Ministers oppose PM's plan to grant reservations for dalit Christians, Muslims

1997 (?)

George Iype in New Delhi

Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda's plan to provide job reservations to Muslims, dalit Christians and the economically weaker sections has been opposed by his colleagues in the United Front government.

Providing 10 per cent reservations to economically weaker sections and extending the government's job quota policy to dalit Christians and Muslims has been one key social programme that Deve Gowda wanted to launch during his term in office.

Some observers believe the prime minister's move is not altruistic, but to derive political mileage out of a programme which Congress president Sitaram Kesri had envisaged when he was federal welfare minister in the Narasimha Rao government.

Many of Deve Gowda's Janata Dal colleagues have resisted the prime minister's initiative to open up the sensitive reservation issue. Interestingly, the opposition has mainly come from senior ministers like Ram Vilas Paswan (a dalit), S R Bommai (a lingayat), Chand Mahal Ibrahim ( a Muslim) and Devendra Prasad Yadav (a member of the other backward classes) who had advocated more reservations when they were not in power.

At a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Deve Gowda's ministerial colleagues are said to have advised him that opening up the reservation issue would amount to emulating former prime minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh which might result in the premature death of the coalition government.

The reservations issue in India has a violent history.

For decades now, the federal and state governments have reserved 22.5 per cent government jobs for the so-called lower castes and tribals in the country.

In 1990, when then Janata Dal prime minister V P Singh announced an additional 27 per cent reservations for the other backward classes, it sparked off violent protests from upper caste students.

The subsequent agitation and countrywide turmoil eventually led to the ouster of Singh's government. The Supreme Court also stayed Singh's order after some upper caste students burnt themselves to oppose the move.

The anti-quota groups say reservations ignore merit and burdens the people with 'sub-optimal administrators.' They argue it would set off social tensions between the upper and lower castes in the country.

However, in November 1992 the Supreme Court upheld the Singh government's order and asked the then Congress government to reserve 27 per cent of government jobs for the socially and economically backward groups.

Sitaram Kesri, welfare minister in the Congress government, was instrumental in implementing the court order according to which 27 per cent reservations was provided to some 1,200 low castes and backward classes.

But knowing that job quotas are an easy route to lure a political constituency, Kesri has been demanding further quotas for economically weaker sections and the minorities like Muslims and dalit Christians.

"Deve Gowda wants to seize Kesri's social plank. But we have told him it is not a wise move for a coalition government," one UF leader told Rediff On The NeT.

But UF Welfare Minister B S Ramoowalia says the spirit behind Deve Gowda's reservation efforts is not political. "We will introduce job quotas for economically weaker sections only if a consensus emerges among all the major political parties," he told Rediff On The NeT.

"It is necessary that the economically backward classes be brought on par with their more fortunate upper caste brethren," the welfare minister added.

But the ticklish problem that Deve Gowda faces is that if he goes ahead with his reservation plans, his government will have to amend the Constitution to grant job quotas for the dalit Christians, Muslims and economically backward classes.

Reservations have been frozen at 50 per cent by the Supreme Court. "Deve Gowda will have to seek a Constitutional amendment to grant any additional benefits. But it is unlikely his colleagues will support him in his task," says a JD leader.