The Modi government has offered to extend affirmative action to the “economically weak sections” of India’s upper-caste Hindus along with some other communities.

Being historically a privileged community, the upper castes do not enjoy the benefits of quotas for a fixed number of positions in government jobs.

The move – likely to be politically motivated ahead of a general election – could see some upper caste citizens enjoy a fixed quota for the first time in government jobs and state-run educational institutions if it wins enough support in Parliament.

Currently, the Indian Constitution does not allow quotas for upper castes or quotas based on economic backwardness, so it would require an amendment.

India has a long and controversial history of ‘reserving’ government jobs, or affirmative action quotas. The central government decided to extend quotas to backward classes in 1990. These were groups who did not face untouchability like the Dalits (the lowest in the Hindu caste hierarchy), but they weren’t the privileged upper castes either.

Upper castes protested for days on end, blocking roads and trains, and at least two people died in self-immolations. The upper castes argued that after accounting for quotas for tribals and Dalits (the former ‘untouchables’), and adding backward communities, there were few jobs left for them. This sentiment still lingers among upper castes in a country where employment opportunities are scarce, even for those with degrees.

Upper castes have usually made the case against reservations by making the point that merit, not caste, should decide university seats and job appointments. They had also complained that ‘reservations’ often benefitted the well-off among lower castes.

This led the Supreme Court to do two things to address upper-caste complaints. First, it said the “creamy layer” among the backward castes— people who are economically well-off — would have to be excluded. Secondly, it said the total amount of reservations would be capped at 50%, leaving the rest for “general”, which effectively means upper castes.

Will they still complain?

But upper castes have continued to complain about “merit”. According to them, 50% of seats are going to those who don’t have the most skills or talent.

The Modi government plans to give the “economically weaker sections” among upper castes some 10% of reservations over and above the 50% cap. So, it will be interesting to see if the upper castes still complain about merit.

On Monday, the Union Cabinet approved a proposal for a 124th amendment of the Constitution to extend a reservation to “the economically weaker sections of the people who are not covered by any of the existing schemes of reservation”.

This would require endorsement from two-thirds of Parliament. The quota would also cover Muslims and other communities who do not already enjoy such benefits.

Over the decades, upper castes have long debated this system as one of merit versus caste. This seeks to deny the real issue: caste privilege, which others regard as a social problem.

The Indian Constitution mandated reservations for tribals, to help bring them into the mainstream. It mandated reservations for Dalits, not as an anti-poverty measure but as an anti-discrimination measure.

Similarly, reservations for backward castes are not about economic status. They are about caste diversity. They are about equality of opportunity.

There’s inherent discrimination of individuals promoting one’s own caste and ignoring those from lower castes. This happens consciously and unconsciously, often through kinship networks. A poor Brahmin has a (Brahmin) uncle to get him that coveted internship but the rich backward farmer’s son does not have the benefit of such caste networks.

Resentment among the privileged

Much of the complaint about “merit” is actually masked resentment about the rise of lower castes through reservations. Affirmative action has produced a small middle class among Dalits, tribals and backward communities. The rising economic power has also helped them assert themselves in society and politics, challenging the upper caste domination of India in general.

The champions of ‘merit’ want the poor among the upper castes to get reservations, and the well-off among the lower castes to not get them. This drift can only help increase the domination of upper castes in colleges and positions of power in the bureaucracy.

Now that upper castes might get reservations for the poor among themselves, they should stop complaining about the undermining of merit by quotas. After all, if it’s wrong to give an unmeritorious man a job just because of his caste, how is it ok to give an unmeritorious man a job just because he is poor? These are questions they will have to face along with the government.

But it’s unlikely you will see such a complaint. It was never about merit or economic status. It was always about caste.