The enigma of reservation

The enigma of reservation

There are two ways of looking at the weaker sections of the so-called upper castes getting 10 percent reservations in education and jobs through a constitutional amendment by the Modi government. Though many critics say that this amendment will not pass the judicial scrutiny as the Supreme Court had dismissed a similar provision in the past by the Narasimha Rao government, I will buy the logic of the present government that this time it will  stand. The proposed measure under Rao was an executive order; but this time it is an  amendment to the constitution (Articles 15 and 16). That time, the Supreme Court said that under Articles 15 and 16, reservations can be accorded only to SC, ST and Other Backward Classes (essentially social backwardness, associated with caste), not to others on the basis of economic criteria as these are not mentioned in these Articles. The Court then imposed the 50 percent cap on such reservations. But this time, through the latest Amendment, “economic backwardness” among those not covered under the SC/ST and OBC categories have been added into the two Articles as part of the Constitution. As a result, the Apex Court’s previous logic on reservations to these people, essentially belonging to the upper castes has become irrelevant.

Is this Amendment good to the overall Society? Considering the fact that poverty does not care about anybody’s caste and religion, such a measure should be welcome for the poorest of the poor belonging to the upper castes, which many consider, was long overdue. But then, it is half of the story; the other part is highly dangerous in the sense that unless properly handed, reservations will, in reality, be ethnic –centric, containing seeds for the eventual destruction or disintegration of India. Let me explain how.

In the late sixties and seventies, a significant trend was gaining momentum in Indian universities. Many students were dropping their caste-based surnames. They were nationalists to the core and thought that the best way to make India strong and a great power was to strive for one identity— the identity of being an Indian—by ignoring myriad other identities based on ethnicity, religion, state and region, among others.

In fact, one was proud to have friends like them. It is against this background that I was really surprised the other day to discover the son of such a friend using now the family surname. “My dream of India as a casteless society has been shattered. All our political parties and governments are competing with each other to consolidate the caste-system in the name of reservation. In fact, my son’s future, be it admissions in educational institutions or the job opportunities, is dependent on our caste factor”, my friend explained.

And it will be intellectually dishonest to rationalise (positively) this dangerous phenomenon in terms of “politicisation (hence democratisation) of caste or for that matter religion. Real democracy is the one that unites; it does not promote divisiveness and elements of fragmentation. But unfortunately, the identity-politics, of which reservations happen to be the most important phenomenon, does nothing other than dividing.

India’s biggest challenge in the days ahead is the increasing but perverse demands for reservations, with leading politicians openly supporting the thesis that every community must have reservations in proportion to its actual number. What it implies is that those who opt for smaller families are punished, not rewarded. It also means that people should produce as many children as they can, not educate them properly, and demand that the state gives them jobs even if they are not competent enough. This is a frightening scenario.

In fact, at the time of the passage of the latest Amendment, speakers from the ruling side, including some of Modi’s ministers, and speakers cutting across all the opposition parties demanded not only raising the limits of reservations beyond the 50 percent limit for the SC, ST and Other Backward Classes (OBC) in education and the government jobs, but also extending these provisions to the private sector jobs. This demand came most vociferously from the OBC leaders. Their point has been that the quantum of reservations should be dependent on the number of the people to be benefited; that means that if the combined population of the SC, ST and OBC in the country is 75 percent, then reservations for them should be of 75 percent.

With the idea of furthering reservations becoming a “holy cow” for Indian politicians, it is no wonder that many communities want to be “desanskritised”. “Sanskritisation”, a term espoused by the great Indian sociologist M N Srinivas, denoted the process by which castes considered lower in the hierarchy seek upward mobility by emulating the rituals and practices of the upper or dominant castes. But now ‘upper’ castes want to come ‘lower’ to become SCs, STs and OBCs. Gurjars in Rajasthan demand reservations as part of the ST quota, and Jats in Haryana, Rajputs in Uttar Pradesh, Patels in Gujarat and Kapus in Andhra Pradesh want OBC privileges. It may be noted here that around a hundred years ago the Gujjars, along with Yadavs and Ahirs, were claiming they were Kshatriyas and sought recognition as an upper caste. Today they seek demotion from OBC status to that of a Scheduled Tribe.

Where has this quota politics taken us? Quality and efficiency have become big casualties. So much so that I came across this story recently—a leading champion of quota politics, who is a Member of Parliament, went to a hospital for a checkup, but insisted that he should not be checked up by a doctor who has got a job through quotas! In fact, the day is not far off when people will avoid doctors and engineers and students will not opt for courses taught by professors if they have come through quotas.

Secondly, the implications of the demands that every community must have reservations in proportion to its actual number are that those who opt for smaller families are punished, not rewarded. It will also mean that talent and hard work are useless and those who have it need to be taken to task. this  thesis means that people should produce as many children as they can, not educate them properly, but demand that the State gives them jobs even if they are not competent enough. If this thesis is taken to its logical conclusion, it will be the beginning of the end of modern India.

Thirdly, since almost all our parties are strong votaries of the caste-based reservations, and many of them now want these reservations getting extended to the private sector, what will happen to the India-Inc? Will foreign investments come? Will the Indian entrepreneurs shift their operations to outside the country (say China, Africa, West Asia as the available trends suggest)? There are all dangerous thoughts.

Fourthly, there have been many instances of reverse discrimination because of quota politics. Genuinely talented people, many of whom are economically much poorer than their counterparts under quotas, are denied admissions in schools and colleges and are virtually out of the race for jobs. Because, all told, in a developing country like India it is the “State” that is the biggest provider of jobs and the most important source of education (schools and colleges that are funded by the government). And here, more than half of the seats and jobs that are available go to those who enjoy reservation facilities. Naturally, there are widespread resentments.

Thomas Sowell, a scholar at the Hoover Institute of the US, has proved that affirmative actions, which begin as means to help the less fortunate, end up, in practice, helping the more fortunate. Sowell, an American Black, whose community has been the main target of the affirmative actions in the US, says that his conclusion is based on hard facts that he collected in India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the United States, among others. The time is long overdue to start looking at what actually happens under this programme (affirmative actions), as distinguished from what people hope or fear will happen, he advises.

According to Sowell, there is now increasing evidence that “students who receive large preferences of any kind—whether based on race, athletic ability, alumni connections or other considerations—experience some clear negative effects: Students end up with poor grades (usually in the bottom fifth of their class), lower graduation rates, extremely high attrition rates from science and engineering majors, substantial self-segregation on campus, lower self-esteem and far greater difficulty passing licensing tests (such as Bar exams for lawyers)”. In contrast, studies have shown in America that these same students have dramatically better outcomes if they go to schools where their level of academic preparation is much closer to that of the median student. That is, Black and Hispanic students—as well as the smaller numbers of preferentially admitted athletes and children of donors—excel when they avoid the problem of what has come to be called ‘mismatch.’

Unfortunately, in India, we really do not have quality data to judge the effectiveness (mostly, the lack of it) of the reservation policy. But the fact that reservations have been there for the SC and ST categories since 1950, and yet there has been no perceptible change in their overall conditions speaks poorly of the efficacy of the idea. Whether it is the SCs/STs or the OBCs, most fruits of the reservation have been eaten by what is called the creamy layers within these groups, but even here most of those who have become famous are not because of their work and competence.

We must be clear that the quota raj in India has nothing to do with affirmative actions and social justice. Social justice is really the capacity to organise with others to accomplish ends that benefit the country as a whole; but reservations aim at uplifting one section of the society at the cost of the other. In the rest of the world, affirmative actions aim at creating equality; but in India, reservations are encouraged to create and legitimise, rather glorify, inequalities, as long as they fetch our political parties’ votes.

It is no wonder that none other than Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, in his letter to the chief ministers on 27 June, 1961, had emphasised on the need for empowering backward groups by giving them access to good and technical education, and not by reserving jobs based on caste and creed. “If we go in for reservations on communal and caste basis, we swamp the bright and able people and remain second-rate or third-rate. I am grieved to learn of how far this business of reservation has gone based on communal considerations. It has amazed me to learn that even promotions are based sometimes on communal and caste considerations. This way lies not only folly, but disaster. Let’s help the backward groups by all means, but never at the cost of efficiency. How are we going to build our public sector or indeed any sector with second-rate people?”

Should we not listen to Nehru?

By Prakash Nanda


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