With the Supreme Court readying itself to raise its previously-imposed ceiling of 50 per cent as the upper limit for reservations, the spiral of history has completed a full cycle in almost exactly one hundred years. It is a spiral because we have not returned to the exact place where we were a century ago. But we are indeed rediscovering, albeit in changed circumstances, what we may have intentionally or unknowingly forgotten.

In September 1921, the so-called “Communal GO” (or Government Order) was passed in the Madras Presidency by a provincial government led by the Justice Party. The Communal GO was essentially a power-sharing agreement that had the blessings of the colonial government. It allocated government jobs and seats in public higher education institutions to different communities in specific proportions. It was designed to check the near-monopoly of Brahmins on these opportunities despite the fact that they constituted only about three per cent of the population. The GO also signalled the arrival of popular politics, and was the culmination of a successful campaign for electoral power by the so-called non-Brahmin movement spearheaded by the Justice Party. These government opportunities were to be shared among six communities: Brahmins, non-Brahmin Hindus, Mohammedans, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians and Europeans, and others.

Significantly, caste is only one factor alongside religion and race in the identification of communities. But most important here is the rationale for this policy — it is not based on any form of backwardness or disadvantage. Rather, it is an explicitly political principle of sharing the state’s resources and opportunities. The political nature of this sharing is highlighted by the fact that an “objective” — hence apolitical — criterion like proportion of population is not decisive, though it is related to the popular notion of “justice” that anchors this arrangement ideologically.

Fast forward to the next decade when the British government grants separate electorates to different religious and caste communities. The recognition of the Depressed Classes (roughly today’s Dalit castes and Adivasi communities) as a separate electorate threatens the legitimacy of the Indian National Congress as the party that represents “India”. Without the Dalit-Adivasi group, the Congress is left representing only “Caste Hindus”, or just about half of the Indian population. Mahatma Gandhi is determined to prevent this and announces his first-ever fast unto death in September 1932. The enormous pressure brought to bear by the Mahatma’s unilateral fast — effectively a veto — forces Ambedkar and other Depressed Class leaders into the so-called Poona Pact: The separate electorate is given up in return for a fixed number of seats for them in the legislature. Reservation is born.

With this one-sided “pact”, Gandhi and the Congress gain the immeasurable political distance that separates a “Caste Hindu” party from a party that stands for “India”. Ambedkar and the Depressed Classes are forced to retreat from the status of a community as entitled as any other to its share in the nation, to the status of a supplicant group granted a special concession. The Poona Pact leads directly to the Government of India Act of 1935, which first creates the Schedules naming the ex-untouchable castes and Adivasi tribes, thus coining the now-ubiquitous acronym SC-ST.

Jump now to 1947, Independence, and the formation of the Constituent Assembly or the new nation’s proto-parliament. In the aftermath of Partition, ideological lines have hardened, and the Assembly is dominated by voices unwilling to recognise internal divisions within the new-born nation, which is asserted to be one. Communities identified by their comprehensive exclusion from mainstream society — for which untouchability is the overarching metaphor — are now described in the developmental language of “backwardness”. Active discrimination is translated into passive disadvantage.

This crucial shift of perspective bears fruit in the newly-minted Constitution adopted on January 26, 1950. On the one hand, the Constitution (through Articles 15, 16 and 17) appears to banish all forms of discrimination, specifically including caste discrimination. On the other hand, the same Constitution adopts the lists of Scheduled Castes and Tribes created in 1935 as the basis for reservation. This contradiction is immediately weaponised by the upper castes and the Madras High Court uses Article 15 to strike down caste-based reservation, a decision upheld later by the Supreme Court, thus provoking the insertion of a protective clause through the First Amendment to the Constitution in 1951.

The Constitution (especially after the First Amendment) cemented the ideological position of reservation as the exception to the norm of meritocracy, thereby locking the code words “reservation” and “merit” into an implacable, mutually-exclusive dichotomy. The arrival of the backward castes on the national stage in 1990 and the extension of reservation to the Other Backward Classes (OBC) disturbed this firm positioning, which was finally disrupted entirely by the reservation for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) brought about through the 102nd Amendment to the Constitution of 2019.

Coming after the proliferation of demands for sub-quotas within existing quotas and agitations for the creation of new quotas, the Supreme Court’s most recent initiative only begins the process of accepting in principle what has anyway been true in practice. The post-EWS reservation scenario reminds us of the resource-sharing framework of the Communal GO of a century ago. The long and disabling period of nearly half-a-century since the 1950 Constitution, during which the myth of caste-as-exception and the deceptive dichotomy of reservation-versus-merit was perpetuated, is now behind us. Instead of hiding behind the false certainties of a hypocritical rhetoric, we can now begin to confront some difficult but real questions.

To what extent and in which contexts do collective identities still remain useful as the units among which national resources are to be shared? Why do some claims on resources (like reservations) invite so much indignant scrutiny while others (like bank loans that turn into Non-Performing Assets) do not? How can we learn to reexamine taken-for-granted forms of reservation-like exclusive access (personalised, kin-based recruitment to private-sector jobs, higher educational institutions behind high fee-walls)? Things may get worse before they get better, but living with hope is better than living in denial.