Tamil Nadu: What Will Be The Social Impact Of The Proposed Changes To Caste Classification And Reservation Policies?

Surendranath C

Mar 25, 2021, 11:25 AM | Updated 12:20 PM IST

Map of Tamil Nadu. 
Map of Tamil Nadu. 
  • The hallmarks of the Tamil Nadu reservation policy have been the expansiveness in adding castes and sub-castes to the Backwards list, the long-standing 69 per cent reservation that has successfully withstood constitutional scrutiny and the reluctance to implement any filter in the form of socio-economic contributory factors to backwardness.
  • Here’s a further analysis.
  • Among all the states of India, Tamil Nadu is a pioneer in using reservations as a tool of social change and social justice.

    Tamil Nadu has had a sum total of 69 per cent of reserved seats in education and employment opportunities.

    It has not implemented the creamy layer idea to exclude economically advanced individuals from reservation and almost all parties of consequence in the state have rejected the concept of providing reservations for the economically weaker sections.

    In this environment, major changes have been proposed to the social fabric of the state.

    The government of Tamil Nadu has appointed a commission headed by former High Court judge Justice A Kulasekaran to go into the modalities of gathering quantifiable data for a caste census, based on the present circumstances, and file a report.

    From the past performance of such commissions, we can expect a report to be filed in 2022.

    In March, the state government and the governor formally gave assent for reserving 10.5 per cent in the MBC category solely for the Vanniyar caste. Earlier, in February, the central government agreed to consolidate seven different castes under a single name — Devendra Kula Vellalar.

    Let us analyse the impact of these proposals and try to make sense of the immediate effects.

    The various categories of reservation have been shown in the graphic above. The list below describes each category.

    ST — Scheduled Tribes: There are 36 tribes in Tamil Nadu that have been classified under the Scheduled Tribes list. Many of them are from regions that are heavily forested, mountainous and inaccessible.

    Their traditional occupations included herding and hunting-gathering. They have had a long history of interaction with settled agricultural communities and have traded forest products for millennia.

    During colonial era, their traditional occupations were disrupted. Urbanisation and industrialisation after Independence further disrupted their original lifestyles.

    Today, they face the highest degree of disadvantage in competing for opportunities in the modern era. Their share of the population is largely in line with the size of their quota, ie, 1 per cent.

    SC — Scheduled Castes: Some 69 communities have been added to the Scheduled Caste list. The vast majority of these communities were part of village and town society from times immemorial. Their traditional service occupations — leather work, tanning, making membranous musical instruments, disposing of dead bodies — were deemed ritually polluting.

    During the colonial era, many communities that served as landless agricultural labour were merged into the communities that were considered untouchable. They face social discrimination that continues to this day. Of these communities, the Pallars, Devendrars (both part of Devendra Kula Vellalar now) and the Paraiyars or Adi-Dravidars are the most numerous.

    The Devendra Kula Vellalar are concentrated largely south of the Kaveri Delta and are most numerous in the southern region of the Vaigai and Tamraiparani basins.

    There are some groups in Western Tamil Nadu also. Devendra Kula Vellalars are predominantly agricultural in nature.

    The Paraiyars are spread across Tamil Nadu, but are mostly concentrated in the northern river basins. They form the largest group of agricultural labourers in the Kaveri Delta. While a large number of Paraiyars are labourers, they have now expanded across into skilled occupations as well.

    This group was the first to politically mobilise among all Dalit communities and are politically aware and are also well represented in government service, especially in the lower bureaucracy.

    The SC reservation is 15 per cent. While official caste-wise numbers are unavailable, Paraiyars are estimated to be between 12-15 per cent of the population of Tamil Nadu and Devendra Kula Vellalars are estimated at 4-6 per cent of the population.

    SC-A — Scheduled Caste (Arunthathiyar)

    Within the overall 18 per cent quota for Scheduled Castes, 1 per cent was allocated as a sub-quota exclusively for the seven communities classified as Arunthathiyar in 2009.

    These are seven communities — speaking Tamil, Telugu and Kannada — that are spread across northern, western and southern Tamil Nadu.

    Their largest numbers are in the western districts. They are estimated to make up 3-4 per cent of the population. This group forms among the most marginalised people in the state.

    Even other castes in the SC list practice untouchability against them. They lag behind in all socio-economic indicators within the SC list itself.

    MBC — Most Backward Classes

    This represents a quota of 20 per cent and this is where much of the future social engineering will be concentrated.

    Communities are classified under two categories in this list. All of them share the same 20 per cent reservation.

    a) Most Backward Class (MBC): This consists of 40 groups of socially disadvantaged people that require support outside of the regular Backward Classes List. This category was created in the 1980s mainly to cater to the demands of the dominant Vanniyar caste.

    While members of the MBC category are spread out all over the state, a large number belongs to one category — Vanniya Kula Kshatriya — a community concentrated in the northern districts, with some in Salem and another group in the Kaveri Delta.

    b) Denotified Communities (DNC):

    This is a group of 68 communities that were classified as criminal tribes by the British colonial administration. The Habitual Offenders Act was repealed by the Indian government in 1949 and these communities were placed in the Denotified Communities List.

    These communities range from nomadic tribes that travelled in bands to established agricultural groups like Ambalakkarar, Piramalai Kallar and Maravars.

    BC — Backward Classes: Overall a 30 per cent quota is shared among 142 different categories. These include almost all the middle castes of Tamil Nadu.

    The castes left out of the BC and MBC categories are mostly Brahmins or small communities with high socio-economic indicators like Nattukottai Chettiars, Kamma Naidus, Reddys and Thondaimandalam Mudaliars.

    All said, estimates for the groups in the BC category range from 35-40 per cent of overall Tamil Nadu’s population.

    BC-M — BC-Muslim: A 3.5 per cent quota was allocated for Dekkani Muslims, Rowthers and Labbais.

    Together, these groups make up 4-6 per cent of the state’s population. They are given a 3.5 per cent sub-quota in the BC category on the recommendations of the Janarthanam Commission in 2009.

    Impact Of Vanniyar Sub-Quota On Reservation Scenario

    The hallmarks of the Tamil Nadu reservation policy have been the expansiveness in adding castes and sub-castes to the Backwards list, the long-standing 69 per cent reservation that has successfully withstood constitutional scrutiny and the reluctance to implement any filter in the form of socio-economic contributory factors to backwardness.

    The 1971 Sattanathan Commission found that a vast majority of the Backward Classes reservation was cornered by nine castes and recommended a ‘Most Backward’ category to separately cater to sections that were left out.

    A White Paper on reservations tabled by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government led by M Karunanidhi in 2000 highlighted how the roster system discriminated in favour of the BC category who cornered more than 50 per cent of Group A and B positions, despite having only a 30 per cent reservation, while the MBC that had 20 per cent reservation in theory, only got 15 per cent of the Group A and B positions.

    This is in contrast to their share of population, where BC communities make up close to 40 per cent of the population while MBCs make up close to 30 per cent of the population.

    Caste Clashes Impact A Possible Exit Of Devendra Kula Vellalars From Scheduled Caste List

    The new announcement is for providing a 10.5 per cent sub-quota to the Vanniya Kula Kshatriya in the MBC category and 7 per cent for the 68 Denotified Communities.

    While the number of communities seems large, one must note that many of the communities in the Denotified list are very small in number, often just a few thousand members.

    This 10.5 per cent sub-quota is devised as per the recommendations of the Second Janarthanam Committee report submitted in 2012.

    The remaining 39 categories get a common MBC quota of 2.5 per cent. While this may seem small, one may note that independent estimates put the share of these communities at 5 per cent of the overall population of the state.

    The long-standing complaint of the Vanniyar community is that their share of the MBC quota is much lower compared to their share of the population.

    The intention of the 10.5 per cent sub-quota is to bring their share of the quota closer to their share of the population, which is estimated at 14 per cent, according to the Sattanathan Commission Report submitted in 1971.

    Currently, different sub-castes of the dominant Kallar and Maravar communities, which together with Agamudaiyars, make up the numerically strong Mukkulathor community which have representation in BC, MBC and DNC lists.

    The prevailing belief is that some sub-castes, Piramalai Kallar and Maravar, enjoy a far higher proportion of the reservation benefits than their share of population.

    However, this is not backed up by official data, in the form of caste-wise census and distribution of benefits.

    The intention of the two sub-quotas — for Vanniyar and DNC — is intended to create a more equitable distribution of benefits. In the absence of official data, we cannot judge this definitively.

    Northern Tamil Nadu sees frequent clashes between Paraiyars and the Vanniyar communities. The two communities have lived side by side for many centuries.

    Today, Vanniyars make up skilled and unskilled labour and have small to marginal landholdings. Paraiyars are largely restricted to landless labour in rural areas, but have rapidly progressed in the media, the film industry and in government jobs.

    Being the earliest to mobilise, today, the Paraiyars have a stronger representation in the lower echelons of the bureaucracy and the police. This difference in representation and in wealth causes significant friction between these two communities.

    The hope is that this difference can be redressed by the changed reservation formula.

    Share Of Christians In Caste-Wise Quotas

    A long-standing demand from the Devendra Kula Vellalar community has been to remove them from the Scheduled Castes list.

    Before we go into a discussion on the impact of such an exit, we need to place two things on record:

    1. Such an exit from the SC list is unprecedented. This can only be carried out by the central government and the impact on Scheduled Caste benefits, quotas on the rest of the country must be analysed before any constitutional move is made for this purpose.
    2. Not all sections of the community are in agreement with an exit from the SC list. There are still many families in poorer economic segments and which also face social discrimination. Sections of the community do not wish to forgo the scholarships, job opportunities and government promotion roster benefits of the SC categorisation and the protection afforded by the provisions of the SC/ST Atrocities Act.

    The demand around which the entire community rallied was the consolidation of seven sub-castes into a single category — Devendra Kula Vellalar. Of particular interest was the application of the ‘Vellalar’ title, which marks out the community as farmers, landowners and patrons of temples.

    In private conversations with the author, respected members of the community in the press and academia have expressed the community’s interest in Sanskritisation and in merging with the mainstream Hindu community.

    Whether an exit from the SC list will make a big difference to this goal is something that is still a topic of debate within the community.

    That said, let us analyse the impact of a move to the MBC list. In such a case, the rational thing to do will be to take the share of the Devendra Kula Vellalar in the population and add it to the MBC category.

    If estimates are correct and the Devendra Kula Vellalar share of population is 5 per cent, the SC quota will reduce to 10 per cent, the SC-A quota of 3 per cent will remain unchanged and we can foresee an MBC-DKV quota of 5 per cent.

    Many caste clashes have occurred in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu between the Thevar and Devendra Kula Vellalar communities. Specifically, Piramalai Kallars, Kallars and Maravars have clashed for decades.

    The implementation of a separate Devendra Kula Vellalar sub-quota in the MBC category may help in creating a detente between the two caste groupings and move the stress between the communities to rivalries in securing government jobs and college seats.

    While this is not yet a fait accompli, the VCK, the party of Paraiyars, has begun work on consolidating the remaining 62 communities of the SC list into a single Adi-Dravidar identity.

    This will actually hide wide differences in numbers and in social status. Some 35 of these 62 communities have reported less than a thousand individuals, while one community, the Puthirai Vannar, which has only 14,500 individuals and faces extreme social discrimination.

    While consolidating these communities might help in political mobilisation, one wonders if it is to shore up the Paraiyar dominance in Dalit politics of Tamil Nadu and to ensure free access to quota.

    Across various quotas, here are the different groups of Christians who are covered by different quotas in Tamil Nadu:

    • Scheduled Tribe quotas will apply even if the beneficiaries are Christians.
    • Most Backward Class
      • Paravar, Meenavar and Mukkuvar converts to Christianity are eligible for the MBC quota
    • Backward Class
      • Converts to Christianity who belong to castes in Scheduled Caste, Backward Class, Most Backward Class and Denotified Communities lists will be covered under the BC category.
      • Latin Rite Catholics, which is the vast majority of Tamil Nadu’s Catholic congregations, from Kanyakumari and Senkottai taluk of Tirunelveli, which are the two regions with the highest concentration of Catholics.
      • CSI in the same two regions.

    Additionally, Tamil Nadu has a significant number of crypto-Christians, ie, Christians by faith but those that have not formally declared Christianity as their religion for official purposes.

    The Janarthanam Committee had also made a recommendation to provide Christians a separate sub-quota in the Backward Class list, but this was rejected by the community on the ground that the community was already able to compete well using the quotas it had available.

    Distribution of jobs by caste and religion is not made public. Sharing this data in public would most probably show the dominance of Christians across all categories. Some communities, such as Christian Nadars from Southern Tamil Nadu, and Parathavars from Kanyakumari and Nagercoil districts, take a large share of the reserved positions.

    Allocating a separate 6 per cent quota to Christians, in line with their official share of the population as per the 2011 Census, will restore the balance.

    This also ought to resolve grievances resulting from communities with lower numbers and poorer socio-economic status not being able to gain sufficient representation in education and in administration.

    Get Swarajya in your inbox.