Reservations are not just about quotas

The learned judges of the Supreme Court who >quashed the Central government’s notification granting Other Backward Classes (OBC) status to the Jat community in nine States seem to have had an easy job. The court reached the obvious conclusion given that the impugned notification was passed the day before the announcement of the 2014 general election, that it was opposed by the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC), and that the government’s legally dubious overruling of the NCBC was not backed by compelling evidence. But while the operative part of the judgment is beyond reproach, its comments on caste and reservations are cause for concern.

Prejudice against reservation

Though they are neither quite obiter dicta nor simply wrong, the court’s opinions reinforce, rather than question, the misleading half-truths of common sense. Towards the end of their judgment, Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Rohinton F. Nariman expand on their ratio to make two assertions. In paragraph 53, they argue that while “caste may be a prominent and distinguishing factor for easy determination of backwardness of a social group”, such determination must not be made “solely on the basis of caste”, and that identifying the “most deserving” groups “must necessarily be a matter of continuous evolution,” requiring the state to look beyond caste. This is followed in paragraph 54 with the declaration that backwardness cannot be a matter of perception, and then the baffling assertion that it cannot be determined by “social, economic and educational indicators” either. Taken in conjunction with the striking example of transgenders as a group deserving special consideration (paragraph 53), these assertions are likely to fuel the dominant prejudice against reservation.

The powerful upper caste prejudice against reservations that pervades the public sphere is based on three equations or conflations, all of which are encouraged by this court judgment.

The first is the equation of a specific case such as that of reservation for Jats — which the court has rightly rejected — with the case for reservation as such. The second is the equation of the larger issue of redressal of caste inequalities with a single policy — that of reservation. The third is the equation of reservation with a welfare programme, and it is the most pernicious and complicated of the three.

Perception and social contract

In the upper caste imagination, reservation is indelibly branded as a welfare programme giving handouts to a set of caste-marked “beneficiaries”. From this perspective, those who receive this benefit — the “reserved category” — are deviant exceptions who fall outside the normal or ‘general category’ of caste-less citizens which constitutes the nation. It is this caste-less nation that gives reservation to certain castes to compensate for the “historical wrongs” done to them in the distant past, and to help them overcome their backwardness. Only when reservation is understood in this way can we make sense of objections such as: How long will reservations continue? Why is caste and not economic need the criterion? And of forms of protest, such as a symbolic polishing of shoes and sweeping of streets by youth wearing stethoscopes or lab coats that reservation provokes from the upper castes.

From such a vantage point, it is impossible to see that the true origins of reservation lie in a promise of good faith that forms the core of the social contract on which our nation is founded. Reservation is a pre-Independence policy inaugurated by the Government of India Act of 1935, which created the schedules listing so-called Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST). The policy itself is the outcome of the Poona Pact between Gandhi and Ambedkar, in which the latter was forced to withdraw the claim by untouchable castes to a separate electorate in return for guaranteed representation in the legislature and the broad assurance that the nation, represented by Gandhi and the Congress, would do everything in its power to end untouchability and caste discrimination. Thus, reservation is a fundamentally political promise made in acknowledgement of the fact that caste literally excludes sizeable communities from Indian society. Since independence is demanded in the name of the Indian nation, and since the modern nation is supposed to be an egalitarian form of community, the Poona Pact is a compromise whereby the untouchables agree to forego their demand for a nation (electorate) of their own and be part of the larger nation in spite of their caste exclusion. In short, reservation is intended to be the response, from a nationalist movement led by the upper castes, to the bitter truth in Ambedkar’s poignant statement: “Gandhiji, I have no homeland.”

Beyond welfare

From this perspective, reservation cannot be equated to this or that welfare benefit, since it is intended to be something incomparably larger — the promise of full citizenship. The degree to which this promise is fulfilled automatically decides the duration of the policy. Reservation should cease to exist from the day that discrimination, oppression and gross inequalities based on caste cease to exist, because all castes would then have full citizenship. Note that such a policy is not about “historical wrongs” in the dim past, but about contemporary forms of caste inequality, and that replacing caste with economic criteria misses the whole point of caste discrimination that exists in varied forms across all classes. Wider acceptance of this interpretation of reservation is blocked not only by the natural antipathy of the upper castes, but also by two other difficulties.

The first stems from the need to convert the abstract promise of full citizenship into concrete reality, a conversion that inevitably requires specific entitlements to be created for specific castes. This in turn encourages already prejudiced observers to equate the policy with material benefits unjustly awarded to an undeserving interest group freeriding on the populist compulsions of electoral politics. The second difficulty has to do with the deep intermeshing of the social and economic dimensions of caste discrimination and the related conundrum of evaluating the empirical and legal similarities and differences among the SCs, the STs and the OBCs.

For a rethink

To cut a long and complex story short, the key issue here is that of framing and contextualisation. It is certainly true that the reservation policy as it exists today is deeply flawed and in need of radical rethinking. But this rethinking needs to be framed against the vital need — more urgent today than ever before — to confront the ugly reality of continuing caste discrimination, oppression and exclusion all along the hierarchy. We need to question the equation of reservation with the redressal of caste inequality not because reservation is no longer needed but because it is no longer enough — we need to do much more to tackle the resilient mutations of caste prejudice. And we must react to the misuse of reservation (as in the Jat case) as we would to malpractice in any other vital area of public policy. For example, the proper response to corruption in defence procurement cannot be to dismantle the defence sector itself.

Two days after it reported the Jat judgment, this daily had a report (March 19, 2015) with the heading, “ >Caste determines spending on food, choice of work: NSSO,” but few readers would have made the connection. The problem with caste today is that most of the people who matter don’t get it because they think they don’t have it.

(Satish Deshpande teaches sociology at Delhi University.)

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Printable version | Oct 26, 2020 8:52:06 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/reservations-are-not-just-about-quotas/article7036459.ece

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