Long Before 1947, How India’s Reservations Policy Developed Under British Rule

In his book, Abhinav Chandrachud traces the history and making of India's reservation policy.

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(The following is an edited excerpt from Abhinav Chandrachud's new book 'These Seats Are Reserved: Caste, Quotas and the Constitution of India' (Penguin Random House, 2023), in which Chandrachud traces the history and making of the reservation policy.

How were groups eligible for reservations identified and defined? How were the terms 'depressed classes' and 'backward classes' used in British India and how have they evolved into the constitutional concepts of 'Scheduled Castes', 'Scheduled Tribes', and 'Other Backward Classes' in the present day? The book delves into the intellectual debates that took place on this matter in the Constituent Assembly, the Supreme Court and Parliament.)

The Justice Party’s Communal G.O.s

Despite constituting a minority of the population, Brahmins in south India were overrepresented in government jobs.

For instance, in 1912 in Madras, though male Brahmins constituted 3.2 percent of the population, they held 83.3 percent of all positions as subjudges in the province, while male non-Brahmins, who were 85.6 percent of the population, held only 16.7 percent of these posts. This caused much resentment.

In 1916, a new political party called the South Indian Liberal Federation was formed. Known as the ‘Justice Party’ after a newspaper it ran, its aim was to look after the interests of non-Brahmins in Madras.


The Justice Party submitted a memorandum to Secretary of State Montagu when he arrived in Madras in 1917 and asked that non-Brahmins be adequately represented in the legislature and all branches of the government. Their demand was that, like Muslims, non-Brahmins too should get separate electorates.

Eventually, the government agreed to reserve 28 out of 65 general seats in the Madras legislature for non-Brahmins – possibly the first caste-based reservation in a legislature in British India.

Further, in Bombay, seven out of 46 general seats were reserved for Marathas and allied castes. These were on the basis of a joint electorate, not separate electorates. The 1920 elections were boycotted by the Congress, and the Justice Party won the election in Madras, with non-Brahmins securing much more than their reserved quota of seats. After coming to power in Madras, the Justice Party took steps to reduce the representation of Brahmins in government services.

The Madras government thereafter issued a series of orders called ‘Communal G.O.s’, which essentially said that government positions in Madras should be distributed among the various communities like Brahmins, non-Brahmins, Indian Christians, Muslims, and others.

Mysore Brahmins Aren’t Backward

As all of this was taking place in Madras, in 1918, a deputation of non-Brahmin leaders met the Maharaja of Mysore and asked him to ensure that non-Brahmins would be adequately represented in government jobs there. The Maharaja swiftly appointed a committee headed by Sir Leslie Miller, chief judge of the court there, to look into this question.


In its report submitted to the Maharaja a year later, the Miller Committee said a few interesting things. Firstly, it opined that ‘adequate’ representation for non-Brahmins in government jobs did not mean proportional representation. In other words, it was not necessary that non-Brahmins should occupy as many government jobs as the strength of their population. It said that the government’s goal was to reduce the number of Brahmin government servants to 50 percent of the higher services and to 33 per cent of the lower services.

Secondly, it also felt that reservations in government jobs would not hurt the efficiency of the department, because that was ‘not to be measured . . . by academic qualifications’. The committee recognised that government servants required ‘other qualities such as sympathy, honesty of purpose, energy and common sense’, which were as important as academic brilliance.

Thirdly, it added that having non-Brahmin officers in the government would ensure that the non-Brahmin population of Mysore would not be neglected by government officers.

However, the Miller Committee came up with an odd definition of ‘backwardness’. All communities that had a literacy in English of less than 5 percent were considered to be backward. This essentially meant that only Brahmins were not backward in Mysore, while all the other communities (barring a few) were backward there. Accordingly, in 1921, the Mysore government defined ‘backward communities’ as all communities excluding Brahmins that were inadequately represented in the services. The Maharaja implemented the Miller Committee’s recommendations in a watered down form.


The ‘Other Backward Classes’ in Bombay

In 1928, the Bombay government appointed a committee headed by a member of the Indian Civil Service, O.H.B. Starte, to inquire into the educational, economic, and social condition of the depressed classes and aboriginal tribes. Included in this committee was a relatively young Bombay legislator, Dr B.R. Ambedkar.

In July 1930, the Starte Committee submitted its report to the government in which it recommended that the term ‘backward classes’ be used to denote three kinds of communities: (i) depressed classes (i.e., ‘untouchable’ castes); (ii) aboriginal and hill tribes (i.e., tribes that were residing in forests, or those that had been doing so in the recent past); and (iii) ‘other Backward Classes’. The committee did not prescribe any fixed or certain criteria for determining who the ‘Other Backward Classes’ were. It only opined that the term would include ‘wandering tribes’ who may not be forest-dwellers or aboriginals but who may still be in need of special care.

It suggested that a ‘backward class board’ be set up to ensure that communities that had ceased to be backward were no longer on the list. It recommended three conditions for removing a caste from the list of backward classes: (i) the caste should no longer be untouchable (if it was untouchable to begin with); (ii) it should have reached a satisfactory level of literacy; and (iii) it should acquire an economic status such that it no longer requires special assistance.


In 1931, census officials in Bombay decided to categorise Hindus on the basis of their education and economic condition. No attempt had been made thus far, they said, to group people ‘by literacy and economic status’. They acknowledged that ‘the average level of education of a social group’ was very closely linked with ‘the general economic position of the group’.

They classified Hindus into five clusters: ‘advanced’, ‘intermediate’, ‘other backward’, ‘primitive’, and ‘depressed’. This division, they said, was based on ‘the standard of comfort and culture attained by the groups’, where ‘comfort’ and ‘culture’ were euphemisms for money and education, respectively.

In May 1933, the Bombay government passed a resolution accepting the recommendations of the Starte Committee, with one modification. The government noted that the committee had ‘laid down no definite criterion’ for determining who the ‘Other Backward Classes’ were. There was a great demand for inclusion in the list of Other Backward Classes, which would have made the list unwieldy. So, the Bombay government decided to adopt the ‘rough working’ principle that the ‘Other Backward Classes’ would ‘comprise classes which are approximately at the same stage of social and educational advancement as’ the depressed classes (i.e., untouchable castes) and aboriginal and hill tribes, and ‘are so backward as to need special help from the Backward Class Officer’.

By 1945–46, Bombay province conferred the following benefits on members of the ‘backward classes’. Firstly, some backward class students would receive scholarships, grants, and fee-waivers. Secondly, 15 percent of the seats in teacher training colleges were reserved for male backward class teachers. Thirdly, in government services, between 10 and 20 percent of posts, like clerks, revenue officers called ‘talathis’, and bailiffs in courts, were reserved for the backward classes. Finally, the government provided housing to depressed class families at nominal rates.


From Depressed Classes to Scheduled Castes

The Bombay government prepared three schedules to its 1933 resolution accepting the Starte Committee recommendations. Schedule I contained a list of 47 ‘depressed classes’. Schedule II had 29 aboriginal and hill tribes. Schedule III was the longest list – it consisted of 125 ‘Other Backward Classes’.

Though the word ‘class’ was used in ‘backward class’ and ‘Other Backward Class’, it was really a euphemism for caste or tribe – all the communities in the schedules were castes or tribes.

However, the term was not restricted to Hindus. Included among the Other Backward Classes was the ‘Miana’ tribe of Muslims.

The following year, in October 1934, the backward class officer appointed by the Bombay government prepared an annual report on the working of his department. In it, he referred to the depressed classes that had been set out in Schedule I as the ‘scheduled classes’. This was perhaps one of the earliest references to the depressed classes as the ‘scheduled classes’.

The Government of India Act, 1935, referred to the ‘depressed classes’ as ‘Scheduled Castes’, like the backward class officer in Bombay had done a year before. This was because the first and fifth appendices or ‘schedules’ to the 1935 Act provided that some seats in the central and provincial legislative councils would be reserved for certain castes. The term ‘Scheduled Castes’ was applied because these castes were spoken about in the schedules. However, the law made it clear that the ‘Scheduled Castes’ were none other than those who had previously been known as the ‘depressed classes’.


In other words, it was only untouchable castes that would be considered as ‘Scheduled Castes’. As Viscount Templewood later observed in the House of Lords, the Scheduled Castes were ‘those millions of Indians who at one time we called “Untouchables” at another time “Depressed Classes” and whom now, in the Government of India Act, we call “Scheduled Castes”.’

Under the 1935 Act, a total of 151 seats (three more in number than the Poona Pact) were reserved for the Scheduled Castes in the provincial legislative councils. However, since there were 1,585 seats in total in these councils, only about 9.5 percent of the seats were reserved for Scheduled Castes, which was much less than their proportion of the population.

Similarly, in the central legislature, only 25 out of 400 seats (i.e., 6.25 percent) were reserved for the Scheduled Castes, substantially lower than their numbers in the population. However, looked at from another angle, Scheduled Castes got 18 percent of the ‘general’ seats, i.e., the seats that were not reserved for religious minorities, special interest groups (e.g., landholders, representatives of industry, or labour), or women. In rules that were subsequently issued under the statute, the colonial government provided a list of Scheduled Castes who were entitled to reservations.

The Government of India Act, 1935, also provided that the colonial government had a ‘special responsibility’ of ensuring that the ‘legitimate interests of minorities’ would be safeguarded (in public employment). In the meantime, the government decided to nominate duly qualified members of the depressed classes to public services, in order to ensure their ‘fair representation’ in government jobs.


Though 25 percent of the seats in government jobs were reserved for Muslims, a fixed percentage of seats was initially not reserved for depressed class candidates because the general level of education of the depressed classes was not considered to be very high.

However, in 1943, a fixed quota of reservations was introduced for Scheduled Castes in government services. Even so, it was difficult to find suitable Scheduled Caste candidates to fill reserved seats. In 1947, for instance, out of 529 candidates who got 45 marks or more in the qualifying examination, only two belonged to the Scheduled Castes. ‘[T]hey were so low down in the list’, said Sardar Patel, ‘that we had to make an exception in order to take them in.’

(The above is an edited excerpt. Paragraph breaks and blurbs have been added for readers’ convenience.)

(Abhinav Chandrachud is an advocate who practises at the Bombay High Court. He is the author of Republic of Rhetoric: Free Speech and the Constitution of India (2017), Supreme Whispers: Conversations with Judges of the Supreme Court of India 1980-1989 (2018) and Soli Sorabjee: An Authorized Biography.)

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