Do You Know The History Of Reservations In India?

Last updated 11 Oct 2019 . 1 min read

reservation in india reservation in india

India has a long tryst with reservation. This has a lot to do with its historical caste system as well as, the current political and social influences. Caste has been the main source of discrimination in ancient India. Yet, it continues to make its presence felt till date in the politics and economics of the country.

So what is the caste system and why does it merit reservation? What is the history of reservation in India?

The Hindu society is divided into various castes. The division is based on occupation, class and social standing. The Brahmins are the most superior caste. The Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and finally the Shudras follow. Another caste existed earlier though was abolished after independence. They were the ‘untouchables’ and the lowest in the social strata. They were exempted from all benefits of society.

In fact, their marginalization was such that in some societies, even the fall of their shadow marked a definitive sign of impurity. Reservations were the imperative need of the hour for the untouchables and Shudras. It helped bridge the gap between economic and social differences among the castes.

Who started the reservation system in India? (A short history of quota)

Today 50% of seats in government-aided educational institutions and public jobs are reserved for the SC, ST and, OBCs. But, the seeds of reservation were sown much before.

For example, under the British Raj, the Madras Presidency had reservations since 1831. By 1921 reservations for ST, SC and OBCs were already introduced.

The Maharaja of the princely state Kolhapur, Shahu created reservations for non-Brahmin caste as early as in 1902. Mysore and the princely states of Travancore and Kochi also supported the idea of reservation in educational institutions. Yet, caste remained to prevail in the country.

Pre Independence

The lowest form of caste discrimination was ‘untouchability’. And most of the Dalits were categorized as untouchables. Mahatma Gandhi and Dr B. R. Ambedkar, both fought for equal rights and social standing of the Dalits.

The Round Table Conference of 1932 was a significant landmark in reservation history. Mahatma Gandhi and Dr B.R. Ambedkar had their differences on the reservation. They both arrived at a solution that came to be known as the Poona Pact.

The lower classes were assigned a specific number of seats from certain constituencies. Only they could vote in these. This class corresponded to the SC and ST of today. Dr Ambedkar agreed to have a single Hindu electorate with Dalits seats reserved. The electorates for the other religions remained separate.


The reservation policies saw a major revamp after independence. The Government of India listed the Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) and marched ahead with positive discrimination or affirmative action. What does this mean? The government undertook several measures and policies to reserve a certain number of seats in public jobs and government-aided educational institutions for the SC and ST.

The reservation quota in educational institutions and government jobs is 7.5% for the ST and 15% for the SC. The total reservation for both SC and ST stands at 22.5%.

Reservation was further extended to the Other Backward Classes or OBCs in 1992 to 27%. Today 50% of reservation is allowed for the SC, ST and, OBCs in educational institutions and public jobs.

In 2019 the bill for reservation of 10% to the Economically Weak Section in the general category has been passed. If implemented, the reservation will increase to a total of 60%.

Reservation in the Indian Constitution

The reservation system in India is strongly backed by the Constitution. It is important to acknowledge and understand its different references in the Constitution. Article 15 (4), 16 (4) and 46 are related to reservations.

The constitution of India provides for the right to equality. A fundamental right, it provides for equality irrespective of religion, race, gender, caste or place of birth. It also includes the right of equal opportunity in employment as well as the abolition of titles and untouchability.

But before moving on it is important to address the issue of untouchability. The abolition of untouchability was the biggest victories post-independence and it paved the way for equal opportunities and reservations for the 'untouchables' or Dalits. Article 17 of the constitution abolished untouchability and the Untouchability Act passed in 1955 also made untouchability a punishable offence.

The preamble states, “Equality of status and of opportunity”. Reservation hence seemed to be a justified recourse. It elevated those sections of society that had for generations been neglected. It provided a chance for equal opportunities or status in society and culture.

Constitutional Articles related to reservation

Article 15(1) and (2) provides for the state to not discriminate anyone based on religion, caste, sex, colour or place of birth. But, Article 15 (4), which was added by the Constitution (1st Amendment) Act, 1951 gives the states the power to make special provisions for the advancement of socially and educationally backwards or the SC and ST.

Article 16 (1) and (2) lays down an equal opportunity to citizens for government jobs, whereas Article 16(4) allows the state to make provisions for the reservation in favour of any backward classes that the state finds inadequately represented in the services. The Supreme Court has interpreted the term ‘backward classes’ as, ‘socially and educationally backward’.

Article 46, asks the state to promote the educational and economic interests of the ‘weaker sections of the people’, especially the SC and ST and also directs the state to ‘protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation’.

The Mandal Commission

No discussion on the reservation is complete without the mention of the Mandal Commission.

The constitution laid the provisions for reservation and care of the backward classes. But who falls under the backward classes and how can they be determined? Thus in 1979, the Mandal commission was set up. Its aim was to ‘identify the socially or educationally backward classes’ of India.

Led by B.P. Mandal the commission reported that 52% of the country’s population belonged to the Other Backward Classes. The report was based on the eleven economic, educational and social indicators used to determine backwardness. It recommended that the members of OBCs be given a reservation of 27%. The final count of total reservations for SC, ST and OBC would be 49.5%.

The V.P. Singh government in 1990 decided to put in place the recommendations of the Mandal Commission. This was unfortunately met with massive protests, especially by students throughout the country.

Rajiv Goswami became the face of anti-Mandal agitation by immolating himself. This set the stage for widespread protests by students across the country. However, the recommended reservations did come into force in 1992. But the year also saw another landmark judgment - the case of Indra Sawhney v. Union of India in 1992, where the Supreme Court laid the cap of 50% in reservations.

Reservations in 2019

Most states have limited their reservation quota to fewer than 50%. However, there are a few exceptions, such as Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. Many castes have over the year have demanded reservation. These include the Gujjars, Jats, Patels and more. It is an ongoing debate and in most probability will remain so in the future.

The most recent development in the reservation system was seen this year. In 2019, the Union Cabinet has approved of 10% reservation in educational institutions and jobs for the ‘economically weaker sections’ or EWS in the general category. This is the first time that reservations have been suggested for a section of society based only on economic criteria.

The Constitution (124th Amendment) Bill passed by both the houses will be over and above the already existing 50% reservation quotas and will be given to those who do not fall under any reservations as of now.

The reservation will benefit those whose annual income is less than 8 lakh or those who have below five acres of land. A petition has already been filed in the Supreme Court against the bill.

Reservations in India have become ingrained in our political and social structure. Caste discrimination is a reality and has been practised for generations. Yet, a significant question has risen time and time again. Are reservations still needed after 70 years of independence? Is caste stigmatization prevalent even today to an extent that it requires the help of reservations? When will the nation be able to give equal opportunities to all its citizen?

Reservations are a boon for the backward community. It helps them to avail of educational or professional opportunities. But they are also viewed often with anger and disdain by the other communities.

This is because reservations supersede merit making it unacceptable for many. But, those from the Dalit and Adivasi communities see things differently. For them, reservations are a perfect way to avail better opportunities. They argue that they have not been exposed to the benefits of education and societal influences as the upper classes. And thus reservations give them the needed boost.

The debate and sentiments on reservations continue to play a major role in Indian politics. It will not die out any time soon because it permeates into our very social and cultural fabric.

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