The Reservation system in India dates back to the 2nd century B.C.E., where the upper class benefitted from the added privileges. The Indian society is based on rigid caste structure, according to which various castes are places in a hierarchical order, in terms of standard of living, purity and pollution. Present reservation system finds its origin in the time when India was under the British. Reservation in favour of the Backward Classes (BCs) was introduced when many parts of India were occupied by the Presidency and the Princely stated of south of the Vindhyas.
In 1882, Hunter Commission was appointed. Jyotirao Phule had made a demand of free and compulsory for lower classes with proportionate representation in government jobs. In 1891, there was a demand for reservation of government jobs with an agitation in the princely state of Travancore against the recruitment of non-natives into public service overlooking qualified indigenous people.
In August 1933, the Prime Minister of Britain, Ramsay Macdonald put forth his ‘award’, called as the ‘Communal Award’, which stated separate representation was to be provided for Muslims, Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians, Europeans and Dalits. The depressed classes were assigned a number of seats which were to be filled by elections from special constituencies, voters from depressed classes only could vote. This proclamation became highly controversial and was opposed by Mahatama Gandhi, kept a fast to fight against it.
On the other hand, it was supported by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. After lengthy negotiations, Gandhi and Ambedkar signed the ‘Poona Pact’, where it was decided to that there would be a single Hindu electorate with certain reservations in it. Electorates for other communities like Muslims and Sikhs remained separate.
In 1901, reservations were introduced in Maharashtra in the Princely state of Kolhapur by Shahu Maharaj. He along with Chhatrapati Sahuji Maharaj introduced reservation for non-Brahmin and unprivileged class in 1902. He provided free education to everyone and opened several hostels in Kholhapur and also employment for all. This notification of 1902 created 50% reservation in services for backward communities in Kolhapur. This was the official first instance providing for reservation for depressed classes in India.
Reservations were brought out in 1908 for numerous castes and communities that had little share in the administration by the British. Even after the Indian Independence, there were some major changes in favour of STs, SCs, and OBCs. One of the important event occurred in 1979, when the Mandal Commission was set up to assess the situation of the socially and educationally backward classes. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that the recommendations of the Commission were implemented by the government.
The idea of untouchability was not practised uniformly throughout the country, thus identification of oppressed classes was difficult to carry out. But the practice was more pronounced in the southern and northern parts of India.