CHENNAI: The Centre has ensured passage of a Constitutional Amendment Bill to provide 10 per cent reservation for economically weaker sections among the general category in both Houses of Parliament. In Tamil Nadu, hailed as the birthplace of social justice, four decades ago, late Chief Minister MG Ramachandran (MGR) attempted to bring in an economic criterion for reservation for Backward Classes (BCs).
MGR further declared that certain percentage of reservation would be provided to poor among the forward communities. However, he backed down after the AIADMK’s virtual rout in the Lok Sabha polls of 1980.
The MGR government issued an order (G.O.Ms.1156), dated July 2, 1979, fixing Rs 9,000 as the annual income ceiling for BCs to get the benefits of reservation. To justify the G.O, the government cited the recommendations of the Backward Classes Commission, under the Chairmanship of AN Sattanathan, submitted in 1970. Then general secretary of Dravidar Kazhagam K Veeramani (now president) and late DMK president M Karunanidhi immediately opposed the move and, with many other leaders, spearheaded protests against it.
They argued that the order was unconstitutional and unreasonable, and said, “The Constitution clearly defines the beneficiaries as socially and educationally BCs. Introducing an economic element will be a wrong remedy to a malady which is essentially social.”
An unyielding MGR categorically stated that the government would not go back on its order fixing parental income as the criterion for concessions for BCs. He argued that the order would not, in any way, affect the 31 per cent of seats reserved for BC students. Quoting official figures, he said that in the preceding years, BC students, in addition to the reserved quota, obtained 29 per cent more seats in the open quota, thus getting a total of 60 per cent of seats in professional colleges.
MGR also said the order would benefit the poorer among the BCs, such as the children of dhobies, barbers, stone-masons, small farmers, cart-pullers and cycle-rickshaw pullers, whereas only the affluent had enjoyed the concessions till then. A month after the controversial G.O was issued, MGR, speaking at the valedictory function of the birth centenary celebrations of social reformer Periyar EV Ramasamy at Pudukottai on August 5, 1979, dropped another bombshell: His government would provide reservation for the poor among the forward communities.
This further fuelled the opposition to the 9,000 G.O, as MGR had made this announcement at a function celebrating Periyar, who strove for social justice throughout his life. Veeramani and Karunanidhi as well as leaders of other parties vehemently opposed the move.
Taking serious note of this second announcement, Karunanidhi termed it a ‘dangerous proposal’. “Reserving a certain percentage for poor among the forward communities... would reduce the opportunities for BCs/MBCs/SCs/STs in the open quota. So, the chief minister should give up his proposal immediately,” he said. When reporters pointed out that the Constitution specified backwardness in society only as “socially and educationally backward and not as economically backward”, MGR shot back: “The time has come for taking into account the economic backwardness also for providing reservation.”
Recalling this period, Veeramani told Express that people were shocked. “DK and DMK conducted protest meetings and took out processions throughout Tamil Nadu. The copies of the GO were publicly burnt and the ashes were sent to the authorities on November 26, 1979,” he recalled. Responding to the bundles of ashes being sent to the government, then Minister VR Nedunchezhiyan, No 2 in MGR’s cabinet, said, “Well, we will use this ash for our croton plants in the Secretariat.” In response, Veeramani told Nedunchezhiyan: “I thought MGR made you a minister. Now, it is clear for what job he had engaged you (maintaining garden).”
Meanwhile, Parliament was dissolved and Lok Sabha elections were held in 1980, the AIADMK winning only two seats. This came as rude shock to MGR. Many of his cabinet colleagues told him that the primary reason for this debacle was the G.O. Subsequently, MGR convened an all-party meeting on January 19, 1980 — which was boycotted by the DMK.
“I had prepared a question-and-answer type of memorandum, wherein I had answered all questions raised by MGR on introducing economic criterion for providing reservation. My representation alone lasted over an hour in the all-party meeting. MGR listened to my views attentively,” Veeramani recalled.
Two days later, MGR agreed to withdraw the controversial G.O. Another G.O was issued on January 21, 1980 announcing this, seven months after the original GO had been issued.
DK and DMK conducted protest meetings and took out processions throughout TN. Copies of the GO were burnt and the ashes were sent to the authorities on November 26, 1979 K Veeramani, Dravidar Kazhagam president
Veeramani pointed out that after the debacle in 1980 Lok Sabha elections, MGR went a step ahead and raised the reservation quota for BCs from 31 per cent to 50 per cent to assuage their feelings. The forward communities moved the SC against this. The court directed the State to appoint an independent body to study the grounds for raising the proportion of the reservation. A commission, headed by IAS officer JA Ambasankar, gave a report justifying the order.