By Astha Agarwal:
Last year in July, I had gone to a small village in Rajasthan. At the fringes of the village, which by no means was opulent, was a small alley of sweepers, at the end of which was a shanty where lived a man with half his body burnt and destroyed. While laying down the roof of his house, he got electrocuted by the electric pole nearby. He was saved but his livelihood ruined. Superficially, it sounds like a tragedy that could befell anybody. Only that it is not. If only he was not an ‘untouchable’ (I wonder whether untouchability has yet broken up with caste?), he would not at least have been absconded, if not supported, by the sarpanch of the village, the people of the village, and the authorities, all of whom blamed him for his (chosen) misfortune.
While there is little dissent over the fact that caste remains ubiquitous in India’s social fabric — marriage, religion, surnames and food — whether it (still) amounts to serious social stratification, especially economically and politically, has been widely contested. Some of the most powerful arguments against reservation policy in India are: a) It is an anachronism; it has only given way to vote bank politics; b) Economic disadvantage is a more deserved criterion for welfare; c) All the benefits are cornered by the well-off from the ‘reserved’ category and the neediest are left out.
Firstly, when caste system is very much a reality in the 21st century, affirmative action cannot have outlived its use. Also vote-bank politics is not a gift of reservation. It has unfortunately played into its hands. And therefore, eradication of reservation will not mend the severed fabric of our electoral outfit. Secondly, underlying the economic criterion argument are two untenable assumptions: a) Poverty is so overwhelming that one’s caste ceases to matter/operate. b) Caste will be buried by economic development. Caste once again ceases to operate when you are rich. Now the question is, where does it function then? Affluence doesn’t abolish the bigotry of caste hierarchy. Even though the two are intricately connected, caste is not the same as class. Caste disparities do not dissipate with the supply of greater resources, especially, education and food. Between supply and consumption are murky waters of ‘accessibility’ which are mediated by caste. The disadvantage is not just in terms of access to resources but basic respect and dignity as well. Accessibility to dignity is not just a function of guaranteed employment, free food, and free education. Doing away with class will not do away with caste. Otherwise, why would caste system function fearlessly in United Kingdom? (Note that compelled by caste discrimination in United Kingdom, legal safeguards have been demanded). Thirdly, to argue that the relatively affluent should be excluded from the claim to reservation is to boldly conjecture that only the poor can represent socially disadvantaged and the affluent are not socially disadvantaged. Considering that implementation of RTE is dismal, food and health facilities are abysmal, the socially disadvantaged will never get to the universities and jobs! What will be the status of social representation then? According to a study, in comparison to the upper castes, so-called lower and backward castes have negligible community social organizations/trusts which can act as support systems. Unless substantial social representation is achieved, it gets even more evasive.
There is a trend among those from the ‘general’ category to totally neglect their privilege of having ‘born-twice’ while calculating merit. Upper castes (Bhrahmins-Baniya-Kshatriyas), which are numerically a minority in India, wield power and dominate civil services, university positions, legislative assemblies, Parliament, ministries, military and defence, RAW, intelligence agencies, and private sector of course! More than 90% of SC/ST workers are employed in the private sector and remain unprotected from possible discrimination. A pilot survey to identify Below Poverty Line (and we know the low BPL hits) found out that Scheduled Castes and Tribes constitute half of the total “poor, deprived households”. Caste system has firm roots; the mammoth tree has been expanding its branches and roots since time immemorial; and we hope to do away with it in less than 2/3 rd of a century? I wish we could do that. But we haven’t. And the culture of denial of its existence will only exacerbate the plight of those already facing exclusion. Nobody is suggesting that reservation is a panacea of all ills. Excessive reliance on the strong affirmative action without due emphasis on others like education have cost, among other things, the process its credibility. Politicians have unduly abused it but that shouldn’t degenerate the policy itself! The level playing field is still not ready, till then we cannot ask those tied in chains for centuries to run the race of merit. So yes, emancipation of any caste cannot be achieved by reservation; but neither without it. Instead of demanding abolition of reservation, and witnessing it fall on the deaf ears of our politicians, engage in creating greater pressure for improved access to education and health along with it, not against it. That will serve the purpose more effectively.