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Above: senior AIADMK leader M Thambidurai (file pic)/Photo Courtesy: UNI

Reservation in education and jobs has been the bedrock of Dravidian movement and politics for over a century, but the centre’s 10 percent quota rollout for the poor has sparked outrage in the state

By R Ramasubramanian in Chennai

The Bill to provide 10 percent reservation in government jobs and educational institutions for the poor among the general category may have won instant ratification in both Houses of Parliament, but in Tamil Nadu, it has created a furore amongst the major political parties.

The ruling AIADMK, with its 37 Lok Sabha and 13 Rajya Sabha MPs, had opposed the Bill in Parliament tooth and nail. The deputy speaker of the Lok Sabha and senior AIADMK leader M Thambidurai, in a scathing attack on the Modi government, described the Bill as “ill-conceived” and charged that the ruling dispensation at the Centre did not understand the concept and basis of reservation.

But the AIADMK MPs did not vote against the Bill, choosing instead to walk out. The principal opposition party of the state, the DMK has no representation in the Lok Sabha but its four Rajya Sabha MPs voted against it. Between the two, the parties enjoy over 70 percent of the vote share in Tamil Nadu politics. Besides, half a dozen regional parties, who have between 10 to 15 percent vote share, are also strongly opposing the 10 percent reservation.

The DMK did not stop at opposing the 10 percent reservation in Parliament. The party has taken the fight outside Parliament too. A party MP, RS Bharathi, filed a petition in the Madras High Court challenging the constitutional validity of 10 percent reservation to Economically Weaker Groups (EWGs). A division bench of the Madras High Court comprising Justices S Manikumar and Subramonium Prasad ordered notices to the central and state governments and posted the case for further hearing to February 18, 2019.  Among other things, Bharathi contended in his petition that reservation was intended to set right historical opp­ression of certain communities based on caste.

The DMK MP said: “Economic status fluctuates. So that cannot be the basis for reservation. The oppressed and downtrodden, who all along have suffered and been denied employment, were provided with reservation. But the present reservation is for the upper class and the central government has fixed an income of Rs 8 lakh per annum as a ceiling. The fixation of this amount was not part of the constitutional amendment. It was a part of the Cabinet decision taken on January 7.”

Reservation in education and jobs has been the bedrock of the Dravidian movement and Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu for the past hundred years. On November 20, 1916, over 30 prominent non-Brahmin leaders from various strata of society came together and formed the South Indian Liberation Federation (SILF) in the then Madras (now Chennai), capital of the then Madras Presidency (comprising Tamil Nadu, parts of Andhra Pradesh and Kerala). The SILF was later renamed Justice Party.

The Justice Party achieved its first success in 1920 when it won the provincial election during British rule. In 1938, EV Ramasami Naicker, a social reformer, was elected leader of the Justice Party and in 1944 it was renamed Dravidar Kazhagam (DK). In 1949, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) split from the DK and started contesting elections from 1957. In 1967, the DMK captured power in Tamil Nadu. CN Annadurai (Anna) became the chief minister. Anna died in February 1969 and then M Karunanidhi became the chief minister.

In 1969, the Karunanidhi government appointed the first Tamil Nadu State Backward Classes Commission with AN Sattanathan as chairman.

Sattanathan was a retired Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officer of the Tamil Nadu cadre at that time. In 1971, on the basis of the recommendations of the Sattanathan Commission, the DMK government raised the reservation for Backward Classes from 25 percent (prevailing since 1951) to 31 percent and for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes from 16 percent to 18 percent. Thus, 49 percent reservation came into force in jobs and education in Tamil Nadu.

Interestingly, there was an attempt to introduce reservation on the basis of economic criterion in Tamil Nadu by Chief Minister MG Ramachandran whose government in 1979 issued a GO prescribing an annual income lower than Rs 9,000 for Backward Classes as the sole eligibility for reservation in education and government jobs.

MGR received a huge jolt in the 1980 Lok Sabha elections when the DMK-Congress alliance swept the polls by winning 37 of the total 39 seats in Tamil Nadu. MGR not only withdrew the concerned GO but also hiked the reservation for the Backward Classes from the existing 31 percent to 50 percent and the SC and ST reservation from 18 percent to 19 percent. Thus, 69 percent reservation came into force in Tamil Nadu in 1982.

The issue did not stop with this. In the early 1990s, the Supreme Court, while upholding the constitutional validity of the Mandal Commission recommendations, also ruled that total reservations both in central and state government owned educational institutions and offices should not cross 50 percent. This automatically brought the 69 percent reservation to 50 percent in Tamil Nadu. However, the then Tamil Nadu chief minister, J Jayalalithaa, found a novel method to ensure the continuation of 69 percent reservation. She introduced a Bill in the assembly ensuring the continuation of 69 percent reservation in Tamil Nadu and it was passed unanimously. Later the Bill got the presidential nod, and on the request of the Tamil Nadu government the then Narasimha Rao government at the centre allowed it to be included in the IXth Schedule of the Constitution. The IXth Schedule ensures that the particular item is insulated from judicial scrutiny by the courts, including the Supreme Court. However, a Chennai-based senior lawyer, KM Vijayan, challenged the constitutional validity of 69 percent reservation in the Supreme Court in 1994 itself. But the Court did not stay the implementation of the 69 percent reservation. Vijayan’s petition is pending in the Supreme Court for the past 25 years.

In Tamil Nadu, as of now, there is only one section from where support is available for 10 percent reservation, and that is from the Tamil Nadu Brahmin Association (Thambraas). “It’s our long-time demand. We welcome 10 percent reservation for EWGs. There are poor people in upper castes also. Few people ask where is the data for this 10 percent reservation. I will pose a counter-question to them. When reservation was hiked to 69 percent from 50 percent to Backward Class communities in Tamil Nadu where was the data taken from? On the basis of what research was the reservation percentage hiked?” asks N Narayanan, president, Thambrass.

If one looks at the reservation issue from this background, one can properly understand why Tamil Nadu is opposing the latest 10 percent reservation by the Modi government and why the state was peaceful when the rest of India, especially northern India, was burning when the Mandal Commission recommendations were implemented in 1990 by the VP Singh government.

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