Shortly after the Supreme Court on Monday, 7 November, upheld the validity of the 103rd Constitutional Amendment Act, which introduced 10 percent reservations for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) in government jobs and educational institutions, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and DMK chief MK Stalin termed the split verdict a 'setback' to a century-old fight for social justice.
Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which had decided against implementing the EWS quota in Tamil Nadu, was one of the petitioners in the case that challenged the 103rd amendment. The DMK has now decided to file a review petition in the SC against the order.
What made Tamil Nadu parties – DMK and Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) – oppose the EWS judgment vociferously? The reason lies in TN's history, the Dravidian parties' ideologies, and the current political context.
Who Opposed EWS in Lok Sabha?
When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led central government tabled the 103rd Amendment Bill or the EWS quota bill in the Lok Sabha, months ahead of the 2019 general elections, the DMK, VCK, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), and Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) were the only parties to oppose it.
Though other Opposition parties raised concerns about the bill and accused the government of pushing it "in haste," they were still in support of economic reservation.
When the Act was challenged in the Supreme Court, the petitioners argued that a 10 percent EWS quota would interfere with the basic structure of reservations in the country, the purpose of which is to provide representation and not financial upliftment. They said it bypassed affirmative action that benefits marginalised communities like the Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), and Other Backward Classes (OBC).
The DMK's concerns about the EWS quota are rooted in the state's expansive caste-based reservation policy. In fact, Tamil Nadu is the only state in the country that has managed to offer 69 percent reservation to Backward Classes (BC) despite the 50 percent cap on affirmative action, as mandated in the landmark judgment in the Indira Sawhney case of 1992, also known as the Mandal verdict.
To further understand Tamil Nadu parties' stance on the EWS quota, we must look at the history of the state's reservation policy.
A Brief History of TN's Reservation Policy
Whether the state was ruled by DMK or its political rival All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), caste-based reservations have been central to Tamil Nadu's Dravidian politics since the 1920s. Here's a brief timeline of how the state arrived at its current reservation policy:
1921: The Justice Party government, led by Raja Panagal, first introduced reservations in the state via a communal Government Order (GO). This provided 44 percent reservation to non-Brahmins, and it was done to end the monopoly of Brahmins in government jobs and educational institutions (in proportion to their population).
1969: The DMK's M Karunanidhi, who took over as CM following the death of the fourth and final CM of Madras State Annadurai, constituted a Backward Classes commission headed by AN Sattanathan.
1970: Based on the Sattanathan Commission's recommendations, the government increased the reservations for BCs to 31 percent from 25 percent, and for Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) to 18 percent from 16 percent. The state's total reservation then stood at 49 percent.
1980: The AIADMK's MG Ramachandran further hiked reservation for BCs to 50 percent, taking Tamil Nadu's total reservation to 68 percent. This came after the party's defeat in the Parliamentary polls the same year, which was reportedly a result of its introduction of reservation based on the economic criterion in the state, according to The Hindu.
1989: As the DMK rose to power again, Chief Minister Karunanidhi formed another category – Most Backward Classes (MBC) – which included castes like Vanniyars. The MBC quota was fixed at 20 percent and was part of the 50 percent reservation for BCs.
1990: Based on a Madras High Court judgment, Karunanidhi separated reservation for SCs and STs and gave a one percent quota to STs. This took Tamil Nadu's overall reservation to 69 percent, which is where it currently stands.
From Indira Sawhney to the 9th Schedule: How TN Retained 69% Reservation
After the Supreme Court, in 1992, delivered its judgment in the Indira Sawhney case and capped total reservations at 50 percent, the TN government, under AIADMK's J Jayalalithaa, moved the Madras High Court, seeking to retain its 69 percent quota in education for the ongoing academic year. The court agreed but directed the government not to exceed reservations beyond 50 percent from the next academic year.
Jayalalithaa then filed a Special Leave Petition (SLP), seeking to continue its existing reservation policy. But the Supreme Court reiterated that the total reservations must be capped at 50 percent.
Consequently, the government took a different route. In November 1993, in a special Assembly session, a unanimous resolution was passed to ask the Centre to take measures to amend the Constitution, so that the TN government could continue its 69 percent reservation policy. It also introduced the Tamil Nadu Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Reservation of Seats in Educational Institutions and of appointments or posts in the Services under the State) Bill, 1993.
The bill received the President's assent, ensuring that the current 69 percent reservation policy of the state stayed intact. The subsequent Act was also brought under the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution, after Jayalalithaa's consistent lobbying, to ensure that it is not challenged in courts later.
How DMK, VCK Stance Is Different From Other Parties
When the 103rd Amendment Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha in 2019, DMK MP K Kanimozhi argued, "The basic objective of reservation is to make sure that the historic wrong done in the name of religion and caste… has to be made right. It is not out of mercy… it is because they were born into a particular caste which some people thought was less than them, lower than them."
Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) leader Thol Thirumavalavan, after the recent SC verdict, also issued a statement opposing the EWS and asking the Congress and the CPI(M) to rethink their position on the economic reservation:
"We will file a curative petition against the verdict, urging that a Bench with more judges hear it. The issue of reservation cannot be resolved in the court. Primarily, this is an issue that should be resolved in the political arena."Thol Thirumavalavan, VCK (as Reported by The Hindu)
Tamil Nadu's struggle to retain its caste-based reservation policy has been a long one, and that is perhaps why the DMK's stance on the EWS quota has been different from other regional parties, like the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) in Telangana.
The TRS' AP Jithender Reddy said in 2019:
"Coupled with possible violation of the 'basic structure' principle of the Indian Constitution, the list of legal hurdles is long. Yet, it is brave of the government to counter the Supreme Court's cap of 50 per cent on reservation and the TRS reaffirms its endorsement."
The AIADMK, which was instrumental in expanding caste-based reservation in TN, also supported the bill in the Lok Sabha, though it opposed it in the Upper House. This, however, comes as no surprise owing to the party's electoral alliance with the BJP.
The CPI, CPM, and TMC, despite their vociferous criticism of the BJP government, backed the EWS quota in the Parliament, albeit while raising a few concerns. "The Trinamool Congress …extends support to the Bill with an expectation that the government will rise to the occasion and will take care of the unemployed youths of the country," TMC's Sudip Bandyopadhyay had said.
The DMK and VCK's opposition, therefore, is not a case of non-BJP parties taking a stance against the central government, but a step towards ensuring that the EWS quota does not eat into caste-based reservations in their state.
(With inputs from The Hindu, The News Minute.)