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Social and political Values and Systems in India.

Genesis of Affirmative Action/Reservation Policy in India


The British Government in India gave birth to the policy of Reservation, that too at a time (late 19th century), when discrimination of any kind, whether positive or otherwise, was considered to violate the ‘Principle of Equality’. At that time, the idea to uplift the suppressed sections of society (a development of post second World War Period) and to achieve equality through preferential treatment, was unheard and unknown to the whole world. The idea of Reservation Policy was not conceived by British so much out of concern for the downtrodden as for balancing the power in such a way that could perpetuate their rule in India longer.

1905 to 1940 was the period, when instead of giving preference to some groups, the idea of Reservation (fixing quota) was conceived, experimented and established firmly. The employment in Government or association with it was considered lucrative and prestigious for all the educated Indians during this period. The desire to be associated with the Government opened up various channels of confrontation. During this period the British policy of Divide and rule blossomed fully.

The genesis of Reservation Policy lies in the effort of the British rulers to balance the power. For them it served a double purpose. On one hand, it gave them the credit for the amelioration and protection of the lowly. On the other, distribution of power on communal basis helped them to keep balance of power and prolong their rule in India by keeping the natives busy in their in-fights.

East India Company of Britain conquered and established British Empirical rule in India by taking advantage of the diversities of Indian people and playing them against one another – princes against people; Hindu against Muslims; caste against castes; and provinces against provinces. They knew it well that they, have maintained our (their) power by playing off one part against the other” and intended to “continue to do so. Do what you can, therefore, to prevent all having a common feeling.i British Government in India very cleverly, created a split in the society, inflamed the differences, kept Indians busy with their internal problems and ruled the country without much distraction.

In 1835, British Government in India introduced modern education with an intention to form a class (Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect), who could act as interpreters between them and millions of Indian masses, whom they governed.  Through western education, they tried to make Indians “Anglicized in terms of both cultural and intellectual attainments. Government opened a few schools and colleges, with English as the medium of instruction. In 1844, an official announcement said that applicants for Government employment should possess knowledge of English.

Introduction of Modern education paved way for imperial designs. In the near absence of industrial, commercial or social service activity, the educated Indians depended on Government jobs entirely. This led to a keen competition between different sections of Indian society and created rift in the Indian society.

A few communities amongst Hindus like Brahmins and Kayasthas being natural learners and pursuers of knowledge, very soon got hold of modern callings and opportunities. Initially the British rulers did not mind it, because they had annexed authority mainly from the Muslim rulers. However very soon, British government in India noticed Brahmins preponderance in almost all the areas, including the Civil Service and all levels of freedom movement during 1869 to 1899. It appeared to them as if this small community was governing the country. They got alarmed about Brahmin’s growing influence and hold over the Hindu Community.

The rulers considered it necessary to counter the hold of Brahmins by raising a strong force against them. Therefore, they turned their attention towards Muslims. Muslims always had a grudge over the loss of their dominant position. They found themselves handicapped in competing with Hindus in modern callings and opportunities. Also they had a fear of being dominated by majority Hindu Community, if at any point of time India became Independent. In a very shrewd and planned manner, British drifted Muslims from Hindus. The seeds of communalism were sown during Lord Lytton’s Vice-royalty (1876-80).

After gaining the confidence of Muslims, during the second half of the nineteenth century, the British focused their attention on non-Brahmin castes and attempted to secure their confidence too. On September 2, 1897, George Francis Hamilton, the then Secretary of State for India, wrote to Viceroy Curzon, I think the real danger to our rule in India, not now but say 50 years hence, is the gradual adoption and extension of Western ideas of agitation and organization. If we could break the educated Hindu into two sections, holding widely different views, we should by such division, strengthen our position against the subtle and continuous attack, which the spread of education must make upon our system of Government.

Hence, the British rulers very carefully and effectively portrayed Brahmins and Indian intelligentia as oppressors and tyrants. They sidetracked the socially transformative movements of great scope, initiated by them. The British took steps to provide to non-Brahmin castes equality before law and new opportunities of advancement. Initially special schools were opened for the backward people and provision of special scholarship, loan, hostel facilities and concessions in school fees were provided for them. In 1885, the education department proposed to reserve 50% of free scholarships for backwards and Muslims, as scholarships purely on merit grounds would perpetuate Brahmin’s monopoly.

In 1885 itself, Eutice J Kitts, a British ambassador in Azamgarh listed, for the first time, backward castes and tribes, from 1881 Census. The objective was to give them financial assistance and preferences in education and Government employment at local and provincial level. For the first, the government officially recognized caste as a base for the purposes of governance. The practice of Preferences in education and jobs later on led to the birth of Reservation Policy.

In 1858, the Government of Bombay Presidency had announced, All schools maintained at the sole cost of Government shall be open to all classes of its subject without distinction. The British reserved full rights of refusing support to any school, in which the benefit of education was withheld from any class of persons on account of caste or race. Though it was opened to all, irrespective of caste or creed but modern education was too costly for the masses.

The demands of Muslims for separate electorate – communal representation in the Imperial Legislative Council, District Boards and local bodies and adequate share in the public service, adequate safeguards for the protection and promotion of Muslim culture and weight to the Muslims to protect their legitimate interests were accepted through Minto-Morley Reforms known as Government of India Act of 1909. This Act devised a novel method to distribute and balance the power. The Act came as the first effective dose of communalization of Indian politics.

The initial purpose of Reservation was to restrict the Brahmin’s monopoly in Government jobs and other important positions, and make it available to non-Brahmins communities as well. It started with protests of non-Brahmins against the preponderance of Brahmins in the Government services in Madras and Mysore Presidencies. From this base, Reservation entered into education field, so that more non-Brahmins could qualify for the jobs. Brahmins, being a non-militant community, did not resist Reservation or their ouster from the Government services. They migrated to other areas, where they could get better opportunity to prosper.

In Mysore Presidency, Reservation policy was in practice informally since 1874. Its Government (Between 1874 and 1885) had reserved 20% posts at middle and lower levels for Brahmins and the balance 80% for others. During the period 1881 to 1910, demand for jobs was inspired by the policy of “Sons of the soil, because many Tamilian Brahmins had dominated the Government jobs in Princely State of Mysore.ii

Morley Minto Reform of 1909 gave the non-Brahmins a boost. They demanded with assertiveness Reservations for themselves in education and Government employment. In 1919, the British Government transferred to provincial Governments power over subjects like education, agriculture, veterinary service, roads and, buildings, social welfare etc. With all these powers, the British Government also passed on to the provinces, the responsibility to satisfy the conflicting claims for the Government jobs and other interests of major pressure groups, which had emerged in the Indian political scene. Brahmins had already monopolized the places in education and administration. Muslims and non-Brahmin castes were resisting vociferously the dominance of Brahmins in these areas.

In 1918, Mysore Government appointed Miller Committee to look into the question.iii On its recommendation All communities, other than Brahmins, who were not adequately represented in the public Service were declared backwards. In 1921 preferential recruitment for backward communities was instituted formally for the first time in its colleges and state services. This was the start of Reservation Policy officially in India. In 1925, Government of Bombay provided Reservations to backward communities in its services. It included all except Brahmins, Marwaris, Prabhus, Banias and Christians.iv Madras started quota based communal representation in its Government services and educational institution in 1921. Every group of 14 seats was to be allotted as: –

Non Brahmin Hindus – 6

Backward Hindu – 2

Brahmin – 2

Harijans – 2

Anglo Indian and Indian Christian – 1

Muslim – 1

Total 14

The United Province had a practice of reserving, out of every four seats, 1 to Brahmin, 1 to Kayastha, 1 to Muslim and the last one to any section other than these three sections.

Reservations, which were so far confined to Provincial and local levels, were for the first time appeared on national scene formally with the Communal Award of 1932. The concessions bestowed on the backward communities made them loyal to British rule.

Though British officially announced to introduce the Reservation policy at national level, in 1932, they remained very particular till the end of their rule not to disturb its elite service the ICS. They gave assurance to the up coming groups, but firmly stuck to one point i.e. – it won’t weaken its steel-frame – the administrative service, at any cost, on which it depended for the efficient and effective governance of the country. It told the upcoming groups very clearly, With its utmost desire to do the best for these classes, the Government will be and is powerless to help them, unless they qualify themselves to the same extent as others of their countrymen for duties of administration and public ( Times of India Archives, dated, May 3, 1918).

Therefore, it kept on advising the backwards to equip themselves with education, which alone would enable them to take due share in the administration of the nation. The British kept the Reservation confined to the provincial level till they ruled. However, they knitted a very strong web for the Indian leaders, into which the Indian leaders were trapped after the Independence. It was only after the Independence that Reservation Policy was acknowledged as necessary for uplifting downtrodden and was introduced at national and provincial levels separately.


i A letter from Wood to Elgin dated March 3, 1962, cited in The History of the Freedom Movement in India by Tarachand, p 514.

ii Chopra Pran, An Over View, edited by Pai Panandkar, p 13-28.

iii A 1921 GO referring to the 1911 GO

iv Government of Bombay, Finance Department Resolution no. 2610 of Feb. 1925 cited by Omvedt, 1976, p 343.

September 16, 2009 - Posted by | Reservation/Affirmative action program |

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