Quite recently, the Supreme Court observed that the SC/ST Act has been misused quite often. This connects to caste discrimination. Have you ever encountered photos like the one above? Have you ever had multiple forwards on Whatsapp with details on how the reservation system is destroying the country? If you haven’t, you must be living under a rock.
People usually have different types of reactions to reservation, ranging from “you need reservation because of the oppression that the lower castes have to suffer at the hands of the upper castes” to “you need economic reservation” to “reservation should be completely removed because it destroys merit.”
A lot of people seem to believe that caste-based discrimination has been removed simply by the provisions in the Constitution of India which has abolished untouchability under Article 17 of Part III. Article 17 is accompanied by the other fundamental rights which guarantee that nobody can discriminate against anyone else. Their argument is that caste-based discrimination has disappeared with this. Nobody prohibits the lower castes from eating in the restaurants, nobody stops them from drinking from the same tap, nobody prohibits them from entering the same temples as the upper castes.
I belong to an upper caste. My uncle is a civil servant, and when I was having a certain discussion with a friend who was making the same arguments above, he overheard and got a little agitated.
“Have you ever visited a village?” he asked my friend.
“Well, no, but caste discrimination is prohibited under the law,” my friend answered condescendingly. “Surely, those villagers do not dare break the law?”
“They do, and quite often so,” my uncle told him with a little distaste. “When I was a kid, I saw the horrible things that were done to them. Our village is one which is starkly divided based on caste. The upper castes have their houses on one side; the lower castes have their houses on the other side. Once, I was told to call this person, who used to work on our fields, and I was only eight. I walked over to that person’s house to call him. I will not forget the beating I got from my father’s elder brother that day because I had wandered to an area where the lower castes were living. You know that when bulls eat wheat which lies in the winnowed part of the husk? It comes out as it is, and after separating that dung from the wheat, the lower castes ate that. When the upper castes saw this happening, they started winnowing the husk even more simply because they didn’t want the lower castes getting hold of their wheat. A poor person dying for the lack of food, and this is how they were treated. I don’t know what this is, if not caste discrimination.”
“Yes, but this happened when you were a kid,” my friend responded. “In 1976-80.”
“Wasn’t that after the Constitution had been in force for over 25 years?” my uncle responded. “However, if you think this was long ago. When I revisited the village two years ago, I realized that the distinction between upper castes and lower castes still existed. They were still separated, and kids from upper caste families were still not allowed to go there. I was absolutely disgusted. Don’t you think for a moment, kid, that caste-based discrimination doesn’t exist. It’s hogwash.”
“But merit…” my friend said.
“The same year that I cleared UPSC, two people from the lower caste of the village also got through the same exam,” my uncle smiled.
“Yeah,” my friend scoffed. “Through reservation.”
“Their rank was higher than mine,” my uncle said with a smile. “Do you realize you discriminate against them subtly? By believing those two got through only with reservation? You cannot even claim caste-based discrimination does not exist. While it exists very obviously in villages, in the cities, it is subtle.”
Caste-based discrimination exists today as well. The basic premise on which the proponents of anti-reservation operate is that it doesn’t exist anymore. That premise itself is wrong, therefore providing no basis for saying that reservation as a policy is wrong. It is a much required affirmative action and should continue till caste-based discrimination doesn’t end. They have not even been allowed to eat the food that comes out of the cow dung of the upper castes, how can we expect them to compete on the same level as us with all our privileges? We cannot, and therefore, reservation should be prolonged as long as caste-based discrimination does not end.
In light of what actually happens in villages, I would say that the SC/ST Act is not used at all. Maybe the educated elite of the cities misuse it, but what about the downtrodden people in the villages who do not even know of the existence of such laws? They need the help of both reservation and the SC/ST Act to uplift their lives.