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'It's an amazing fight between the judiciary and Parliament'

October 14, 2008
Rajeev Dhavan is a senior Supreme Court advocate who has fought many cases on affirmative action, human rights, secularism and constitutional governance in other Indian courts. He is also the director of a public interest law firm, Public Interest Legal Support and Research Centre.

Dhavan is also an honorary professor with the Indian Law Institute in New Delhi, and has taught at Queens University in Belfast, Ireland and the University of West London.

He has also had teaching assignments at London and Delhi Universities and the Universities of Madison (Wisconsin) and Austin (Texas).

Dhavan was elected to the International Commission of Jurists in June 1998 and its executive committee in October 2003. In an interview with Rujuta Paradkar, he discusses the reservation debate and the Indian judicial system.

Reservation is a political hot button, and we have heard differing views. Your book Reserved: How Parliament Debated Reservations 1995-2007, takes us behind the scenes, so to speak, and gives us an in-depth account of the debates in Parliament dealing with the reservation issue. Can you talk about the book?

Over the last many years there has been an amazing fight between the judiciary and Parliament. The first such fight was in Nehru's time, which was about property rights [1950-67].

The second great fight was Indira Gandhi over parliamentary sovereignty [1967-77]. Logically, this is the third great fight. Five constitutional amendments have been taken through Parliament to overrule what the Supreme Court says.

We already know a lot about the law. We know, through newspapers, the responses to reservation. But very few people have an idea as to how these debates actually take place. The purpose of the book is to show these debates.

The politics of reservation is this: when the Constitution came into play, people thought we can concentrate on just Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes, they will have 20 percent reservation in the legislatures. That will be enough. Then in the '80s the Other Backward Classes suddenly emerged and dominated Indian politics. Somewhere in 1995, the Congress party changed its tune. It realised, if it wanted power, it had to cater to SC/ST power and also to OBC power. This is so transparent in the debates which are skimpy, and show that Parliament does not do its job. The level of discourse is amazingly low. What works is majorities; majorities across the board, trying to secure a vote bank.

Image: Students during an anti-reservation protest in New Delhi on May 31. (inset) Rajeev Dhavan
Photograph: Manpreet Romana/AFP/Getty Images

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