A sensitive electoral issue in Assam has been put on the backburner. It is the long-standing demand for scheduled tribe (ST) status for six ethnic communities. Both the ruling Congress and the BJP-led alliance tried to play politics with the issue, but the reality is not conducive for playing with such fire. The demands for OBC quota benefits by Patels in Gujarat and Jats in Harya seem to have forced a re-think in the Central government that it needs to tread the ground carefully on reservation, whether for OBCs, SCs or STs. The Supreme Court in a verdict last month also displayed abundant caution when it refused to command the government or legislature to frame laws or regulations on reservation. Ruling that the State is not bound to make SC/ST quotas for promotion, the apex court at the same time made it clear that the State may make such provisions if it so wishes — provided it collects ‘quantifiable data’ showing backwardness of the community and its idequate representation in public employment, as well as complies with Article 335 which states that SC/ST claims for appointments in government services have to be balanced with maintaining ‘efficiency of administration’. Back in 2002, the then Atal Behari Vajpayee government had reviewed ST status of 270 communities. Last year, the rendra Modi government reportedly began to streamline the criteria and procedure for reservation of communities as STs. There was much talk about replacing criteria like primitive traits, shyness of contact and geographical isolation with more neutral ones like socio-economic and educatiol backwardness. Now political parties need to be mature and responsible on this issue which can create huge social unrest. In 1950, the Constitution adopted the principle of Compensatory Discrimition to uplift weaker sections. But in 65 years, the benefits have been cornered by the elite section of a handful of communities. In NE states where STs are exempted from paying income tax, their privileged sections are even better off. In the absence of periodic review of such benefits, vested interests have become entrenched, which in turn is setting off demands for such benefits by other communities. This race to be more backward threatens to undo all the good objectives of affirmative action.
food for thought