Hello Readers!! Wassup!!
First of all, thank you so much for all the proactive reading that you have done of my previous blogs. All your responses in the form of questions, criticisms and counter ideas, via different media, are well appreciated, and insisted upon in the future.
The issue that I am writing about in this blog, can well be considered to be a tickle bomb, capable of sparking a revolution, which might as well denigrate into anarchy, evidenced in history repeatedly (most prominently in early 90’s and 2006-07).
Well, to make it clear at the outset, this is not a blog on the “caste system” per se (on which I will write a detailed blog later). It is more a blog on the issues of “Social Justice”, “welfarism” and “affirmative action”, which are overlapping in nature, nonetheless. But, any articulation of the reservation system in India cannot go without the mentioning of the caste system altogether.
To begin with, let us consider my previous piece on the Idea of India (http://ideasofsiddharth.blogspot.in/2017/07/idea-of-india-or-ideas-of-india.html), where in, it was shared that the Indian Nation as a project was evolved out of the inclusive idea of the “freedom struggle”. People trespassing all forms of abstract identities of caste, class, region, religion, gender etc formed the most integral part of not only India’s liberation from the British rule, but also the project of the “Indian nation-in-the-making”. All these ideas got enshrined in the Constitution of India after detailed analyses and heated debates, taking into account all forms of evidences and keeping personal anecdotes and prejudices to the minimal.
With such a backdrop, it would be incomprehensible to any sane person that a large chunk of stakeholders in the polity would be discarded of the benefits of a newly freed nation, who were as much of participants in India’s liberation struggle as anybody else. To put the historical context into perspective, we must acknowledge the fact that such a narrative was not unheard of at that point in time. We have read about the Leftist discourse of the Idea of India in my previous blog, where the left activists radicalized the freedom movement by not keeping the British departure at the centre of things, but creation of an egalitarian society by redistribution of assets was their central theme. Then, there was one of the greatest intellectuals of all time, Dr B.R Ambedkar. Being from a Dalit origin, he faced all the atrocities that an “untouchable” faces in a “Brahmanical order” of society. Having worked through all the difficulties faced by him because of the mere “accident-of-birth”, he later received a generous scholarship from the ‘benevolent’ monarch of Baroda. It was used to receive a world-class education from Columbia University and London School of Economics. The irony of this situation is that the same person was a victim of the atrocious caste system and the beneficiary of affirmative action, which went on to lay the foundation stone in Ambedkar’s thought process. This had a major role to play in the framing of the Constitution, when Ambedkar became the Chairman of its Drafting Committee.
Both the Leftist and the Ambedkarite discourse were apphrehensive of the ouster of the British from India before roots of social reforms went deep, as they felt that India will fall back into the centuries old social order of the caste system and demolish all the institutions and progressive elements of the modern world, like elections, courts, Rule of Law, English education, free press etc. This was because there were strong currents of Hindu Revivalism blowing at the time and a sentiment of Hindu Nationalism gaining reasonably strong ground. Also, in the mainstream movement, majority of influential leaders in the Indian National Congress belonged to Hindu upper castes.
Keeping this historical context in mind, let us deal with the issue at hand. “Level playing field” is the essence of democracy and a basic tenet of humanism. The very notion of ‘meritocracy’ holds no ground without the principle of level playing field embedded in it. To elaborate it better, let us consider a hypothetical situation.
Let’s look at a situation where a nationwide level exam is conducted, like the Civil Services by the UPSC. To keep it simple, let’s consider just two students appear in the exam. One, born into a family of an upper caste Brahmin in a village which owns hundreds of acres of land (feudalism), employs hundreds of labourers, and is influential in the state of affairs in the village. He receives the best Convent education, goes on to receive an expensive higher education, doesn’t lack other necessities and desires like comfortable accomodation while studying, taking expensive break holidays, having a bike or a car, consuming the best possible food and taking recourse to expensive coaching institutions. He then decides to take the Civil Services.
On the other hand, there is the other student who is born to a landless labourer employed under that same landlord. He helps his father till the land. He lives his days with half-filled stomach. He borrows the books from the landlord’s son (if he approves). He does not receive any medical attention, which is a huge burden on the already squeezed means they possess. He doesn’t even have enough means to reach the nearest school, that is situated under a tree, without a roof on its top. Somehow, out of personal passion and benevolence of others, he completes his graduation and appears for the Civil Services.(Disclaimer: I have consciously kept the Gender perspective out of the example to keep it as simple as possible)
Now, it is amply clear from the above example that the principle of “level playing field” has been totally ignored and hence “meritocracy” is only a myth propagated by neo-liberals to keep their vested interest of profit-making secure. There comes into play the concept of “affirmative action” by the government, more so, a democratic one. It is the primary duty of any responsible government to ensure that all their citizens are at par with each other in the pursuit of their endeavours and ambitions, and no undue advantage is being garnered by someone merely because of the accident of birth.
Having said that, let me put it bluntly that “Caste-based reservations” is not without its flaws. And, this is not the only affirmative action done or required of the government. But, there are some advantages in this proposition of caste-based reservations. One, caste is the most un-fudgeable identity in India. Historical evidence clearly spells out the segment of the marginalized population. It is easier to identify the target groups for welfare schemes. Critics will say that the Reservation Policy would be hailed by all if it would be “class-based” and not caste-based. Undoubtably, it would be better. I, for one would stand for it. But, in a country like India, where there are ample historical evidences to show that the upper castes held majority of the resources, this argument seems to be fundamentally flawed. More so, where a huge 93% of the employed population is engaged in the informal sector, a mere 3-4% of the population pays taxes, 67% of the population are involved in taxless agricultural occupations, it becomes administratively very difficult to gauge someone’s economic status. Also, we have contemporary evidences to show that even well-established Dalits were not allowed temple entry in their native villages. Examples can be the classical maestro Yesudasa and former President of India K.R Narayanan. Also, former diplomat and LS Speaker Meira Kumar had been served tea in separate cups. It seems likely that caste is too much ingrained in the Indian psyche. Therefore, the argument that “poor is a poor, be he from any caste” although legitimate and genuine, doesn’t hold much water.
Going back to 1947-50, the Constituent Assembly Debates were clear on the reservation policy to remain for ten years, to give time and space to the government to create the much required level playing field. Also, the statistics were more striking at that time which aggravated this policy formulation. More than 90% jobs in the higher echelons of Government and academia were being garnered by the upper caste Hindu males, mostly Brahmins, who were only 3% of the population at that time. The contradiction couldn’t be more starker. It was the wisdom of our founding fathers which led us on a very advanced progressive route. It took the US a Civil War (in the 1860’s) , a century of “Black Activism” and a changed world scenario due to two World Wars, to get similar legislations for the blacks, only in the 1960’s.
However, keen observer and students of political history will be aware that due to lethargy of repeated governments, administrative inefficiencies, lack of political will, and later on, manipulating caste calculations for petty electoral gains have defeated the noble purpose of the time bound ‘utilitarianism’ of the policy.
There are multiple Supreme Court judgements favouring the reservation policy, one of the most recent being “Deepa EV vs Union of India”. However, let us decipher the principle modality on the basis of which such judgements are made. It can be traced back to “Rawl’s Theory of Justice” (http://www.univpgri-palembang.ac.id/perpus-fkip/Perpustakaan/American%20Phylosophy/John%20Rawls%20-%20A%20Theory%20of%20Justice~%20Revised%20Edition.pdf) where in, it is recommended to us all to frame policies for everyone, taking into consideration that where one will be born is “unknown”. It is then that the “personal” angle becomes irrelevant and the principle of “the last person achieving justice” comes into play. It is also mentioned that the Right to Equality is not necessarily equal treatment of all, but most likely, differential treatment to different segments of the society. This is also known as “Positive Discrimination”.
The above figure is an example of “differential treatment” for achieving equality, where the athletes are being appointed different starting points to run the same distance.
Having said this, I would like to mention that a policy of any nature should be flexible and reformed with the needs of the changing times, particularly, in a liberal democracy. Certain reforms that can be embedded into the policy are:
-1) “Creamy Layer” should be introduced in SC/ST reservations,
-2) Second generation beneficiaries should be eliminated,
-3) A beneficiary of Higher Education shouldn’t benefit in employment,
-4) Reservation in promotions should be abolished.
It is solemn at this moment to quote a wise man who said that “ Education is not only an endeavour to learn, but also unlearn”. As an urban-middle class-upper caste Hindu male, I did have my prejudices against the policy of Reservation. Also, I had the complex of victimhood. But, education made me unlearn those biases. And then, there were statistical eye-openers, like Hindu Upper Castes (General category) are only 26%, but occupy two-third space in institutes of higher learning (Source: CSDS). Lastly, I would like to conclude by saying that “caste-based reservation” is only a necessary affirmative action, not a sufficient one. A wholesome perspective is required to tackle the issues of other marginalized Indians, like women, minorities, mentally ill, physically handicapped, senior citizens, slum dwellers and many more. I will write about them in separate blogs. Yes, the policy was an “Anticipated Panacea”, but over the years, it turned out to be a “Political Boiling Pot”.