The First Reservations In India



The recent Constitutional amendment allowing reservations on economic grounds has generated much interest but the quota system in India is much older that you think. Way before it was enshrined in the Indian Constitution, this policy was first implemented by a young raja who was outraged at being misled by palace priests during religious rituals.

This farsighted ruler was Chhatrapati Shahu (1874-1922) of the princely state of Kolhapur. At the Chhatrapati’s behest, on 26th July 1902, an administrative order was passed in the Kolhapur State Gazette that sent shockwaves across British India. It stated:

His Highness is pleased to direct that from the date of this order, 50% of the vacancies that may occur shall be fixed by recruits from among the backward classes. In all offices in which the proportion of officers of the backward classes is at present less than 50%, the next appointment shall be given to a member of those classes.

Back then, ‘backward classes’ loosely meant non-Brahmins, and the order had been passed at a time when Brahmins dominated economic and social life, education, and had cornered almost 90 per cent of all administrative jobs.

Map of the Kolhapur State
Map of the Kolhapur State|Wikimedia Commons

So what prompted Chhatrapati Shahu to take such a radical step?

In the late 19th century, Kolhapur was one of the most important princely states in India, having been established by Maharani Tarabai, daughter-in-law of the famous Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji. Eclipsed by the Chhatrapatis of Satara and the Peshwas of Pune, Kolhapur remained a feudal backwater till 1884, when a 10-year-old boy named Yeshwantrao Ghatge was adopted by the Kolhapur royal family and named heir to the throne.


The young ruler had received a liberal education and travelled extensively

In 1894, he was crowned king at the age of 20 and given the title Chhatrapati Shahu, although he is better known as Rajarshi Shahu, to distinguish him from other rulers of the same name.

The young ruler had received a liberal education, travelled extensively and was deeply moved by the caste exploitation and oppression of common folk all over India and in his princely state, in particular. All this contributed to Chhatrapati Shahu ushering in a new era in Kolhapur’s history.

Jyotiba Phule
Jyotiba Phule|Wikimedia Commons

One of the triggers for his ground-breaking decision to introduce reservations was an incident known as the Vedokta Controversy. In October 1899, the Chhatrapati was performing religious rituals in the Panchaganga river, when he noticed that the priests were not chanting mantras from the Vedas but from the Puranas, which was quite unusual.

The Chhatrapati was aghast when the palace priests explained that only Brahmins had the right to perform ‘Vedokta’ rituals and since Marathas were ‘Shudras’, they could perform rituals only from the Puranas. This was a thunderbolt for the ruler of one of the most important princely states in India. It didn’t help that Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda had found himself in a similar predicament in 1896.


Chhatrapati Shahu was inspired by Jyotiba Phule while implementing his reservation policy in 1902

The incident took place at a time when the winds of social reform were sweeping across India. The period between the 1860s and 1920s has been described as the ‘Indian Renaissance’ and was defined by the work of social reformers like Jyotiba Phule, Pandita Ramabai and Justice Ranade, who campaigned for the abolition of untouchability, the purdah system, sati, child marriage, and for women’s rights and illiteracy. Chhatrapati Shahu was inspired by these visionaries and imbibed their progressive views.

The idea of reservation for ‘backward classes’ was first mooted in 1881 by Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, in his statement to the Hunter Commission set up by the British government to enquire into the status of primary and secondary education in India. It is believed that Chhatrapati Shahu was inspired by Jyotiba Phule, while implementing his own reservation policy in 1902.

Since it challenged the patriarchal caste system that tilted wholly in favour of the Brahmins, the Chhatrapati’s policy faced stiff opposition and it was only through the support of the Government of Bombay that he could proceed with his plan.

Sir William Wilson Hunter
Sir William Wilson Hunter|Wikimedia Commons

This was followed by several revolutionary legislations that were far ahead of their time, which is why the young raja was called a ‘reformer king’. In 1917, Chhatrapati Shahu passed a law for compulsory primary education. In 1919, a law against domestic violence against women was passed and another that allowed widow remarriage. This was soon followed by a law legalizing inter-caste marriage. Kolhapur thus became known as one of the most progressive states in India.

Rajashri Shahu passed away in Bombay on 1922. But his rich legacy of social reforms lived on when the Constituent Assembly of a newly independent India carried forward many of his ideals to create a just and equitable society. We, the people of India, are still reaping the benefits of the ‘people’s king’.

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