Reporter's Diary: What the French Revolution and Khrushchev have in common with Reservations in Promotions

Bar & Bench September 16 2018

Reporter’s Diary is a series that brings you interesting snippets from court hearings across the country. It attempts to offer our readers a glimpse into interactions between judges and lawyers, and the observations made in cases of national importance.

The ongoing hearing of the challenge to reservations for SC/STs in promotions (Jarnail Singh & Ors v Lachhmi Narain Gupta & Ors) before the Supreme Court Constitution Bench led to an interesting exchange of anecdotes from history between the Senior Counsel Rajeev Dhavan and Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman.

On August 29, Dhavan was contending that reservation was a good idea, but not in promotions, and that the previous Constitution Bench judgment in M Nagaraj did not require reconsideration. He disagreed with the Centre that the Bench in M Nagaraj had erroneously applied the test of backwardness to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes while considering reservations in promotions.

The question of reservations in promotions for SCs and STs, and the contentious issue of non-exclusion of creamy layer from the SCs and STs for the purpose of reservation, have been addressed by different benches at different times, with no solution in sight. Dhavan said the debate is akin to the impact of the French Revolution, the subject of an interesting conversation between former United States Secretary of State Henry Alfred Kissinger, and the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China Zhou Enlai, in the 1970s.

Kissinger asked Zhou Enlai what the latter thought of the impact of the French Revolution. Zhou, after a pregnant silence, told Kissinger: “It is too early to tell”.  Zhou’s comment about the Revolution that changed history was a subject of analysis for decades. The impact of reservations in India, Dhavan implied, will continue to be debated for a long time.

Soon, Dhavan turned to another episode from history, to illustrate that the Centre is arguing as if reservations in promotions or the creamy layer non-exclusion for the SCs and STs is a sacred cow. His reference was to the twentieth Congress of the Communist Party in 1956, the first since the death of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953.

Nikita Khrushchev, himself a protégé of Stalin, dominated the proceedings. At its closing session, Khrushchev reportedly spoke for several hours, denouncing Stalin as a monster who had created a cult of personality. Khrushchev, according to several journalists who witnessed his speech, painted the Stalin epoch as a massive aberration from a true Marxist-Leninist course.  But the news of Khrushchev’s controversial speech was censored, and the journalists were not allowed to transmit their copies.

The unkindest censorial cut of all, according to one report, had to do with one episode. During the speech, a delegate yelled out,

“Comrade Khrushchev, where were you when Stalin was doing all these terrible things?”

Khrushchev shouted,

“Who is that? Stand up!” 

No one rose.  Khrushchev said,

“That comrade is where I was”.  

However, journalists did manage to file their stories about Khrushchev’s speech, after leaving Moscow. To many, the speech had inaugurated a peaceful revolution against the dead Stalin, under whose influence the Soviet Union suffered for so long.

Many could ask what is the relevance of this to the debate on reservations. To Rajeev Dhavan,  it was relevant because the Centre appeared to be treating reservations like what the twentieth Congress of the Communist Party did with regard to Stalin’s role in history. The Centre, he suggested, is aware of the impact of reservations in promotions, but does not want to admit it in public, because of vote bank politics.

Image Credit: Nikita Khrushchev French Revolution