By Kyrsoibor Pyrtuh
This is a historical overview on the debates and agitations over the Reservation Policy. Apart from issues like influx of foreigners, Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 and Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958 which are commonly shared by both the Hynῆiewtrep and Achik people, matters like the relocation of the headquarters of the Meghalaya Board of School Education and Reservation Policy formula had brought the two tribes into collision.
However, debates and agitations are essential in a democracy. They strengthen the democratic institutions and shape the socio-political landscape of the State as long as they remain within the limits of civility and mutual respect. Dissension is the founding principle of Khasi polity and Khasi political history is replete with debates and disagreements. On the eve of India’s Independence and during the period from 1946 to 1949 there were fierce debates and sharp disagreements pertaining to the political future and to which kind of political and administrative set up the Hynῆiewtrep people should adopt or be adopted into.
On the issue of Reservation which has now resurfaced in the public square and with such gravity, the demand is being made to review the existing policy, which again seems to threaten the peaceful co-existence among diverse communities in the State. As early as 1972 and since the day it was adopted, the Reservation Policy had generated intense debates in the executive realm. As reflected in the file note, there was an exchange of arguments and it was noted, “…In this matter, again, we are reluctant to say definitely what would be the proper provision to make…and in a broad way, special provisions should be less than 50 per cent; but how much less than 50 per cent would depend upon the relevant prevailing circumstance in each case.” The debate was opened then and the demand to review has been on for decades now.
In 1978, the All India Garo Union submitted the Memorandum to the then Chief Engineer and Secretary to Government of Meghalaya, P.W.D (R&B) expressing dismay at the indifference of the Government to the plight and grievances of Garo people in matter of appointments in the concerned department. The memorandum strongly stated that, “Such good provision of 40-40 % and 20 % formula were made by the Government of Meghalaya which is based on the appropriate provisions of the Constitution of India…and on the basis of the Supreme court of India’s ruling in favor of the weaker sections, which ruling is the most important “Ratio Decidendi” and not even “Obiter Dicta” or not yet “Stare Decisis”…that the 40% reservation which belonged to the Garo must not be taken away and the concerned or any Department should strictly adhere to Government’s policy of 40% in favour of the Garos; otherwise, there shall be no meaning or value of making reservation of posts up to 40%. Unless it should be done so, your office/department or such other department/office, may willfully apply the “Laisser-Fare theory”, and may also try to annihilate the weaker sections…by indirect means…”
In 1980 the State Legislature passed the Meghalaya Regulation of Employment Bill, 1980 and the Bill sought to regulate employment of people from outside the State in both public and private sectors. The Bill was resisted both inside and outside the House. Inside the House Prof. Martin Narayan Majaw vehemently opposed the Bill and mobilized public opinion against it through the public meeting held in Khasi National Dorbar Hall. Besides, the All India Garo Union held a special meeting and recorded its strong disapproval of the Bill. There were two major reasons for the opposition, viz, (i) to protect the Garos and other backward classes of people in the North Eastern Region in matters of employment opportunities and (ii) that the Bill might bring forth disintegration as well as chaos in the administrative policy of the State and that the Government must only stick to the implementation of the employment policy of 40% reservation in favour Khasi & Jaiῆtia, 40% in favour of Garos and 20% for others. This matter was also taken up with the Union Government.
It is important to note that newspapers’ editorials, letters and articles also advanced the debates. To note a few, the Editorial of Ropeca, published on 25 September 1982, termed it as “Reservation within Reservation”. It is stated, “While the decision for reservation at the State level appears to be correct, the decision of reservation at District level appears to have its strong political ramifications. Reservation in District level is 80% for Garos in Garo Hills and 80% for Khasi and Jaiῆtia in Khasi & Jaintia Hills. This has placed the two communities in water tight compartments. It has stopped the exchange of ideas and views as well as expertise. If this decision is not corrected in time it may lead to far reaching political consequences. What is wrong with the reservation at the state level?… No body knows the basis of this decision. If the reservation is based on population the percentage should have been 48% for Khasi Jaiῆtia and 32% for Garos…Educationally Garos are still behind those people from Khasi and Jaiῆtia Hills. Experience has shown that despite reservation…Garos have not been able to fill up their quota. Hence there has been a demand that Garo candidates from Assam should be considered. This is a dangerous trend…In order to fill up those vacancies ad-hoc appointments have been made from among the Khasi and Jaiῆtia…Hence the earlier “the reservation within reservation” is done away with, the better will be the state of affairs in all its aspect in the State.”
In direct response to the views expressed by F. Momin on Jobs for Garos, which was published in the Shillong Times Dated 21.3.1987, Bah L. Gilbert Shullai wrote an article entitled Speaking Out, which was published in Pyrman dated 27.3.1987. In this article he mooted the idea of bifurcating the State into two Union Territories, namely, West Meghalaya with its Capital at Tura and East Meghalaya with its Capital at Shillong. This could, in his opinion, solve the discontent, in matters of reservation, among the Khasi and Garo.
In the Khasi and Jaiῆtia region, the popular opinion and demand to review the Reservation Policy on meritocracy and majoritarianism principles remain unchanged. It is becoming louder in the recent past and the disillusionment of the youth vis a vis unemployment has pushed it further. From 1984 to 1986 strong views against the Reservation Policy reverberated across the Eastern part of Meghalaya. In 1986 Bah S.D Khongwir led the demand to review the policy in line with the idea of combined 80% reservation for Scheduled Tribes, irrespective of community. In his letter to Capt. W.A Sangma, the then Chief Minister, he argued that the change in policy from the 40-40% to 80% combined formula would not only bring healthy competition amongst the members of Schedule Tribes in the State, but it will also prevent deprivation or discrimination on ethnic identity. Meanwhile, the group called the “Political Commentators of Meghalaya” widely distributed their sectarian pamphlet in which they accused the Garos of hampering the growth of Khasi-Jaiῆtia community. Accordingly, they called upon the Khasi Tribe to reclaim the political leadership in the State and offered four solutions towards this end- (i) a combined political effort by regional parties to dislodge the Congress in Khasi-Jaintia Hills or (ii) to allow more Congress MLAs to win from Khasi and Jaiῆtia Hills to counter Garo domination in Congress politics…or (iii) to combine all 36 Khasi-Jaiῆtia MLAs to form the Government or (iv) a Khasi Pnar or Hynῆiewtrep State.
The demand to review the Reservation Policy has been dominating the student’ politics in the State and the Khasi Students’ Union- led agitations on the issue gained prominence since the mid- 1980s. During the KSU led street protest in 1987 among other things, the demand of 100% reservation of seats in the State Assembly was tabled at the official talks with the State Government. In 1992 the Khasi Students Union made the demand to scrap the divisive formula in reservation and to review the same by providing 90% reservation in both educational institutions and Government employment for Khasi and Garo on the basis of merit.
In conclusion, today the agitation and the demand to review the Reservation Policy is being led by the new political party, the Voice of the People Party. There is nothing wrong in agitating and the discourse must continue. However, do we have to divide the State? Do we need to blame each other in order to solve the complex issue of competing claims? While agitating we must not allow vested interests to take advantage of the volatile situation by propagating hate and inflicting violence on targeted sections of society who have nothing to do with the issue. Personally, merit and population arguments are against Constitutional morality and are not the basis for reservation.