In early December 2020, motorists on the Grand Southern Trunk Road on Chennai’s outskirts and rail passengers in Perungalathur were caught in a ruckus created by the Pattali Makkal Katchi, or PMK, a political party for the Vanniyar community founded by S Ramadoss.
Over 500 PMK cadres pelted stones on a train, placed electrical boxes on the railway track, and created traffic congestion when the Chennai police sealed the city's border to keep them out. They were demanding a 20 percent reservation in government jobs and educational institutions for the Vanniyars.
It was eerily similar to the protests held by the party in the 1980s. Only this time, the PMK partially achieved its longstanding aim of getting reservation for the Vanniyars, as quid pro quo for an electoral alliance.
To quell the PMK’s agitation, Tamil Nadu chief minister Edapadi K Palaniswami appointed a commission under a retired judge, A Kulasekaran, to look into the modalities of conducting a caste census and gave it six months to submit a report.
Two months later, in a surprise move, Palaniswami tabled a bill in the assembly to grant 10.5 percent internal reservation to the Vanniyars within the 20 percent quota for the Most Backward Class, or MBC, comprising 108 communities. The urgency with which the bill was passed, barely half an hour before the Election Commission announced the state election dates, raised eyebrows. The bill was bulldozed through in the absence of opposition MLAs who were boycotting the assembly session. As per the bill, the Vanniyars will get 10.5 percent reservation, the Denotified Tribal Communities 7 percent, and the rest of the Most Backward Class communities 2.5 percent.
Speaking in the assembly, Palaniswami claimed the internal quota for the Vanniyars was temporary. “Once the caste-based census is completed this will be revised based on its findings,” he explained.
He made clear that the bill had been brought at the instance of the PMK and representatives of unspecified “other communities”. “They were seeking separate reservation as they couldn’t compete with the other castes and communities included in the list of Most Backward Classes and Denotified Communities,” he said.
AIADMK’s political compulsion
Palaniswami fast-tracked the bill with an eye on electoral gain. He has much at stake in this election. He needs to prove his mettle as the leader of the AIADMK by beating anti-incumbency and returning his party to power for the third consecutive time.
The PMK, contesting on its own, won 5.3 percent of the vote in the 2016 assembly election. More significantly, it was the spoiler in 64 of the 119 constituencies in northern and western districts, where the party's votes were higher than the victory margin.
This electoral calculus forced the AIADMK to accede to the PMK's condition of reservation for the Vanniyar community to remain in the governing alliance. Having passed the bill, the AIADMK is confident that northern Tamil Nadu, richly populated by the Vanniyars, will handsomely reward them. But elsewhere the hurried move could hurt the AIADMK. Political analysts argue that the party will face the repercussions in southern and central Tamil Nadu where the Vanniyars are numerically negligible.
Ramu Manivannan, head of the department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Madras, accused the AIADMK of creating conflict. Reservation is a critical social empowerment tool, he opined, but by rushing the bill through, Palaniswami has created an “us vs them” conflict within the Most Backward Class.
“Other communities are going to blame EPS for appeasing a particular community while ignoring the interests of others,” he added, referring to the chief minister. “The move will backfire on AIADMK and PMK as people will see through the bill.”
D Ravikumar, general secretary of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, which represents the Dalits and is allied with the DMK, alleged that by giving reservation to the Vanniyars, the AIADMK had set the stage for caste polarisation in Tamil Nadu.
He pointed out how the governor, Banwarilal Purohit, had delayed granting assent to a bill giving 7.5 percent reservation in medical admissions to government school students but consented to the internal reservation bill in a matter of hours.
“This is an opportunistic move to reap electoral benefits,” he said. “It’s a larger gameplan of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar to divide people based on caste and unite them in the name of religion. BJP is using AIADMK to divide Tamil Nadu and disturb social harmony.”
PMK'S fight for reservation
The demand for the Vanniyar quota has always been contentious. Which is why previous chief ministers tread cautiously on the subject lest they upset the state’s sociopolitical fabric. In the 1980s, protests to press the demand were started by Vaniyar Sangam, a coalition of 10 Vanniyar groups headed by Ramadoss.
At the peak of the protests in 1987, the PMK vandalised public property, fell trees, blocked highways, and paralysed transport. After 21 protesters were killed in police firing, chief minister MG Ramachandran of the AIADMK called a meeting with the leaders of the community. He, however, fell sick and died before a decision could be made.
In 1989, the DMK under M Karunanidhi divided the Backward Class and created a new category, “Most Backward Class and Denotified Communities”, including the Vanniyars, and gave them 20 percent reservation.
Buoyed by the success, Ramadoss floated the PMK soon after. The party has since allied with both the DMK and the AIADMK, save for when it fought alone in 2016.
A vocal advocate of a caste census, the PMK has urged successive governments to link reservation to populations of various groups.
The last caste census in India was done by the British in 1931. The Mandal Commission prepared the report for reservation based on the projected figures of the 1931 caste census. In 2018, however, the union home ministry declared that it would enumerate caste in the 2021 census, which is yet to be completed.
According to Ramadoss, the Vanniyars are 24 percent of Tamil Nadu’s population and 80 percent of the Most Backward Class. Yet, they didn’t get an adequate share in government jobs and educational institutions even after the creation of the MBC category. They hold just 2 percent of Group 1 jobs, he noted, 4 percent of Group 2 jobs and 5 percent of Group 3 jobs. “We are yet to get our social justice," he said.
The 10.5 percent quota will ensure that the Vanniyars receive adequate representation, Ramadoss added. But his party will continue demanding the government conduct a caste census and give the community representation comparable to its population.
The Supreme Court has put a limit of 50 percent on reservation in government employment and education, but Tamil Nadu has a quota of 69 percent. This is because the Dravidian parties that have long dominated the state see reservation as a key tool of social justice.
Who are the Vanniyars?
The Vanniyars sit above the Dalits and the Adivasis in the caste hierarchy and below powerful caste groups such as the Thevars and the Gounders. They work predominantly as farm labourers, and mainly populate Vellore, Cuddalore, Tiruvallur, Chengalpet, Ranipet, Kancheepuram, and Villupuram in northern Tamil Nadu, where they form a significant vote bank. In 1982, the Ambashankar Commission, set up to examine the Vanniyar quota demand, estimated their population at about 13 percent.
The Vanniyars believe internal reservation would greatly improve their social and economic status.
K Balu, the PMK candidate in Jayankondam, described the grant of reservation as the culmination of a decades-long fight by the PMK.
“People are very happy with internal reservation. Many of them express their gratitude when I go for campaigning,” Balu, who is also the party’s spokesperson, claimed. “The youth are especially happy as this will open up opportunities in education and jobs. For example, of 6,000 medical seats Vanniyar students will get 630. If there are 100 appointments, Vanniyars will qualify for 10. The internal reservation will uplift the community.”
Not everyone shares Balu’s optimism. DMK MP S Senthil Kumar, who is a Vanniyar, accused the PMK of pushing their community backwards. “Vanniyars form the majority of the 108 castes in the MBC category. They used to get 12-14 percent of the 20 percent reservation. There are instances where reservation for Vanniyars in government medical colleges has gone up to 17 percent. Now they will get only 10.5 percent.”
Resentment with MBC
The grant of internal reservation to the Vanniyars has angered other MBC communities, political analysts say. G Karunanidhi, general secretary of the All India Federation of Other Backward Classes Employees Welfare Associations, welcomed the bill, but condemned how the government went about passing it.
“AIADMK has been in power for 10 years. The demand for internal reservation is not new. Why was it not taken up during these 10 years? Why rake this up now on the eve of elections?” he asked.
“Reservation should be provided through due process so that the community benefits and does not get trapped in legalities. If any aggrieved party from within the MBC approaches the courts, the government will find it difficult to answer and justify its decision without proper data on the representation of Vanniyars in state jobs and education.”
The Supreme Court has clearly stated that reservation must be given on the basis of a community’s representation in jobs and education, Karunanidhi pointed out, citing the 2006 judgement in . If such data isn’t provided, the bill will be struck down by the courts, he warned.
Already, some Denotified Tribal Communities are expressing anger over the bill. There are 68 Denotified Tribal Communities in the Most Backward Class. As per the new bill, they will be eligible for 7 percent reservation within the MBC quota.
P Thavamani Devi, the treasurer of the Denotified Tribes Welfare Association, said internal reservation for the Vanniyars will make them even more influential politically at the cost of other MBC communities.
"The AIADMK has murdered social justice by its decision to grant internal reservation to Vanniyars. Why is the government looking to uplift only one community? Shouldn't our children and youth be entitled to these benefits? Is it fair to provide a lion's share of the reservation to a single community?” she questioned.
The AIADMK appears to have anticipated such a backlash, which explains why it has refrained from advertising the new bill as an achievement during the ongoing campaign. It’s been left to the district units of the BJP and the PMK to highlight the bill. Also, in a bid to mollify the other MBC communities, the party has promised in its manifesto to conduct a caste census that would lead to every community getting representation proportional to its population.
Whether this strategy actually works remains to be seen.
Lokpria Vasudevan is a journalist based in Chennai.