Vinay Lal

Nothing, it appears, is calculated to agitate middle class Indians as much as the vexed question of reservations. The battle lines have been drawn firmly on more than one occasion, and every few years events call to mind the tumultuous street battles that broke out in 1990-91 when the V. P. Singh government, rescuing from oblivion a 10-year old report, declared its intention to give effect to the Mandal commission’s recommendation to increase quotas for government jobs and university seats by 27% to 49.5% and thereby, as the Commission thought, remove age-old inequities and reaffirm the declared intention of the Constitution of India’s framers to transform India into a modern republic where equality of opportunity would prevail for all citizens.

The debate has generally been in stark oppositional terms, between those who claim to stand for ‘merit’ and those who claim allegiance to higher norms of ‘social justice’. Opponents of reservations allege that firm quotas severely compromise standards of excellence, and that insofar as meritorious candidates are excluded in favor of less ‘qualified’ applicants who can claim membership in some excluded group that has been targeted for assistance, the Constitution’s promise of equality of opportunity, in the name of which reservations are upheld, stands in tatters. They advance numerous other arguments against the present policy of reservations, though some of their objections can, ironically, be read as a plea for more or better reservations. It is in this vein that one might understand the frequently voiced argument that reservations unfortunately do not assist the poor among the upper castes, and conversely that only the most advantaged of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) have derived profit from reservations. Significantly, the sole Dalit member of the Mandal Commission, L. R. Naik, refused his assent to the report on the grounds that the so-called ‘creamy layer’ of the OBCs would derive most of the advantages and thereby obscure the more substantial liabilities from which the Most Backward Classes (MBCs) suffered.

Should we, some of the opponents of reservations ask, have to pay for the sins of our forefathers and remote ancestors? B. R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution and the main proponent of reservations, had asked in the Constituent Assembly for reservations for thirty years, but opponents of reservations charge that the government is committed to reservations for several more generations, until such time as apparently some semblance of equality has been achieved. However, as advocates of reservations counter, there is something rather disingenuous in such claims about commitment to equality. If one should not be held accountable for the sins of one’s ancestors, one should not be able to profit by the extraordinary privileges of one’s ancestors either. If for untold centuries – perhaps the same span of time needed to reverse discrimination — only the upper castes exercised a ruthless monopoly in numerous areas of social privilege, why should their sons and daughters, in an age ostensibly bound by ideas of equality and distributive justice, derive any advantages at all?

Though opponents of reservations insistently harp on ‘merit’, can merit be at all understood apart from the social context in which it is wrought into being and evaluated? Students who are meritorious may have vastly differential access to betters schools, coaching institutions, private tutors, a safe environment, and the like. Furthermore, the argument from the present is suspect for the obvious reason that the sins of one’s ancestors may not be unrelated to the atrocities to which Dalits and the poor are still disproportionately subject. Few upper caste families could complain of the immense disabilities that stare most Dalits in the face; almost none would be able to relate a tale similar to what unfolded in Khairlanji, some100 kms. from Nagpur, in September 2006 when Surekha and Priyanka Bhotmange were paraded naked, serially raped, and then killed alongside two male members of the family.

By far the most strenuous argument that has been advanced against reservations is that they would most likely be altogether unnecessary if the state had not been grossly negligent in ensuring universal education in India. Though there is a hue and cry over increasing ‘world-class’ educational institutions to make India more competitive in the global economy, the country’s record in primary and secondary education is, in a word, appalling. Cuba and even Nicaragua, where the revolution was hindered at every step by American-aided functionaries of the old regime, achieved in the arena of primary education in less than five years what India has not even remotely been able to accomplish in sixty years, and today nearly 300 million people in India are still unable to read their own name. Widespread literacy may not entirely obviate the need for reservations, but it will unquestionably show that the tale of discrimination must be woven around a constellation of factors, including caste, economic disparities, gender, status, regional and linguistic affiliations, and the history of schooling in one’s family and community.

The case for reservations, however, is not any more unequivocally clear. Advocates of reservations appear to think that affirmative action policies in the United States bear considerable resemblance to the system of quotas in place in India, but such comparisons are highly misleading. In both countries certain groups have borne the onerous burden of discrimination over generations, just as other elite groups have benefited from what might be justly described as implicit systems of privilege based on exclusion. Yet the comparison ends here: thus in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), the US Supreme Court, even as it upheld race as a factor that could be justly considered in decisions for university admission, held to the view that neither race nor ethnicity could be construed as a decisive or defining feature of a candidate’s worthiness for admission. Affirmative action policies do not set quotas: they are designed, in the words of the Supreme Court ruling, to further the ‘compelling interest’ that state and society ought to have ‘in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.’ Affirmative action may even be necessary in a society which, having homogenized itself to a remarkable degree, seeks to bring multiculturalism back into democracy.

It may be argued that the debate over reservations would engender less disagreement if one were carefully attentive to three considerations. First, one might seek to distinguish between reservations for Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) on the one hand, and OBCs on the other hand. However divisive the issue of reservations, there seems to be a substantial consensus that there is unimpeachable evidence of historical and continuing discrimination against SCs and STs. The same cannot be said for the OBCs, who doubtless suffer from some disabilities but are not absolutely bereft of assets and entitlements. Secondly, it follows that reservations should not be confused as such with policies designed to alleviate poverty, though doubtless reservations for SCs and STs may have the effect of lifting some of them from the ranks of the poor. OBCs and the numerous poor among the upper castes may quite productively be targeted for assistance in some other form under anti-poverty policies. Thirdly, the idea of discrimination furnishes less analytical purchase than the trope of exclusion. People are excluded from full participation in their society on numerous grounds other than caste, and it thus become imperative to probe more deeply into the various ways in which exclusion seriously impairs and dents the practice of democracy.

In his magisterial speech at his trial in 1922, where Gandhi described what had led him on the road to non-coooperation, he reminded the colonial state that ‘affection cannot be manufactured by the law’. Gandhi and Ambedkar famously tussled in the 1930s over the question of how untouchability could best be eradicated, and towards the end of his life Gandhi had come around to the view that the social awakening of upper-caste Hindus would not suffice to bring about equality. Nevertheless, the fundamentally anarchic streak in Gandhi’s thought made him extremely suspicious of the state, and it is no accident that a few days before his death he urged that the Congress party be dismantled and each of its workers adopt a village for social work. Reservations have done nothing to strengthen traditions of volunteerism, and it is ironical that the state, which is the most egregious violator of human rights in India, should be invoked as the guarantor of distributive justice. It is, therefore, incumbent that we revisit the question of the ends to which reservations are designed. It is extremely doubtful, for example, that the educated in India have displayed a more ethical or ecumenical conception of citizenship than under-privileged segments of Indian society, just as it clear that the communal outlook is more strongly entrenched among educated middle class. In his own way, Gandhi was prescient about this: ‘The hard heartedness of the educated’, he told an American visitor to Sevagram in the mid-1930s, ‘fills me with the greatest despair.’ Both the advocates and the opponents of reservations can profitably mull over this phenomenon.