Quota agitations in poll-bound Karnataka: Absurdity of demands and tall promises

As polls draw closer, Karnataka is turning into a cauldron of quota agitations, with a helpless government playing along for fear of losing votes.

ByAnusha Ravi Sood

Published Dec 25, 2022 | 8:25 AM Updated Dec 25, 2022 | 8:25 AM

panchamasali Lingayat protest

Elections are around the corner and Karnataka has turned into a market for reservation agitations.  Communities, castes, and sub-sects are competing with each other as if in an open auction for change in reservation quota, re-categorisation, or enhanced reservation.

Everyone, it seems, can hold the government to ransom.

With the threat of losing votes hanging over their heads if they do not express support for even some of the really absurd demands, politicians are more than willing to play along.

It doesn’t matter how legally unsound the demands are. It doesn’t matter how illogical, unjust and unfeasible the demands are, especially those coming from socially, economically, educationally and politically dominant sections. The demands are still being made unabashedly.

From religious seers to MLAs, from pointiffs of mathas (Hindu religious monasteries) to Cabinet ministers and even Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, everyone seems unconcerned about how these demands are undermining and subverting the very purpose of reservation.

The BJP’s own leader and Union Minister of State for Social welfare A Narayana Swamy pointed this out.

“Reservation was given to sections, communities that were marginalised in various regions. Reservation was brought for sections that were oppressed by untouchability. Today, that is being undermined and everybody is seeking reservation,” Narayana Swamy said.

“Almost 90 percent of this country has reservation now, and the purpose and meaning of reservation is lost. Chief ministers and state governments should put an end to it. This isn’t good,” he added, hoping Bommai would take the cue.

Reservation in Karnataka now

Believe it or not, all of Karnataka is covered under reservation, especially after the Union government decided to introduce Economically Weaker Section (EWS) quota for dominant castes.

Before that, barring castes like Brahmins, Arya Vaishyas, Mudaliars and Jains, all other castes and communities in Karnataka were covered under one of these seven categories.

Scheduled Castes: 15 percent

Scheduled Tribes: 3 percent

Category 1 (comprising Backward Castes and Communities): 4 percent

Category 2A (105 Other Backward Classes, or OBCs): 15 percent

2B (including Muslims): 4 percent

3A (including Vokkaligas and subcastes): 4 percent

3B (including Lingayats and 42 subcastes): 5 percent.

Very recently, the Bommai government hiked reservation for Scheduled cate and Scheduled Tribe communities (SC/STs) by six percent. But this bill is yet to be discussed in the legislature.

Since this hike in reservation will breach the 50 percent ceiling set by the Supreme Court order in the Indra Sawhney case judgement, Karnataka will have to pass a resolution in the legislature to increase the ceiling of reservation and then compel the Centre to add its reservation law to the 9th schedule of the Constitution.

Demands by dominant castes

On Thursday, 22 December, Panchamasali Lingayats in Karnataka held a protest in Belagavi demanding reservation under Category 2A instead of the current 3B. If granted, Panchamasali Lingayats — the largest and most powerful sect among the already politically dominant Lingayat community in Karnataka — will compete for reservation alongside the historically marginalised 102 Backward Classes (BCs) like Madivala, Idiga, Kumbara, etc.

Chief Minister Bommai was quick to assure the agitating community, led by a powerful seer, that his Cabinet would okay their demand. The threat was very open from the Panchamasali community — either give us the reservation or we will teach you a lesson in the upcoming elections.

On Friday, it was the turn of Vokkaliga community to demand 12 percent reservation instead of the current 4 percent that they are entitled to. Bommai was all smiles for the camera while accepting a memorandum from the Vokkaliga group led by his Cabinet ministers R Ashoka, Dr K Sudhakar, and Dr C Ashwath Narayana, among others.

The government’s reaction to the demands from Panchamasali Lingayats and Vokkaligas was very different from the lathi charge that Dalit groups suffered when demanding internal reservations in Bengaluru last week.

Unlike the Panchamasali Lingayats or Vokkaligas, the Dalit groups were not demanding a hike in reservation but just to ensure internal reservation for the most vulnerable among Dalits — within the quota they are already eligible for.

The difference in treatment of the Lingayat and Vokkaliga demands, and that of the Dalits was starkly different.

Absurd, illogical demands, but severely political

The demands of dominant Castes for enhanced reservation are deemed absurd with good reason. There is no doubt that there are vulnerable sections within Lingayats and Vokkaligas. There is no doubt that the government has to ensure social justice for all. Yet, the demand to hike reservation is unfeasible and the government is fully aware of it — but chooses to back such protests for electoral gains.

Ironically, the Panchamasali Lingayat agitation was propped by those within the BJP to pressurise and alienate BS Yediyurappa from the community in 2021, when he was chief minister. But it has now turned into a headache for the BJP with its internal surveys suggesting that the quota stir by Panchamasalis is harming the party’s poll prospects.

While Lingayats claim that they form around 20 percent of the state’s population, leaked figures from Karnataka’s caste census puts them at around 14 percent, according to a report by News 18.

Minister for Higher Education Ashwath Narayan on Friday claimed that Vokkaligas make up 16 percent of Karnataka’s population, but the caste census puts them at just 11 percent. Both these communities are land-owning, relatively well-off, politically and socially dominant castes.

Dominant versus oppressed classes

A simple example of the political and social clout of the Lingayats and Vokkaligas in Karnataka is this: The state has had six Vokkaliga and nine Lingayat chief ministers so far.

And how many Dalit chief ministers has Karnataka had, given that the SC population in the state is nearly 20 percent? ZERO. How many ST chief ministers? ZERO.

Karnataka’s Brahmin population is estimated at around three percent, but the state has had two chief ministers from the community.

A survey estimated that SCs and STs hold barely 4 percent of the total land in Karnataka. Those figures should tell you a lot about the difference between dominant and oppressed classes and who needs reservation more.

The purpose of reservation, according to the Constitution, is advancement of SCs and STs, or any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens, and adequate representation. The EWS quota meant exclusively for forward castes has already undermined this.

Forward castes make up barely four percent of Karnataka’s population, but under the EWS quota are eligible to claim 10 percent reservation. How skewed is that?

Now, leaders from the Panchamasali and Vokkaliga communities in Karnataka are promising to make the urban poor from the communities also eligible to claim reservation under the EWS quota.

Under the current norms set by the Centre, that is not possible — unless the rules are changed and a re-sectionalisation is done within communities.

But lip-service has nothing to do with facts. The tall promises being made by the Karnataka government comes when it has no official data to act upon or recommend changes to the reservation status quo.

Reservation is not a poverty-alleviation programme. We still live in times where a Dalit isn’t allowed inside a temple even if they are elected representatives.

The job of a government should be to ensure adequate representation and opportunity to those sections of society that have been deprived of it for centuries.

Dominant castes circumventing reservation to gain privilege with the full authorisation of the elected government defeats the very purpose of social justice.