Quotas and benefits

THERE IS much excitement about the U.N. conference on racial discrimination. Many Dalit activists are chagrined at the refusal of the Government of India to concede that caste discrimination too is a form of racial discrimination. In the United States, it is accepted that the Whites, the Blacks, the Red Indians, and the like belong to different races. Are the Brahmins, the Vaishyas and the Sudras of different races in the same manner?

At any rate, are the Scheduled Castes a race apart from caste Hindus? Whether that is true or not, that the Dalits are discriminated against is a fact. Hence, even if the Indian dirty linen is not washed in the international forum, it must be washed clean at least at home.

Even after 50 years of Independence and Constitutional preferences, the Scheduled Castes trail far behind the others in education, in income and in social status. Draconian laws notwithstanding, untouchability is still being practised in many parts of rural India. Not surprisingly, Dalits have become embittered, and in places have turned violent. Hence, for the sake of social stability, every attempt should be made to redress their genuine grievances and to bring them into the mainstream.

The basic issue here is one of social mobility, which can occur at three levels: the individual, the family and the clan. The burning question in India these days is about the social mobility of the clan rather than that of the individual or of the family.

That is why all legal and Constitutional correctives are directed at the Scheduled Castes as a group and are not directed at them as individuals or families. As a result, over the past 50 years, relative incomes of the Scheduled Castes have increased, and so have their opportunities for social advancement.

However, those benefits have gone only to a few. So, though the Scheduled Castes have enjoyed upward social mobility at the caste level, and that upward movement has also been relatively faster than for other castes, at the individual/family level, and in absolute terms, that improvement has been unsatisfactory.

The Indian Constitution assumes that the Scheduled Castes are monolithic. That was possibly true 50 years ago but does not hold good now. Some sub-groups (sub-races?) among the Scheduled Castes have taken better advantage of the amenities offered to all members of the community.

If there had been enough and more for one and all, that would not have mattered. Unfortunately, all these privileges are concentrated at the top end of the social and economic pyramid. With the best will in the world, there can be one and only one President of India or Speaker of Parliament. The number of top level officials in the Government is barely 1,000. Even at the level of clerks, the number will be less than one per cent of the total employment in the country.

Hence, while the present system has undoubtedly corrected some injustice at the top level, it has left more than 99 per cent of the afflicted untouched. While economic (even social) disparities have decreased between the Scheduled Castes and the others, intra-Scheduled Caste disparities have increased not decreased. That is why bitter differences have started erupting among the Scheduled Castes themselves.

There is a lucrative international market for those who abuse the society in which they live. Such people get invitations for international jamborees that are not available for more objective academics. The more abusive they are, the higher the glamour they enjoy. Quite understandably, some Dalit activists have been exploiting this international window of opportunity. However, there is a price to pay: they lose the goodwill of the rest of the community.

Fifty years ago, at the time of the framing the Constitution, there was genuine shame among the upper castes at the way the Scheduled Castes had been treated for thousands of years. For that reason, special privileges were enshrined for them in the Constitution. That goodwill the Scheduled Castes commanded, that concern for their welfare, has now eroded.

Even in the Christian community, many are getting disillusioned about the manner in which Dalit activists have been fighting their cause. However, these activists, instead of being concerned at this erosion of goodwill, are revelling in the notoriety they have acquired.

Currently, the Scheduled Castes hold the balance of power between rival majority communities in the country, and that gives them clout in excess of their numbers. That may or may not last. It is a cardinal principle that a minority prospers best by commanding the goodwill of the majority and not by exercising political clout. That goodwill it will earn only by contributing to the society more than what it takes out.

Dalit activists have no doubt described in detail how bad the majority community is. By the same token, how good are they themselves? Have they contributed more to society at large than what they have taken out? At any rate, how much have they contributed to the actual (e.g. educational) uplift of their own community?

It is sad to say but if must be said that poverty is big business. There is much money to be made, much power to be acquired by being active on poverty issues. That makes poverty a resource; removing it a loss of capital. So, for India's politicians (including the several hundred Scheduled Castes among them), Scheduled Caste votes are valuable but not their welfare.

One suspects that the self-appointed Dalit activists are in the same boat. They prosper only so long as the people, whose cause they claim they are espousing, do not. The old order has to change or else, as the poet feared, the world is liable to get corrupted. For 50 years, we have practised a system of preferences that Dr. Ambedkar wanted for 30 years and no more, which the Constitution thought would work within 10 years.

It is now suffering from the Law of Diminishing Returns. An aristocracy has emerged among the Scheduled Castes and, with the existing mechanism of Scheduled Caste welfare, that aristocracy will perpetuate itself; benefits will not percolate to those who are still languishing. Rightly or wrongly, a feeling has developed, even among those who are sympathetic to the Scheduled Caste cause, that some among the Scheduled Castes are getting a double privilege - the privilege of lower standards on top of the privilege of high social/economic status.

As a corrective, let me make a suggestion in an area where I have some experience - admission to professional colleges. Let the Scheduled Caste students be allowed to take their tests, say, one week after the rest but with the same question paper. Then, they will get to know their questions one week in advance, will get one full week to prepare for the specific questions they have to answer. However, to get admitted they should score as well as the others do. That will remove the stigma they now bear that they cannot even understand the subject.

All Scheduled Castes will enjoy social mobility when they are treated not as a caste but as people. The problem with Dalit activists is they see the mote in the others' eye but not in their own. Would they sacrifice the privileges they enjoy to benefit their own people?