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Reserved about Reservation

Reserved about Reservation

in defence of merit


Periyar Bhim Vemula

I had an interesting conversation on Facebook, triggered by a small LinkedIn post that I shared on the social media website. The article was related to how Tina Dabi, the first rank holder in India’s qualifying exam for its civil services, was a beneficiary of ‘reservation,’ a mode of positive discrimination or ‘Affirmative Action’ in India.

I had also commented about how India’s privileged upper castes blamed the reservation system to hide their own insecurities about competing, on equal footing, with those whom they once considered below their social standing. A friend of mine took objection to this statement, and to the fact that Ms Dabi was economically well-off and therefore unfairly benefited from reservation, at the cost of another, perhaps more meritorious candidate.

Through this article, I wish to explain the meaning of reservation, its goals and also try to answer some of the arguments posed by those against this system.

in defence of merit

Reservations in India are provided for by the Constitution under Article 16(4) which states:

“Nothing in this article [Art. 16] shall prevent the State from making any provision for the reservation of appointments or posts in favor of any backward class of citizens which, in the opinion of the State, is not adequately represented in the services under the State.”

Dalits (communities belonging to traditionally lower castes), Adivasis (India’s tribal communities) and Other Backward Castes (OBCs) are those communities, apart from religious communities, that stand to benefit from this system of reservation. It is clearly laid down in Indian law, that reservations are for the benefit of those peoples, who belong to the backward classes, who the State feels are underrepresented in its services. Nowhere does this law say that reservations ought to be denied to a person because of his or her economic position.

Even if one were to consider the economic argument, it is also a known fact that the backward communities make-up the bulk of the poverty list in the country. Over 36 percent of Dalits live below the poverty line in India, compared with about 16 percent among the other communities. The latter category also includes Muslims and Adivasis, apart from the upper castes, who make up a very small percentage of India’s poor. Therefore, to say that Dalits are eating away seats that could well go to poor upper castes in absurd.

Another argument made is that economically better off Dalits themselves are misusing this privilege to take away the seats from the meritorious, at the cost of the poor among their own community. What is the problem if they choose to make use of something that is theirs by law? The entire reservation system is built for them, and it is up to them to choose whether to avail the benefits of the system or not. It is similar to those availing food rationing benefits, subsidised cooking gas, subsidised diesel or subsidised text books, though they can afford them without the subsidy.

Would an urban middle class diesel car owner be prepared to buy fuel without the subsidy on diesel? Would he voluntarily give up his subsidised railway ticket and be willing to pay the actual cost? Would the privileged choose to buy their food grains at a higher cost and abolish the subsidy on fertilisers? These benefits exist and everyone eligible is well within their rights to avail them. This argument of misuse, if anything, only goes to show that any reform to the system must include extending it to those Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs currently unable to avail it, rather than abolishing it altogether.

The third argument against reservation is a classic one and also the most absurd: Reservation kills meritocracy. Reservation for Dalits is only up to 15 percent in government jobs and it is 7.5 percent for Adivasis. This means that out of 20 vacancies, only three are reserved for the Dalits while 3 in 40 vacancies are reserved for Adivasis. The Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), which conducts the civil services exams in India clears candidates depending on the vacancies available in each category. It also does not have a limit on the number of candidates appearing for examinations based on category, but it follows two policies: one of upper age limit relaxation by five years and the other of lower cut-off marks in the exams for Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs compared to the general category.

This however, does not mean that those Dalits who top the exam have done so because of the lower cut-off marks since only the best are recruited for the available vacancies in each category. For example, in the 2015 civil services exams, there were 176 vacancies reserved for Dalits out of 1076 vacancies in total. At the end of the exams, all these vacancies were filled by 176 highest ranking Dalit candidates. Similarly in the general category, there were 585 posts and 499 of them were filled by the 499 of highest ranking candidates in the general category, while 86 candidates were put in a reserve list. So, as one may see, Dalits only got the vacancies meant for them. They did not, as so many Savarna friends put it, ‘steal’ or ‘take away’ seats from anyone.

Reservation is a powerful tool for the oppressed to assert their rights and develop themselves intellectually and economically too. It is a necessary system to ensure that all citizens are brought on equal terms socially and provide them a decent standard of living. Dalits must not be shy to admit they are making use of this opportunity to advance themselves. The system does not imply that any fool could clear the civil services examination because he has reservation.

Tina Dabi got the highest rank in the exam in her very first attempt, beating even those among the general category, because she used the opportunity available to her to work hard for the exam and not only because she was Dalit. There are enough such cases every year when the results of these exams are declared. Hard work, patience and perseverance are what it takes for any aspirant to clear the exam, and Dalits need to be proud of their achievement. They need to be prouder than others because they have found their footing after millennia of oppression. The Savarnas must learn to overcome their own weaknesses and perhaps work harder to get a better rank, rather than complain about reservation.



Periyar Bhim Vemula is the pseudonym of a journalist based out of Bengaluru, who was a student of Communication at St Joseph’s College in the city. Periyar Bhim Vemula is passionate about propagating Dr Ambedkar’s dream of a society based on the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Illustration by Nidhin Shobhana.