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Governments around the world have passed legislation to advance the education or employment of particular social groups.

These laws are intended to rectify historical experiences of exclusion, usually on the basis of identity (caste, race, ethnicity). Such policies are highly contested, as they necessarily involve contemporary discrimination against individuals from other social groups to make up for historical inequalities.

In India, such ‘affirmative action’ has existed in law for over 50 years. The Indian Constitution laid down an all-India policy, reserving 15% and 7.5% of government sector jobs and education places for the Scheduled Caste and Schedule Tribe Community respectively, together called ‘Backward Classes’ (BCs). From 1990, following the earlier Mandal commission, this was extended so that 49.5% of all jobs in central government services and public undertakings were reserved for SCs, STs, and other castes identified as Other Backward Classes (OBCs). In Nepal, a new government is considering its own affirmative action agenda after ten years of conflict. The new Nepalese Constituent Assembly will debate constitutional provisions for positive discrimination, quotas, or reservations over the next few years.

As in other parts of the world, affirmative action policies are hotly debated in India. Controversies over the classification of particular peoples have been reinvigorated by a new identity politics through which several groups are violently seeking to be included into reserved status. The challenges of incorporating the most marginalized and the needy, which draw on a long history of debates of caste versus class issues, continue. At the same time, economic liberalization has gone hand in hand with new demands of meritocracy but also pressure for the corporate sector to be more inclusive. It can be assumed that similar legislation will become equally central to public debates and politics in Nepal.

The primary aim of this British-Academy UK-South Asia Partnership is to analyse debates over affirmative action in India and consider their implications for emerging policy making in Nepal.