India is a country where people have been divided into different categories with respect to different aspects from very ancient times. The social classes have been defined in Brahmanical books like the Manusmriti by the term Varna, which is a Sanskrit word and means type, order, or class. Such Hindu literature classified the society in principle into four varnas:- (i) the Brahmins: priests, scholars and teachers; (ii) the Kshatriyas: rulers, warriors and administrators; (iii) the Vaishyas: merchants; (iv) the Shudras: labourers and service providers.
But a very important thing to notice here is that this division was based on the type of occupation and should not be confused with the much more nuanced Jati or the European term ‘caste’. Times changed and people started confusing this occupation based classification with what we call ‘caste’ today. Soon the term ‘varna’ was transformed by various ruling elites in medieval, early-modern, and, modern India , especially the Mughal Empire and the British Raj. It is today the basis of educational and job reservations in India. People started discriminating the labourers and service providers by calling them lower caste people and untouchables.
To overcome this discrimination, quota systems favouring certain castes and other communities came into existence before independence in several areas of British India. Demands for various forms of positive discrimination, that is discrimination to uplift these social communities, were made, for example, in 1882 and 1891. Shahu, the Maharaja of the princely state of Kolhapur, introduced reservation in favour of non-Brahmin and backward classes, much of which came into force in 1902. He provided free education to everyone and opened several hostels to make it easier for them to receive it. He also tried to ensure that people thus educated were suitably employed, and he appealed both for a class-free India and the abolition of untouchability. His 1902 measures created 50% reservation for backward communities.
The British Raj introduced elements of reservation in the Government of India Act of 1909 and there were many other measures put in place prior to independence. A significant one emerged from the Round Table Conference of June 1932. In 1930-32, the British invited leaders of different parties in the Conference to draft a new law involving self-rule for the Indians. In it, the Prime Minister of Britain, Ramsay Macdonald, proposed the Communal Award, according to which separate representation was to be provided for Muslims, Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians, and Europeans. The depressed classes were assigned a number of seats to be filled by election from constituencies in which only they could vote, although they could also vote in other seats. The proposal was controversial: Mahatma Gandhi took up a fast upto death in his prison cell in Poona in protest against it but many among the depressed classes, including their leader, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, favoured it. Dr. Ambedkar vehemently criticised the way of handling the problems of the Harijans by Gandhi ji. After negotiations, Gandhi ji reached an agreement with Dr. Ambedkar to have a single Hindu electorate, with Dalits having seats reserved within it. Electorates for other religions, such as Islam and Sikhism, remained separate. This became known as the Poona Pact. Later, when in 1942 Congress Party leaders launched the ‘Quit India’ movement, the British engaged in a war for survival, rounded up Nehru ji, Gandhi ji, and other leaders and jailed them for the duration of the struggle with Germany and Japan. Dr. Ambedkar, by contrast, supported the war effort, that is, coordinated mobilization of society’s resources – both industrial and human – towards the support of the British military force, and became a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council. He used his new position to advance the interests of the Scheduled Castes.
But the question is, was reservation for some communities more important than the independence of the whole nation? Upliftment of those caste communities was important for sure, but this way of achieving it was wrong. The revolution of reservation had started, and much more came after independence.