Where will demand for review of Reservation Policy take us?


By Albert Thyrniang

With the indefinite strike of VPP’s president strike, Arden Miller Basaiawmoit the state is in disarray. The culprit is the state’s 50 year old Reservation Policy (RP). Framed under clause 4 of Article 16 of the Constitution that empowers states to make rules to reserve adequate public employment representation to any backward class or classes, the 12th January, 1972 notified policy equally assigns 40% each of the state government jobs for the Khasi (and Jaintia) and Garo communities leaving 5% for other indigenous tribes and the remaining 15% for the general category. The VPP’s contention is that the RP is not based on the demographic composition. In accordance with the last census, since population of the Khasi-Jaintia community is larger, around 15 lakhs as compared to 9 lakhs of the Garo community, the former deserves a bigger share. The VPP’ is convinced that this out-dated ‘Office Memorandum’ needs to be reviewed and revamp. The VPP’s decision to go for the kill, however, has not gone down well with the Garo ‘brothers and sisters.’ Pressure groups and civil society in the western part have not already reiterated that anything less is unacceptable to them. The region still lags behind and therefore, merits to enjoy the present share.

Will Meghalaya turn into Manipur?

It is feared the RP will virtually split the state in two.  With the ever growing support for the VPP the alarm is not unfounded. Though the VPP has repeatedly clarified that they have no divisive intention and that their agitation is not to grab the rights of others, yet their regular reference to the population composition has naturally made Garo Hills suspicious. It is not only the Garo citizens who interpret the VPP’s posturing as communal but many in Khasi-Jaintia Hills too agree with the assessment. The Congress and the TMC have kept almost silent. Even the UDP and the HSPDP who included the review of the RP in their last election’s manifestos are sober to avoid animosities between the two major tribes. The government, of course, has refused to entertain the demand of the VPP terming the RP very sensitive.

Will RP turn Meghalaya into Manipur? This may be too farfetched but it must be noted that the detestable ethnic clash in Manipur is not due to a single reason. It is a conglomeration of many reasons over a period of time. One is the sharp divide between Imphal valley and the surrounding Hills. The divide is more than geographical. The Imphal plain, mainly inhabited by the Meiteis, is much more developed.  It is the seat of power. Government offices, hospitals, schools, colleges, universities and different institutes (state and central) are all located in 10 % territory of Imphal. The staff in these institutions and the government employees are dominated by the Meiteis.  Development is concentrated in Imphal valley. The tribes, though possess 90% of Manipur have nothing in the hills. They are certainly justified in their vehement opposition against attempts to convert the whole state into a ST zone.  If the land is taken away tribals literally have nothing left.

The same scenario is already prevailing in Meghalaya. Shillong is the Imphal of Meghalaya. Centres for trade, education and health are mainly in the state capital (and Tura to a limited extend). Just the other day students in Jowai complained of the lack of basic necessities in their institutions. Colleges in Shillong are mumerious while in districts like South West Khasi Hills, South Garo Hills, East Jaintia Hills, Eastern West there is barely one, that too ill-equipped. The Garo Hill region has been complaining for long of step motherly treatment of successive governments. Anger is bound to creep in when the opportunity of employment is potentially reduced.

Today it is claimed that the Meiteis were denied ST status in 1950 but actually the exclusion was their own choice. They did not wish to be paralleled with the ‘backward’ tribes of the hills. They contemptuously called tribals ‘Hao’. During the recent riots that were unleashed on the Kuki-Zomi tribes the abusive words Hao thu were liberally used by mobs.

It is observed that a section of us consider ourselves a somewhat superior breed. We derogatorily refer to our counterparts as ‘muid’ (buffalos). Polarisation was already apparent during last elections. Garo hills voted for NPP and TMC because the leadership hail from that region. Khasi Hills preferred regional parties and the Congress for the same reason. The gap threatened to widen further when parties from Khasi Hills attempted to form a government sans the NPP. Will RP lead to acrimony between the two parties? Will the RP create an unabridged schism? Meghalaya may not burn like Manipur but the clamours for separate states will be louder. If Meghalaya disintegrates historians somewhere down the line point might point to the RP demand as a contributing cause.

Should the RP be discussed?

To my mind the RP should be debated, discussed and deliberated. Why should the RP be untouchable? Let those in favour for change present their points of view. Let those against the motion argue for status quo. The RP has defects like the exclusion of differently-abled persons and the allowance for non-resident Garos and non-Garos themselves who speak Garo. These and others flaws need to be fixed. The debate could be in or outside the Assembly. It is a good development that the Committee headed by Ampareen Lyngdoh to look into the Roster System has been also empowered to accept opinions on the RP. It is a beginning in the right direction and all should welcome it.

Is the VPP too hasty?

Before the indefinite strike in the parking lot of the Additional Secretariat the VPP served a deadline of 48 hours to the government to agree on revisiting the RP. Given the gravity of the issue 48 hours is too short a time. Of course the party had brought a failed resolution during the last budget session in March. They have also been going hammer and tongs on the subject during their political meetings. But a solution to this complex, fragile and controversial issue needs time. A six month period would have been reasonable. The VPP wants too quick an answer. A fast is blackmail. The accusation is creating drama for political mileage. Even the NPP which played politics on the border talks and Harijan colony imbroglio has read the ‘extreme step’ of the VPP as preparation for the MDC elections next year. No one can fault the VPP for seeking popularity. The hastiness, however, is questionable.

The UDP, HSPDP look for votes only?

The UDP and HSPDP have, in their manifestos, promised the public to review the RP. But after elections they conveniently forget their commitment. They couldn’t wait to ally with the NPP to form MDA-2 knowing fully well that the senior partner is on a different page on the RP. They have practically kept mum so far. Their manifestos are mere voting catching documents. Election star, Amazing Kurbah’s ‘stone-hearted UDP’ comment has compelled the party to take a clearer stand. The fear of losing public support has pushed  the HSPDP too to jump into the RP bandwagon.

The RP not a panacea for unemployment

The craze for review of the existing RP stems from the acute unemployment. That the state relies only on government jobs is amply clear by the endless crowds who visit their hero. The public hails Basaiawmoit’s fast as a sacrifice for the ‘Jaitbynriew’ (Khasi race). Parents pledge their support for the future of their children. Youngsters rally behind the VPP’s boss so that their education will not be futile. In their enthusiasm voices are heard that the Nongkrem legislator is the only hope for the Khasi-Jaintia society. All expect that, if the RP is revised, it will benefit them. This is not going to happen. There will be unemployment even if a new RP emerges. There will be rallies, protests and demonstrations against job shortage even if the VPP rules the state. The VPP has also to educate that all educated youths need not seek government jobs. Innovation and entrepreneurship is the key. The present hysteria will haunt the VPP in the future.

Reservations are a temporary salve 

We know that reservations are temporary. One day they will have to go. The Hindutva of the present regime aims to do away with ST reservation, particularly for Christian tribals. RSS-backed outfits like the Janjati Suraksha Manch has started campaigns to demands for removal of Christian tribals from ST list. After Assam, the latest is in Gujarat. Even in Manipur, if we read between the lines, the real target is to deny tribals of their constitutional rights. Granting ST status to the Meitei community is as good as converting the whole state into a general category. It may be a sinister motive in Manipur, but the point is that reservations are not permanent. We have to prepare ourselves to face a world without reservation.

Will the RP damage or build Meghalaya?