The Arunthathiyars can heave a sigh of relief, at least for now. For, the Supreme Court has upheld the right of state governments to allot sub-quota reservation for communities like theirs within the Scheduled Caste (SC) category.
This means the Tamil Nadu Arunthathiyars Act 2009, providing 3% reservation to the community within the 18% SC quota, will continue to be in force.
The ruling came in the case, State of Punjab v. Davinder Singh, which the 5-judge bench headed by Arun Mishra has referred to a larger bench.
The current ruling, however, goes against 2004 SC verdict in the case of EV Chinnaiah vs the state of Andhra Pradesh, in which the court had said that all Scheduled Castes are one “homogenous” group and giving any further classification would go against the right to equality provided in Article 14 of the Constitution.
However, experts have argued that the 2004 ruling overlooked the aspect of caste gradation, wherein castes down the order that have been oppressed historically continue to be deprived of opportunities in education and employment which were consumed by people of castes higher in the order.
Dalit icon and key architect of the Constitution, Dr BR Ambedkar himself had described the Indian society as “an ascending scale of hatred and descending scale of contempt”.
Discrimination and provision of quota
As a result of this, the Arunthathiyars say they have been one of the most deprived communities in Tamil Nadu, being lower to the Pallars and Parayars in the Scheduled Caste category, and have historically faced discrimination by the other two communities, who have established themselves politically and economically over the years.
The Arunthathiyars have seven sub-castes namely Arunthathiyars, Chakkiliyar, Pagadai, Mathari, Madiga, Thotti and Adi Andhra. They are not politically mobilised. They do odd jobs like manual scavenging, cobbling and as bonded labourers in agricultural fields.
In 2013, the Arunthathiyars were reported to have been attacked by Pallars for taking water from a public pipeline in Kaluvankulam, a village in Madurai district.
In the same district, Parayars had built a discriminatory wall in Santhaiyur village to restrict the movement of Arunthathiyars into their localities. The walls were demolished in 2018.
“We were and are in ‘backwardness’ for many years. We didn’t get opportunity to get educated and placed in government jobs even though the government has provided 18% reservation to SCs,” says Athiyamaan, who in the 1980s founded Aathi Thamizhar Peravai, an organisation that works for Arunthathiyars’ rights, in Coimbatore and staged several protests.
This despite Tamil Nadu having the highest amount of reservation of 69% (most other states comply with the SC ruling limiting overall reservation to 50%).
Out of the 69%, 30% goes to Backward Classes that includes 3.5% sub-quota for Muslims, 20% for Most Backward Classes including Denotified Classes, 18% to Scheduled Castes (SC) and 1% to Scheduled Tribes.
After long years of protests, the Tamil Nadu government under M Karunanidhi appointed a one-man commission in March 2008 having justice (retd) Janarthanam to look into the issue and in 2009, passed a law providing 3% sub-quota reservation to Arunthathiyars.
The commission had noted that despite constituting about 15.72% of state’s SC population, according to 2011 Census, the community represented 0–5% in government jobs and educational institutions.
“Before the sub-quota, only 20 MBBS graduates came out of our community every year. But after internal reservation, the number has gone to 100. Likewise, the number of engineers shot up to 1,500 from 350. Now, our community has about 10 magistrates and nearly 100 assistant professors in government colleges,” says Athiyamaan.
However, even after the implementation of 3 sub-quota reservation, all is still not well. Three members from Arunthathiyar community died by suicide in 2013 and 2017 demanding an increase in the reservation from 3 to 6%.
“There were errors in the 2001 Census. During that time, all the three categories of Dalits were identified as ‘Adi Dravidars’. But in today’s context, the term ‘Adi Dravidars’ refers only to Parayars. In 2009, when the internal reservation was implemented Arunthathiyar population was 16 lakh. But in reality, we are more than 50 lakh. So we demanded 6%,” says Athiyamaan.
On the other hand, opposing the sub-quota, Puthiya Tamilagam Katchi, a political party which has Pallar support, filed a case in the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court in 2010. The bench transferred the case to the apex court.
“Their main contention is that under the 200-point roster system followed in government institutions for reservation, earlier every second (reserved) vacancy went to the SCs, but after the sub-quota (rule was implemented), every second, 32nd and 66th vacancies are given to SC-Arunthathiyars. So if there are 100 vacancies, we get three seats,” says writer M Mathivannan, who also runs Vellaikkuthirai, a magazine giving voice to the Arunthathiyar community.
“But the other SCs can get seats in remaining 15 percent. If the vacancy arises they too get their share. But now, Arunthathiyars are given preference. The other SCs are unable to accept this and that is the problem,” he says.
Interestingly, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) of Thol Thirumavalavan, which has a large support base from Parayars has welcomed the recent observation made by the SC.
“Those who are really interested in abolishing the caste system have welcomed the decision. Whereas Puthiya Tamilagam, on one hand, demands the government to remove them from SC list, on the other hand, they are against the sub-quota. This shows their double standards,” says Mathivannan.