have reasonable goals within set timeframes to achieve the elimination of discrimination. Measures put into place must be monitored, and those that do not achieve their stated goals from must be abandoned. The quota system is not a good system, and merely causes more resentment amongst the non-beneficiary groups. Further, there is ongoing pressure to increase the number of beneficiaries by adding more categories. This creates the risk that affirmative action will be used first and foremost to mobilise voting blocks, and will create hopelessness and antipathy among members of the younger age group who feel  that  their opportunities are limited by their non-OBC status.[69]

What is certain is that  affirmative action  programmes  are the measures to utilise to eliminate the present and continuing effects of past discrimination  and  to lift the limitations in access to equal opportunities, which  limitations have impeded  the access of  various  classes of people to  posts in  public administration. Such measures as affirmative action   or reservations are implemented to remedy the ongoing ill effects of previous inequalities stemming from discriminatory practices against various classes of people, which have resulted in their social, educational and economic backwardness[70].   The policy also addresses the ongoing discrimination caused by persistent societal discrimination and attacks the continuation of such injustices.[71]  This is the axis on which affirmative action revolves. For equality to be achieved, affirmative action is required. However such affirmative action must be carried out in a constitutionally valid manner.

[1] The term “affirmative action” has different meanings and definitions which flow, and are derived from an individual’s view of the legitimacy of the use of race-conscious or sex-conscious preferential remedies for unlawful discrimination. Alternative terminology used to define or describe affirmative action includes but is not limited to “reverse discrimination”, “affirmative discrimination” or “quotas” as in the Indian context.

[2] White Paper GN 564 in GG 18800 of 23 April 1998.

[3] Turner Past and Future 1.

[4] Hodges We Want Jobs.

[5] Searle-Chatterjee and Sharma Contextualising Caste.

[6] Kroeber “Caste”.

[7] Ghurye Features of the Caste System.

[8] The biological theory of the caste system claims that all existing things have essentially three qualities in different ratios. Sattva qualities include wisdom, intelligence, honesty, goodness and other positive qualities. Rajas include qualities like passion, pride, valour and other passionate qualities. Tamas qualities include dullness, stupidity, lack of creativity and other negative qualities. People with different doses of these inherent qualities adopted different types of occupation. It was this difference in qualities and occupation that was the origins of the caste system. See for instance Buhler “Manu”.

[9] Buhler “The Sacred Laws of the Aryans”.

[10] Doniger Laws of Manu.

[11] Sachs “Affirmative Action”.

[12] Volokh 1996

[13] Lamb India: World in Transition.

[14] Anand Equality 1.

[15] Fischer 1996 People Dynamics 32.

[16] Brounaugh “Authority, Equality, Adjudication, Privacy” 47.

[17] Andrews 1992 SAIPA 34-43.

[18] Eg, the ironsmiths in parts of Africa.

[19] Sharma and Reddy Reservation Policy in India.

[20] Professor Shariful Hasan, in his “Supreme Court : Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles” (Deep and Deep Publication) at 14 quoted by Andhra High Court  in A.S. Sailaja V.Principal Kurnool, Medical, AIR !986 AP 209

[21] Christophe Jaffrelot, India’s Silent Revolution (London: Hurst & Co., in publication), 208, citing research by G. Austin in The Indian Constitution Appendix III.,

[22]  His name indicates his family was Bengali Brahmin by background.

[23] Kamlesh Kumar Wadwha, Minority Safeguards in India: Constitutional Provisions and Their Implementation (New Delhi: Thomson Press (India) Limited, 1975) 47-68.

[24] Nehru maintained this position when backward caste leaders lobbied to extend job reservations to backward groups in the 1950s, remarking “I am grieved to learn how far this business of reservation has gone based on communal or caste considerations. This way lies not only folly, but disaster.” Steven Ian Wilkinson, “India, Consociational Theory, and Ethnic Violence,” Asian Survey. Vol. XL, No.5, September/October 2000, 774-775.

[25] Jaffrelot, op. cit., 92-95.

[26] Tummala 1999 Public Administration Review 495-508.

[27]Sukhnandan Thakur v State of Bihar (1957) AIR 617 (Pat).

[28] Although such reservations were declared unconstitutional in various decisions. Surendra Kumar v State (1969) AIR 182 (Raj); Ramachandra v State of Madhya Pradesh (1961) AIR 247 (Madh Pra).

[29] Constitution of India 1950 (hereafter IC).

[30]The most important instances of this type are reserved seats in legislatures, the reservation of posts in government service, and the reservation of places in academic institutions.

[31] Galanter Competing Inequalities

[32] These distributive schemes are accompanied by efforts to protect the backward classes from being exploited and victimised.

[33] This policy consists of various schemes allowing preferential treatment, a reservation of a percentage of government jobs and of places in educational institutions being the most important.

[34] The IC provided the legal opportunity for preferential treatment for their benefit even before it was clear who the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes were. The makers of the IC left the work of defining, selecting, and listing the backward classes to special commissions in the States and in the Centre

[35] Seenarine “Dalit Women”.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Galanter (n 27).

[39] Sharma and Reddy (n 21).

[40] Andrews (n 19) 34-43.

[41]Mitchell 1993 Productivity SA 28.

[42] This includes the USA.

[43] Reservations are being made in the services as well as both at the point of initial entry and in promotions. This benefit has been extended to embrace the whole chunk of weaker sections.

[44] It is given the name “protective discrimination” because the purpose of special or preferential treatment is not to award any special privileges but to give protection to those who, because of centuries of oppression, are vulnerable to get exploited despite the removal of legal sanctions behind exploitation which has been practised so far.

[45] These programmes are authorised by constitutional provisions that permit departure from formal equality for the purpose of favouring specified groups. See in this respect Galanter (n 27) 41and 379. Also see the case of Devadasen v Union of India (1964) AIR 179 (SC).

[46] It is known by the name of “reverse discrimination” because it involves discrimination in favour of           those until recently had themselves been the victims of discrimination.

[47]Volokh (n 14).

[48] Cunningham 1997 Mich LR.

[49] Cl 24 of art 366 of the IC

[50] Cl 25 of art 366 of the IC.

[51] The Denotified Tribes, or Vimukta Jatis, are the former Criminal Tribes. They became ‘excriminal’ when the Criminal Tribes Act of 1924 was repealed in 1952.

[52] Art 15(4) of the IC. What is interesting is that in India both traditional low-caste status and economic class are factors in determining whether a group is categorised as an OBCs, but these factors on their own are not considered to be sufficient.

[53] The term backward classes is commonly used in two senses: (a) as a generic term including the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes as well as the other so-called Other Backward Classes; or (b) as a designation of those backward groups not included in either of the first two categories. See art 15(4) of the IC.

[54] Cunningham (n 44) 119

[55] Savitri v KK Bose (1971) AIR 1974 (HP); Padmaraj Samendra v State (1979) AIR 266 (Pat).

[56] Like the USA and South African Constitutions.

[57] Galanter (n 27) 563.

[58] See art 3441 and 342 of the IC. The government of India’s 1960 publication entitled Scheduled Castes and Tribes Arranged in Alphabetical Order lists 405 SCs and 255 STs, for a total of 660 kinship groups (the boundaries distinguishing castes and tribes are unclear).

[59] The Protection of Civil Rights Act of 1995.

[60] The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989.

[61] Art 330 of the IC

[62] Art 332 of the IC

[63] See art 15(4); 164 and 340 of the IC.

[64] CERD Reports of India Concluding Observations of Caste 17 September 1996 par 7.

[65] Aharon 2005

[66] University of California Regents v Allen Bakke (1978) 438 US 265 at 312.

[67] Anand (n 16

[68] See, eg, MR Balaji v State of Mysore (1963) AIR 645 (SC); Amlendu Kumar v State (1980) AIR 1 (Pat) at 7.

[69] Cunningham (n 44).

[70] Justice PB Sawant in Indra Sawhney v Union of India (1993) AIR 477 (SC) at par 23.

[71] Singh Affirmative Action Programme

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