Karnataka: Bold Gambit By BJP Government To Carve Out Internal Reservation Within Dalit Quota May Queer Pitch For Congress

Swarajya Staff

Apr 01, 2023, 01:28 AM | Updated Apr 26, 2023, 11:00 AM IST

Karnataka Election 2023
Karnataka Election 2023
  • The history and politics behind the demand for internal reservations within Dalit quota in Karnataka.
  • In what is being increasingly viewed as a politically astute manoeuvring ahead of the upcoming Karnataka Legislative Assembly elections, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government last week abolished religion-based reservations by scrapping 4 per cent reservation given to Muslims in Karnataka under 2B of Other Backward Classes (OBC) category.

    The state cabinet distributed the disbanded 4 per cent quota to two politically influential communities — Veerashaiva-Lingayats and Vokkaligas — at 2 per cent each in jobs and admissions in educational institutions.

    The state cabinet also decided that the Muslim community in the state will avail of benefits under the 10 per cent quota for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS). The government quickly moved to notify the rules for EWS this week.

    While the decision by the BJP government in Karnataka to abolish religion-based reservations predictably triggered a furore, another momentous move to introduce internal reservation within the overall 17 per cent quota for the Schedule Castes (SC) did not garner as much attention.

    The demand for internal reservation within the SC quota in Karnataka has been a long-standing one by various Dalit groups in the state. Despite repeatedly promising to reconfigure the internal reservation matrix, no government so far has dared to implement it for fear of antagonising sub-caste groups.

    It was finally left to the incumbent Basavaraj Bommai-led BJP government to demonstrate sufficient political courage to devise and announce the sub-quota formula.

    Dalits in Karnataka, encompassing 101 castes, are historically divided into two main categories - 'Edgai' SC (Left), or the Madiga, and 'Balgai' SC (Right) or the Holeya ( some prefer Chalavadis).

    The third category is the "touchable" castes, such as Lambani and Bhovi, who do not belong to the left or right grouping but are believed to have benefited the most from the reservation.

    Dozens of other marginal SC communities constitute the fourth category.

    Sadashiva Commission Recommendation

    In 2005, the state government constituted a commission headed by Justice A. J. Sadashiva to ascertain any discrepancies in the distribution of benefits under Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution and whether these benefits were equally distributed among all castes and groups included in the SC list.

    The commission submitted its report in 2012. Though the report and its recommendations have not been officially tabled in the Legislative Assembly, it is known to have recommended 6 per cent to SC (Left), 5 per cent to SC (Right), 3 per cent to 'Touchables' and one per cent to Other SC communities.

    The Sadashiva Commission report also held that Madigas were the most backward among the Dalit castes in Karnataka. The commission looked at various indices such as the number of government jobs held, the proportion of agricultural land owned, and political representation by members of different Dalit caste groups. 

    Madigas have historically worked with the items like leather, while Holeyas are primarily involved in agricultural production and allied activities as labourers.

    Madigas have long argued that the less backward SC communities grabbed most of the SC quota. The Sadashiva Commission also agreed that SC (Right) garnered more benefits from reservation than the other SC communities as, comparatively, they were in a better situation in terms of education and employment.

    Based on the survey and other studies it did, the commission estimated a SC population at around 96 lakhs with SC (Left) accounting for 33.47 per cent, SC (Right) accounting for 32 per cent, 'Touchables' around 23.64 per cent and other SC communities 4.65 per cent.

    The report recommended that there should be an internal reservation formula with the largest share, that is, 6 per cent, going to Madigas (and associated castes) within the quota for the SCs(15 per cent at that time). Of the remaining 9 per cent, the commission recommended that 5 per cent be reserved for Holeyas (and associated castes), 3 per cent for "touchable" Dalits, and 1 per cent for other Dalits. Little over 6.23 per cent of the Dalit population did not state their specific caste.

    Despite election-eve promises to Madigas that the report's recommendations would be implemented, the internal recalibration of the SC quota was never done.

    Even during the chief ministerial tenure of Siddaramaiah, who fashions himself as the champion of AHINDA (a Kannada acronym for minorities, Dalits and backward classes), the assurances given by Congress to Madigas were not implemented, fearing blowback from other SC groups.

    BJP government's brave gambit

    Cutting across sub-castes, Dalit community in the state used to form a huge support base of Congress in the state. However, SC (Right) dominated political representation in the party, especially the preponderance of Holeya members in the legislative assembly compared to the minuscule representation of Madigas. 

    Congress's Dalit leadership is dominated by SC (Right). AICC President Mallikarjun Kharge, former deputy chief minister CM G.Parameshswara and former Union Minister K.H Muniyappa all belong to SC (Right) category

    Dalit politics in the state, however, began to change thanks to some deft social engineering and sustained Sangh outreach. BJP began gaining significant support among the SC (Left), especially the Madiga community.

    While Lingayats form the bulwark of the BJP support base in the state, the party could successfully add SC (Left) to its social coalition. Disillusioned with the Congress appeasing the SC (Right), Madigas voted in large numbers for the BJP in 2008, helping it capture power in the state.

    BJP also managed to win the backing of Basavamurthy Swami, an influential seer of the Madara Chennaiah Gurupeetha Math in the Chitradurga district. BJP also promoted leaders within the SC (Left) especially Govind M. Karjol, a Madiga, who served as Deputy Chief Minister in BS Yeddyurappa ministry.

    For over a decade now, several Dalit organisations have been demanding that the quantum of reservation in Karnataka should be increased as the population of Dalits. Justice Nagamohan Das Committee, too made a similar recommendation.

    With the state assembly elections around the corner, various communities in the state began demanding to either hike reservations or alter their reservation status in Karnataka. 

    With social groups that are favourably inclined to BJP also raising quota demands, the opposition Congress was hoping to reap substantial electoral dividends calculating that the quota quagmire would sink the government in the assembly election.

    As state politics descended to a simmering caste cauldron, the BJP government responded with a series of moves.

    In October 2022, the state government hiked the reservation for Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities. Reservation for SC was increased from 15 to 17 per cent and ST from 3 to 7 per cent. BJP government gazetted it via the ordinance route. Governor Thawarchand Gehlot approved the ordinance.

    After hiking the quota commensurate with the increased population, the state government recast the internal reservation formula for the 17 per cent quota for around SC community

    The SC (Left) category, which consists of 29 communities, including Madigas, will get 6 per cent of the quota. SC (Right), with around 25 communities such as Holeyas, will get 5.5 per cent. 'Touchable' communities such as Banjaras, Bhovis, Koracha, and Korma will have 4.5 per cent of the quota. Dozens of other small SC communities will get 1 per cent.

    Despite some resistance to the new internal formula, political observers in the state believe that BJP has defused the situation and has played its cards well though they are unsure if the move will yield handsome electoral rewards.

    It is, however, likely to make it difficult for Congress to mount a coherent counter-narrative on quota issue.

    Legal Obstacles To Sub-quota

    A final hurdle to the internal SC quota reconfiguration, however remains. While the constitution is clear that removal or the inclusion of any caste or part or group of such caste from the SC list shall be done by parliament, no clarity exists on the process for internal sub-classification of any existing SC reservation. 

    In 2020, a five-member Supreme Court bench (headed by Justice Arun Mishra) even while ruling that State governments had the right to sub-classify SC categories in order to ensure equitable distribution of socio-economic benefits under reservation, referred the issue to a larger seven-member bench.

    In 2004, a five-member constitutional bench headed by Justice Santosh Hegde, unanimously outlawed a decision by the Andhra Pradesh government to sub-divide SC quota. 'Chinnaiah judgment' held that any sub-grouping by a state amounted to tinkering with these Schedules, for which only parliament is authorised. The court held that all the castes within these lists are assumed to be homogenous.

    Earlier attempts by Punjab and Haryana to categorise internal reservations within the Dalit quota have failed to get sanction from the Supreme Court.

    If the seven-member bench reverses its 2004 judgment and lays down the criteria for sub-grouping, the Bommai government's formula will get a legal imprimatur. A constitutional amendment to reclassify the reservation is also a possibility.

    However, the Union Government may be reluctant to do that as the appeal is pending before a seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court.

    Irrespective of the electoral outcome in the state, the move by BJP government to recast the sub-quota for SC will fundamentally reshape the Dalit politics in the state.

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