An Analysis on the evolution of Reservation Policy in India

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Reservation Policy was back in the headlines when the Central Government on 29th July, 2021, announced that, people belonging to the category of OBC (Other Backward Class) will get 27% reservation of seats, contributed by states to AIQ (All-India Quota) in medical Colleges run by state governments. Furthermore, 10% of seats in AIQ will be reserved for people belonging to the category of EWS (Economically Weaker Section).

The Supreme Court of India adopted the AIQ in 1986, with the motive of freeing up some seats for admission to medical colleges in several states that had residential or domicile criteria for enrolment. It reserved 15% of the total seats in Undergraduate medical and dental courses. 50% of the total seats were reserved in Post graduate courses. Admissions in this reserved category was done through a central pool. This step was taken so that students can move to a different state in order to pursue their medical or dental courses.[1]

Reservation policy in India has a long history, dating almost to a couple of centuries back. With the passage of time, a number of changes were made in this policy. The most effective way to understand this policy and the thought process behind it is by discussing it from the grass root level. The root of this depicted tree of “Reservation Policy” reflects towards the origin of caste-based classification within the society.

Theories relating to the origin of Caste-based classification:

The are many theories revolving around the origin of caste-based society. Although, the most widely discussed is the mythological theory which is found in Rig Veda, called the “Varna-System” also often referred to as the “Four Varna System”. It depicts that, “Brahma” demolished himself in order to originate our society. People of different categories that is, “Varna” originated out of his various body parts. From the head “Brahmins” were originated. They were the intelligent, clever and knowledgeable ones and it is often believed that they are accountable for our education. From his arms, “Kshatriyas” were originated and they possessed high amount of physical strength. As a result, they became Rulers and were considered as warriors. From his thighs, “Vaishyas” were originated, who were often regarded as “traders” or “businessman” of our society. From his feet, “Shudras” were originated, that do small or unskilled jobs in our society. However, one widely recognised category today, that was missing from this entire system of classification was that of the “Dalits”. They were not even present in the aforementioned classification. That is why they are also called “Avarnas”, that is, people who do not have any Varna.[2]

The second theory is referred to as the theory of “Karma” and “Reincarnation”, which states that, “caste” of a person depends on the deeds of his or her past life. To simplify, if a person has done good deeds in his or her past life, then he or she would be born as a “Brahman” in subsequent life, and if that person did not do good work or work without noble intentions in his or her past life, then he or she would be born as a “Dalit” in this life. Furthermore, if a lower caste person wants to be reborn into an upper caste in his or her next life, then they should work with dedication and noble intentions in their own caste.

Some people on the other hand says that, it is not the “caste” that decides our occupation, rather it is the other way round. According to this theory, our caste system was flexible and anyone could become a “Brahman”. As because the “Brahmins” were more learned, they became the educators of our society. But it is not only the “Brahmins” that can become educators. Other people can also gain knowledge and become “Brahmins”. On the other hand, “Brahmin” women could marry a “Kshatriya” or a “Vaishya” man, but it was considered illicit or rather impossible for them to marry a “Dalit” or a “Shudra”. With the passage of time, this system which was flexible became a lot more rigid and significant among common people.

In the 6th Century, Gautam Buddha, who was himself born as a “Kshatriya”, was a severe critic of the caste system. As a result of the rise of Gautam Buddha and his thought process, there was a huge number of people who got themselves converted into “Buddhism” around this period because of the fact that, “Buddhism” rejects any system of caste-based classification. Although, “Buddhism” does see life as pain, suffering and reincarnation as a renewal of this suffering, there is a distinction with the core Hindu belief system.

Influence of Britishers on the Caste-based classification:

It would not be incorrect to say that, Britishers made “casteism”, a thing of importance. They contributed towards making this system rigid, which in turn raised discrimination among the common people. Henry Waterfield, who was employed at the Statistics and Commerce Department, India office wrote in details about the difficulties he faced when he tried to classify the caste system. “Great pains have been taken by the writers of the numerous reports in the classification of the population according to caste,” he said in his “Memorandum on the census of British India 1871-72.”.[3] James Princip, a British intellectual while steering the census of 1834, found that there are additional enormous number of sub-divisions amid the core castes as well. For instance, Brahmins in Benares had more than hundred further sub-divisions. Warren Hastings took the step in 1772 to formulate the Hindu and Muslim Law. For this, he hired 11 Brahman Pandits, who arguably took undue advantage of the circumstances and applied core Vedic principles even more widely. This is what is exactly termed as “Brahmanism” in the present day and it was forcefully applied upon the followers of Hindu faith, because until then the Vedic System of four major castes was not so widely practiced and neither did every Hindu practice it. This is precisely how the Britishers amplified the rift amid the “Upper” and “Lower” caste individuals.

Lord Hardinge, the Viceroy of India in 1910s, decided that all the seats in public services would be occupied through an open competitive exam, which would be directed in English. This came out as a noteworthy benefit for the “Brahmins” of the Madras Presidency because they were the sole ones who had the pleasure to acquire skills of this language. Due to this, in Madras, the Brahmins, who covered only 3% of the population, occupied more than 80% of the posts. Similarly, in the princely state of Mysore, the Tamil Brahmins monopolised all the jobs.

Pre-independence developments:

The first recognised person in pre-independence India to implement a kind of reservation policy was Shahu Chhatrapati of Kolhapur. He was the grandson of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. He issued a document in the gazette of Kolhapur state for reserving 50% of government posts for backward class candidates.[4]

Jyotirao Phule, who was born in 11th April, 1827, in Pune, Maharashtra in the Shudra caste, was very inspired by the struggle of the black slaves in America. He founded the “Satyashodhak Samaj” for the social and educational elevation of the lower castes in 1873. This initiative aimed at increasing social and political rights among woman, Shudras and Dalits. Furthermore, it also aimed at empowering the aforementioned category of people with good education.[5] He rejected the impression of dominance of the Vedas and denied to trust that only the Brahmins should have control over Hindu faith. This initiative left a major impact on the political spheres revolving around the upliftment of people belonging to the lower castes.

The major involvement in the 20th century in contradiction of the caste system has arguably been that of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. He has comprehended this process by writing popular books like “Annihilation of caste” and “The emancipation of untouchables”. He was demanding separate representations for the lower castes that he also referred to as “oppressed” or “depressed” class, not just against the British, but also against the Brahmins. He organised a Depressed Classes Congress in 1930 in Nagpur and acknowledged that for the safety of the depressed classes, they need independence from both the British as well as the Congress.[6] In August 1932, British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald recognized the demands of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and decided to assign distinct electorates for the depressed classes. Under this system, all the minorities namely, Muslims, Parsis, Anglo-Indians, depressed classes were being granted a separate electorate. Separate electorate meant that only Dalits could vote in that particular constituency which was demanded by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. When Mahatma Gandhi got to know about this new system, he announced a fast unto death, because he believed that this policy was creating a chasm between “Harijans” and rest of Hindus. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar decided to negotiate in what came to be known as “Poona Pact”[7]. It was decided that instead of separate electorates, more reservation could be provided for depressed classes in the joint electorates. So, the 78 seats reserved for them were increased to 148 after the “Poona Pact”. But, in these electorates people from any religion or caste could vote.

Provisions related to reservation in The Constitution of India (As of August, 2021):[8]

1. Article 15(4) and 16(4) of the Constitution encourage the State and Central Governments to make special provision for advancement of socially and educationally backward classes and provides reservation of post.

2. The 77th constitutional Amendment in1995, added new clause (4A) in Article 16 technically provided reservation in promotion.

3. The 81st constitutional Amendment in 2000 inserted Article 16 (4 B) which protected SCs and STs in filling the backlog vacancies

4. After, the 85th constitutional Amendment in 2001, that provided consequential seniority to SC and ST employees in case of promotion.

5. Article 330 and 332 provides special provision for reservation of seats for SCs and STs in the Parliament and in the State Legislative Assemblies.

6. Article 243T. provides reservation of seats for SCs and STs in Municipalities.

7. Article 243D. provides reservation of seats for SCs and STs in Panchayats. 

8. Article 335 of the constitution states, the claims of STs and STs to services and posts.

9. Part XVI provides for special representation of SC and ST in Central and State legislatures.

Post-independence developments:

The best way to understand the post-independence development in the Reservation Policy is by using a chronological method. After gaining independence, the depressed classes were given reservation and political representation in both education and public employment. For Political representation, the system of joint electorates continued. That is why out of the 543 Lok Sabha seats, 84 seats have been reserved for the Scheduled Castes and 47 have been reserved for the Scheduled Tribes. On 26th January, 1950 Constitution of India got enforced and established reservations policy in Indian legal system that reserved seats in the field of education and legislation, to Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs). In 1953, Under Kaka Kalelkar the Backward Classes Commission was set up that identified Oppressed Backwards Classes (OBCs). After which in 1955 a report was released. In 1955, The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1955 got enforced. In 1962, Supreme Court of India capped maximum reservations up to 50% which was held in the case M. R. Balaji and Others vs State of Mysore[9]. In 1978, Mandal Commission sets up to determine quota for backward castes. They proposed reserving 27% for OBCs. The power conferred in Article 340 of the constitution helped the president to appoint the backward class commission, in December 1978 under the chairmanship of B. P. Mandal. The establishment of this commission was to determine the criteria upon which the socially and educationally backwardness will be defined, which will in turn, is going to help in the advancement procedure of this category. In 1989, Prime Minister B P Singh begins implementing recommendations that he got from Mandal Commission. In 1992, Apex Court upholds 27% reservation for OBCs despite backlash, and held that reservations cannot exceed 50%, in the case of Indra Sawhney & Others v. Union of India[10]. In 2006, Ministry of Human Resource Development proposes raising reservation in educational institutions to 49.5%. In 2019, this reservation went one step ahead and granted 10% reservation to Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) as per 103rd Constitutional Amendment, 2019. This brought the total share of reservations to almost 60%. Prime Minister Narendra Modi while announcing this decision said, “The youths of the economically backward sections in the General category would get 10% reservation in education and government services, which would boost the morale of the New India”[11].

Impact of Reservation Policy on the representation of lower caste communities in various sectors:

From 1970 to 1990s, the representation of SCs and STs has significantly increased. According to the latest Higher education survey, this representation has further increased as well. However, this increase can also be attributed to the good economic growth in India during the past few decades. Despite the increase, it is important to note that, the representation share of STs is still lower than their seat reservation number.[12] One of the most significant theory of criticism pertaining to the aforementioned effect of reservation is that of the “Creamy Layer”. According to this theory, the SCs and STs that do get reservations are better off in their own group, but their situation is not better than that of general category people. Therefore, the ultimate aim of our constitution makers is not getting fully fulfilled in this particular area.

According to government data, there has been an increase in representation of SCs and STs in government administration. However, a fact to note here is that, SCs and STs do have representation but it is mostly in lower positions.[13] Their actual representation is near their representation quota only in Group C and Group D category. Therefore, there is a significant difference between the output and the outcome of this policy in this particular area.

In a study, it was observed that despite of reservation system and having a Sarpanch belonging to the SC category, the relationship between different castes did not change much within a particular village in rural India.[14] Data from 2011 shows that a “Brahmin” adult on an average acquired 5.6 years of more education over the course of his lifetime as compared to a Scheduled Tribe (ST) adult [15]. According to the report of a national survey, people belonging to Upper caste are better off in categories of Average income, assets owned and education level in comparison to people belonging to lower castes.[16] Again, this emphasises upon the fact that there is an actual difference between the proposition and the execution of the Reservation Policy.

It is important to recognise the fact that, just implementing a Reservation Policy cannot change the entire social and economic scenario in India. Presence of multiple factors like adequate education level, Job availability and Resource availability, must go hand in hand in order to execute intended results in a long term.


Reservation has been a subject of debate for quite some time now. Some people believe that, it has not served its intended purpose. Caste based reservation kind of propagates the evil which it is trying to eliminate. It is perpetuating the notion of caste prevalence in society rather than eliminating it. For this reason, people are judged nowadays on the basis of their caste despite of the modern society especially in urban areas of the country. It can be said that it is also raising the social differences between backward caste people and general people. It is giving huge importance to the “caste” of a person, which was never the goal of our Constitution makers. On the other hand, some people strongly believe that the need for this policy is completely over. It cannot be said that the need for reservation is over in India as because the practice of caste-based discrimination is still prevalent especially in the rural parts of the country. The situation in urban India is very much different from that of the rural India. Some people strongly back “meritocracy” or “selection on the basis of merit” in order to criticise the reservation policy. An important point to remember here is that, there is a thin gap between the terms “Meritocracy” and “Equality”, which people often fails to truly interpret. “Equality” in its truest sense mean “Like should be treated alike and unlike should not be treated alike”. This is parallel to the positive interpretation of Article 14 of the Constitution of India i.e, “Equal protection of Law”. Logically, Meritocracy is suitable in such circumstances where all the people are placed on the same footing or level. But in India, the scenario is quite different. So, it becomes essential to provide reservation benefits in order to achieve “true equality” in the long term. But it can be rightfully said that the current reservation policy needs some changes. For instance, the current reservation percentage for EWS (Economically Weaker Sections) is just 10% and for PWD (Person with disabilities) is just 4%. On the other hand, the percentage for SC, ST, OBC combined is around 49.5%. The percentage for SC, ST, OBC can possibly be reduced and the percentage for EWS and PWD can possibly be increased, so that the people who actually need the reservation benefit are able to get it. In light of all the areas and points highlighted in this article, it can be concluded that the reservation policy in India is both a boon and a bane. It has both its positive as well as its negative side, but the best that governing authorities can do is to improvise the policies time to time as per the changing needs and circumstances of the society in order to ensure a fair and justified system of reservation, along with social and economic development.

[1] “Long overdue: On OBC reservation in All-India Quota medical seats” The Hindu, August 02, 2021.

[2] Nikhil Joshi, “Caste System in Ancient India” World History Encyclopedia, November 20, 2017.

[3] “Memorandum on the Census of British India of 1871-1872”, available at:

[4] Abhiram Ghadyalpatil, “Rajarshi Shahu Chhatrapati of Kolhapur, a reformer ahead of his time” Mint, August 10, 2018.


[6] “CONFLICT, CONTROVERSY, AND CONGRESS”, available at: (Visited on August 9, 2021).

[7] Uday Balakrishnan, “Ambedkar and the Poona Pact” The Hindu, April 14, 2020.

[8] The Constitution of India, 1950.

[9] M.R. Balaji and Others vs State of Mysore, 1963 AIR 649, 1962 SCR Supl. (1) 439

[10] Indra Sawhney Etc. vs Union of India and Others, AIR 1993 SC 477, 1992 Supp 2 SCR 254.

[11] “BJP Giving New Pace to Development: PM Modi takes Stage on Day 2”, The Quint, January 12, 2019.

[12] Thomas E Weisskopf, “Impact of Reservation on Admissions to Higher Education in India” 39 EPW 4339-4349 (Sep. 25-Oct. 1, 2004).

[13] Subodh Verma, “SC/STs fail to break caste ceiling: No SC in 149 top government officers, 40 pc do menial jobs” The Economic Times, September 06, 2012.

[14] Simon Chauchard, “Can Descriptive Representation Change Beliefs about a Stigmatized Group? Evidence from Rural India” APSR 1-20 (2014)

[15] Zacharias, Ajit and Vamsi Vakulabharanam, “Caste Stratification and Wealth Inequality in India”, 39 World Development Issue 10, 1820-1833 (2011)

[16] NEHS-IHDS Survey 2011-2012.

Author: Anurag Das, Brainware University    

Editor: Kanishka VaishSenior Editor, LexLife India.

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