Every year, on December 23rd, we celebrate Kisan Diwas to honour the legacy of former Prime Minister Charan Singh. Although he may not be widely remembered in mainstream political discourse, farmers still hold him dear as a tireless champion of their cause. Charan Singh was not only a prominent political leader, but also someone who wrote extensively on political and economic ideas that on many occasions diverged from the political mainstream.  

Charan Singh addressing a public meeting in 1950
Image Credits:charansingh.org

In 1939, he proposed 50% reservations in government employment for "sons or dependents of the actual tillers of the soil." Though the proposal could not be discussed in the U.P. Legislative Assembly, he continued to advocate for this idea in public meetings and farmers' conferences.  

Charan Singh believed that the primary division in Indian society was between rural farmers and urban middle-class citizens who derived their income from industry or services. In Uttar Pradesh, 75% of the population were farmers according to the 1931 Census. Despite this, the government machinery was controlled by a small, privileged minority of city-dwellers who couldn't truly represent the interests of the agricultural masses. 

By using occupation as the primary criteria to determine the beneficiaries, and identifying government jobs (rather than say educational institutions or legislature) as the benefits of reservation, Charan Singh’s proposal was a rather unique formulation of affirmative action at the time.  

Document prepared by Charan Singh in 1947
Image Credits: charansingh.org

But what about caste?  

Charan Singh argued that caste should not be a criterion, claiming that caste could be abolished through occupation-based reservations. Curiously, for all his emphasis on occupation, landless labourers – a distinct occupational group within the category of agriculturists – find little mention in Singh’s scheme of reservations.  

In the mid-1940s, B.R. Ambedkar published States and Minorities, which also included explicit demands for reservations in government employment for Scheduled Castes. The report was later presented to the Constituent Assembly's Sub-Committee on Fundamental Rights, of which Ambedkar was himself a member.

A mural of Charan Singh
Image Credits: caravanmagazine.in

Charan Singh was not a member of the Constituent Assembly. India’s Constitution-framers chose to include Article 16 in the Constitution, that provides for reservations in government employment for the vaguely phrased ‘backward classes’. Reservations specifically based on occupation, however, were never seriously considered. That said, Charan Singh’s biographer Paul Brass argues that this was taken up later in a modified form by socialist leaders like Ram Manohar Lohia and B.P. Mandal, for the ‘Other Backward Castes’.

Further reading: 

An Indian Political Life: Charan Singh and Congress Politics, 1937 to 1961

Charan Singh Archives

Affirmative Action in Indian Constitutional History: An Overview