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The verdict of Madras High Court’s Madurai Bench quashing the much-touted 10.5 per cent quota for Vanniyars within the Most Backward Class (MBC) category in Tamil Nadu Reservation, has created pandemonium and chaos in political circles of Tamil Nadu. A question mark now prevails over the continuance of not just the Vanniyar quota but the allocation of 50 per cent to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in all, taking the reservation quota in Tamil Nadu to 69 percent.

The Madurai Bench has raised several issues based on which it struck down the Vanniyar quota, and which have a bearing on the larger issue of the reservation policy itself. For example, the court has wondered why reservation was not based on classes as envisaged in the 1951 judgement of the Supreme Court, and why quotas were taken up only on the basis of castes.

This question remains uppermost in the Supreme Court too where the fate of many petitions lies.

The court has wondered why reservation was not based on classes as envisaged in the 1951 judgement of the Supreme Court, and why quotas were taken up only on the basis of castes.

Mr G Chidambaram, former member of the Tamil Nadu Planning Commission in Tamil Nadu, suggests the way out of the present mess is to return to the objectives set out by the Supreme Court in 1951 when reservation was allowed by a special amendment to the Constitution on the basis of classes and not castes. For instance, landless labour, mechanics, plumbers, electricians, plumbers, potters, and such others among daily-wage earners who need an educational net for their wards.

This way, first-generation aspirants would have an advantage, and there would also be no need to introduce an economic criterion or creamy layer as the system by and large takes care of itself. Here, reservation is not permanent, and movement into or out of the class is possible unlike in caste groupings. There is an inherent mechanism to take care of the genuinely backward class. “It is the duty of the governments to protect the under-priveleged. Only if the reservation benefits are extended on the basis of classes and not castes, will there be real justice and progress in uplifting weaker sections of society. That would be the true aim of reservation. It was never thought of as perpetual reservation but intended to help uplift certain classes of people who need help,” says Chidambaram. 

Such a system would also enable first-generation applicants to get seats rather than be pushed out by more influential sections.

Although the Tamil Nadu Act 45 of 1994 was included in the Ninth Schedule to the Constitution of India, introduced during the AIADMK government, in an attempt to prevent a legal challenge to the State’s reservation of quota of 69 per cent (19 per cent more than the norm of 50 per cent laid down by the Supreme Court), a clutch of petitions are pending before the Supreme Court against such reservation.

The mainstream and fringe parties in Tamil Nadu are worried over the fate of the 69 per cent quota, and also about uncomfortable questions raised in the Supreme Court from time to time about the whimsical manner in which various state governments have been raising the quota or including caste groups. A fundamental issue raised by the Supreme Court on the need to adhere to reservation based on classes as envisaged in the Constitution, and not castes, has not been properly dealt with by these parties.

The new Vanniyar quota accentuates this trend of political parties in Tamil Nadu ignoring the SC guidelines on how reservation should be enacted and for whom. Under pressure from the Vanniyar-dominated Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) to reach an electoral alliance for the 2021 Assembly elections, the AIADMK yielded to the tactics and hurriedly introduced the legislation in the State Assembly barely a few hours before the elections were to be announced (accompanied by the code of conduct). 

Not that it helped the AIADMK in a big way. In northern Tamil Nadu where Vanniyars constitute a significant section of the population, the AIADMK-led alliance came a cropper, with the PMK’s own performance itself being poor. Political analysts too described the move as counter-productive as it seemed to create a backlash, with other communities tending to back candidates of the DMK-led front.

While the AIADMK and the PMK tried to take credit for this piece of legislation and wooed the Vanniyar community on this basis, the DMK government quietly implemented this Vanniyar quota of 10.5 per cent in admission to educational institutions in the current academic year, to draw praise from the PMK. So much so, the PMK pulled out of its alliance with the AIADMK and took several steps towards the DMK without entering into a formal alliance with the ruling party. The AIADMK lost a principal ally even while trying to reach out to communities which it had antagonised by providing a separate Vanniyar quota.

Down south too, the AIADMK performance was poor as its pro-Vanniyar tilt did not go down well with the Thevar community, in particular. The DMK government has officially taken the stand that it supported the Vanniyar quota and that it would go on appeal to the Supreme Court against the HC order.

The DMK government has officially taken the stand that it supported the Vanniyar quota and that it would go on appeal to the Supreme Court against the HC order.

Tamil Nadu enjoys a high quantum of reservation, amounting to 69 per cent, comprising 19 per cent for SC and ST, and 50 per cent for the Backward Classes. But this now faces strong legal challenges. There is real danger not just of the SC upholding the revocation of the Vanniyar quota but also seeking solutions beyond the caste conundrum and on the basis of classes, not castes. Most of the States are not ready with a list of classes who deserve reservation.


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