Equality, Reservation, and Democracy
A second class, two-tier air-conditioned compartment on any super fast train of the Indian railways is an excellent window to the country. I happened to be travelling recently in such a compartment to Ahmedabad. I had the lower berth. A junior executive on a sales promotion was occupying the berth above me. Opposite me the two seats were occupied by a businessman and his wife. The side berths were taken by an architecture student and an elderly man recently retired from service.
It often happens during such journeys that each passenger tries to maintain an extreme degree of privacy and distance, looking at other passengers from the corners of their eyes but pretending that they are least bothered as to who their co-passengers are. As soon as two passengers start talking (and the talk usually centres on what someone does or where he is headed) a remarkable camaraderie begins to prevail and talk ensues. This becomes the basis of an animated discussion, reminding one of Amartya Sen’s ‘argumentative Indian’.
On this occasion, the starting point of the conversation was a polite enquiry by the junior executive to the architecture student about where the latter was studying and if it had been difficult for him to secure admission. It transpired that the student was studying architecture in Ahmedabad, at a premier architecture school to which admission was highly competitive. This competition, the student remarked, would become more intense if the reservation of seats for the other backward castes (OBCs) announced by the human resources ministry were to be implemented. This steered the conversation more pointedly towards the reservation policy and what harm it was doing to the society and country. What was until then a personal conversation between two passengers became an arena for open debate in which everyone else soon joined in.
Understandably, the architecture student held that merit was the key to success in life and admission to educational institutions and employment should be based strictly on merit. Only by promoting merit would India become a great economic power. Our march to that lofty goal had slackened because politicians had for their own benefit brought in reservation. Reservation diluted the principle of merit and allowed all kinds of riff-raff to be admitted on the basis of caste or community, denying the really meritorious the chance to study and become a successful architect, engineer, or doctor.
Our junior executive was even more forthright and vociferous. He held that India’s rapid stride in the economic sphere was the consequence of the increased role of the corporate sector where there was no reservation. One got a job on merit and was judged strictly on performance. One had to deliver. If one’s performance was not up to the mark, out one went. Reservation diluted this commitment to performance, and brought in inefficiency and incompetence. If some people remained deprived and backward, the right way to help them was by creating opportunities for quality education so that they acquired merit and were able to compete with the others strictly on merit. No politician was willing to do this because this would bring in equality. They insisted, instead, on reservation so that caste could be kept alive and exploited politically. Caste had ceased to exist in modern India. Even then, the politicians wanted to keep caste alive and had brought in reservation so that they could play one caste against another. If India had to make progress, the role of caste and politics had to be reduced.
I had hitherto maintained a studied silence, but the sociologist in me could not remain dormant at the remark that caste did not exist in modern India. I very politely observed that I found this observation astute and was curious about the basis of the assertion. Somewhat mischievously, I started probing about the caste he himself hailed from, whether his wife was from the same caste, and what the caste of his friends, co-workers, and colleagues was. It emerged that he was a Shandilya Brahmin. His father had been a senior business executive in a bank and he himself had gone to a prestigious public school and then obtained a master’s in business management. He was married to a girl from his own caste and lived in a middle-class colony in Delhi. His friends, like him, belonged to high castes. I surmised that he thought caste did not exist any longer because all his social interactions were confined to people of a more or less similar social status. If his interactions went beyond his immediate social circle he would immediately become aware of caste and act according to the norms appropriate to his caste.
The junior business executive was probably not able to see the point of my probing. However, the businessman grasped what I was leading to. He found this an appropriate moment to butt into the conversation. Caste, according to him, was a social institution devised to maintain social harmony and business efficiency. Everyone could not do everything. Caste assigned a role to each person and he was expected to live by the rules of the caste system. If people stuck to the occupations that were assigned to them, society could function smoothly and there would be no conflict. What made reservation a questionable policy was that it wanted to make everyone equal. Reservation transgressed the golden rule that one should do the job assigned to him by custom, and made it possible for even menial workers to become administrators, teachers, managers, and so on.. This could not work. This had led to castes fighting with one another. Gujjars now wanted to be Adivasis. Politicians prompted them to advance such fantastic claims in order to consolidate their votes, but society suffered on account of this. Since the Gujjars started their stir, business had virtually come to a standstill. All this would not happen if caste rules were adhered to.
The retired gentleman on the side berth had thus far kept silent. He did not quite relish what the businessman was saying. Caste, in his view, was an unjust institution and had led to a great deal of exploitation. It must therefore go. But it could not be made to go through reservation. Rather than weakening, reservation had consolidated the caste system. Caste should not be the basis of reservation in education and employment. The effort instead should be to give those who had been exploited in the past and denied education, the opportunity to receive education so that they could compete on an equal basis. The present system was an antithesis of this position. It had resulted in the decline of administration. There was a time when the British had ruled this county with a high degree of efficiency. The administration after the independence declined because suitability rather than caste had become the basis of selection. Because people came in on the basis of reservation, they thought that employment was their birthright. Once in the job they saw no reason to perform, with the result that people were not on their seats, files did not move, and decisions were not taken. Moreover, since people from the lower classes had entered the administration in large numbers through reservation quotas, they wanted to become rich overnight. Corruption had become rampant and those who came in through reservation were often the most corrupt. This country could never become great until the government recognized that recruitment should be open and all promotions should be based on performance rather than caste or community.
Our train had started around 9 p.m. and this discussion had gone on until 11 p.m. It would have probably gone on for longer were it not for the businessman’s wife wanting to sleep. The junior executive made a final pronouncement: Politicians were pushing reservation for their own popularity, but in the long run the country would pay dearly for this mistake. As the compartment lights were switched off, I lay on my berth reflecting on the views that had been aired and tried to make sense of them. The picture that emerged at the back of my mind was unsettling and disappointing, but it provided a clear window to how sections of Indian society are prone to thinking in these times when democracy and equality have become catchwords.
A strong anti-reservation sentiment has come to pervade our society, particularly the privileged sections, and has brought forth strange arguments against the scheme of caste-based reservations contemplated under the Constitution. One argument advanced often is that economic backwardness rather than caste should be the basis of reservation. Another view is that a backwardness index rather than caste should be used to provide reservation.
Behind all such pleas lies a surreptitious attempt to deny caste the pivotal role that it has played historically in rendering certain sections of society backward and equating social backwardness with economic standing. No one can deny that backwardness very substantially arises from lack of access to economic resources, and facilities like quality education and employment opportunities. However, two aspects are conveniently overlooked in this economic argument. First, caste has historically been a significant determinant of life chances. If members of certain castes are educationally backward or are concentrated at the bottom of the occupation hierarchy, the reason is that the rules of the caste system have barred them from access to education, leave alone quality education, Moreover, because these castes have been crucial to the generation of economic surplus which those occupying the higher rungs of the society have enjoyed, they have remained confined to lower, even menial, occupations.
Second, considerable evidence exists to sow that even after having achieved some degree of quality education and being placed higher up in the occupational hierarchy, the life chances for the lower castes are not necessarily equalized. They continue to be stigmatized, which reduces the equalizing potential of their efforts to achieve quality education and land a good job. Even though educated and occupying a high political office, the minister was subjected to public humiliation. After the hair-shaving ceremony of his son, the temple precincts where the ceremony was performed had to be washed and ritually purified. It would be naive to presume that such discriminatory treatment is limited to the ritual sphere and cannot spill over into other spheres of life such as schooling and employment. It just so happens that when we are reflecting on the reservation issue we conveniently close our eyes to such incidents or their relevance to the reservation question.
There is a need to recognize that poverty and economic backwardness may be distributed across caste lines, but there remains a significant difference in the intensity with which economic backwardness tends to affect the life chances of individuals belonging to different castes. A poor Brahmin, Rajput, or Bania may be deprived of good education for reasons of poverty, but his or her whole lifestyle radiates a degree of confidence which a low-caste person from an economically well-off background is hard put to match. One way to highlight this difference can be to say that even a poor Brahmin or Rajput male will sport a moustache with a great degree of élan. On the other hand, a low-caste person from even a well-off economic background would still hesitate to flaunt his moustache the way a Brahmin or Thakur does. After all, caste is a whole lifestyle and shapes not only access to education and employment but the ways to get around and seek advantages.
The constitutional scheme of reservation was contemplated not merely to offset economic backwardness but those orientations as well that were responsible for rendering castes backward. In this context, the argument that economic condition is the cause of backwardness and the best strategy to achieve social equality would be to disburse opportunities on economic criteria or a cumulative index of backwardness does not cut much ice. Caste has been significant to the determination of life chances historically and continues to be significant contemporaneously. In such a scenario, to ignore caste in the scheme of reservation and to suggest that it should be provided on the basis of economic backwardness or any kind of cumulative index of different kinds of inequalities prevalent in society would be tantamount to allowing the conditions for high-caste hegemony to continue. Quite apart from the practical difficulty of working a cumulative index, each one of whose elements would require certification, there is a need to recognize that the socially privileged are always in a better position to manipulate the system in their favour and those not so privileged are left high and dry.
Of course, the implementation of the reservation policy has brought to the fore certain questions: How long should an individual or a family be entitled to the benefits of reservation? Should reservation be granted to those who are poor/ economically backward even if they belong to the higher castes? Should the creamy layer be skimmed off to ensure that benefits truly percolate down to make a real impact in the long run? Is reservation based on caste becoming a source of conflict among groups vying for comparative advantage? No doubt, these questions are important and should be debated, but the debate over them is an entirely different matter and does not have to do with the logic of caste-based reservation. It is inherent in the logic of reservation that those who for some reason have failed to gain social benefits will wage struggles against those who are able to pocket them. This kind of competition is an inherent feature of a democratic order. It is possible that in such struggles groups may sometimes overstep the limits of democratic protest as the Gujjars in Rajasthan appear to have done. However, to project the Gujjar demonstration of aggressiveness as a possible threat of internecine warfare among castes in the future is exaggerated and misleading. So long as streamlined procedures are in place for the adjudication of such claims and counterclaims, and are not diluted, such protests are necessary to further equality and, as such, are a sign of democratic health within society.