One of the most clichéd topics of public policy debate in this country, on which almost every Indian has a stand, pertains to the issue of reservations in education and government employment on the basis of the community one is born into. Undoubtedly, the marginalization and discrimination the Dalits have been subjected to over the centuries remains a matter of national shame. However, there have, for long, been Hindus who have contended that caste discrimination is antithetical to the true essence of Hinduism, as is the case for most practising Hindus I know personally, while there are many other Hindus largely or completely indifferent to religion, there being no question of them being casteist. The Chandogya Upanishad, for instance, narrates the story of the butcher Raikva who was acknowledged as a great and wise man by a virtuous king, who seeks knowledge from him. Even the often-cited Purush Sukt of the Rigved talking of castes emerging from different body parts of the creator can be interpreted in a completely different fashion, given that God, as per the Vedas and Upanishads, like, for example, the Quran, is formless, and in that context, He has been ascribed names based on His attributes, like ‘Brahma’ for being the creator (the Quran uses the term Al Khaliq for God in the same context, and even the Quran does metaphorically refer to God as having eyes, hands etc.), and so, the creator manifesting itself in the creation of the human society meant that different occupations served as all being integral to the society as body parts, not about any being superior or inferior, and the Purusha Sukta also refers to Earth, worshipped as a mother-goddess, as having emerged from the feet of the creator! Also, the very same Rigved also carries a verse talking of how a certain person follows a different occupation from both his parents, which shows that caste was initially neither meant to be hereditary nor hierarchical.
As for the Adivasis, tribal communities globally, be it the Aborgines of Australia, the Maoris of New Zealand or the Red Indians of North America, have had to face serious challenges, which also holds true for India. Thus, the conception of Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) has been understandable, but the conception of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) has been even more controversial, with the criteria not being as clearly defined, opening a floodgate for demands for OBC status. Few have questioned the idea of politically empowering marginalized communities by way of reserving seats for them in the parliament, state legislatures and local government bodies, at least in the first few decades of India’s independence, or outlawing any discrimination against them.
However, the question of reservations in education and employment, compromising on merit, on the basis of the community one is born into has been tricky, especially given that those availing of the same are often from what has been called the “creamy layer”, leading comfortable lives in Indore or Kolkata or even some non-casteist village somewhere, seldom or possibly never facing any discrimination. Their forefathers made it big by way of entrepreneurship or possibly availing of quotas in education and government employment. Equally, very many of the economically deprived hail from the supposedly upper castes, and my family, for instance, has had Brahmin drivers. The question, therefore, is whether we should sustain the ancient legacy of caste identities in the educational and economic spheres or do away with them altogether, providing support to the economically deprived, irrespective of caste. The question of merit is also pertinent, for I recall a Dalit batchmate of mine in law college, who was not from the “creamy layer” and had scored 44% in the entrance exam, pronouncing ‘muscle’ as ‘miss-call’ and asking me what that means, and he had no clue as to what a giraffe is, and he is certainly not the only such person. Possibly, the only avenues of employment for him after passing his examinations to secure his degree were becoming a notary or getting government employment by way of a quota, further getting promoted only by virtue of his caste, and the cycle just goes on. Do reservations genuinely make such people capable? Notably, had reservations been income-based, the fate of those like him would be no different, which is why I don’t support income-based reservations at the college level either. Even Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, as prime minister, in a letter to the chief ministers, had expressed his dislike for reservations compromising on merit.
It is also worth thinking about whether those who have availed of reservations at the under-graduate level so as to come at par with the rest of the society should be offered reservations at the post-graduate level or in public employment, and then again preferential treatment in promotions in government jobs.
It also must be noted that discrimination owing to the resentment over less meritorious people being beneficiaries of reservations cannot be equated with discrimination based on believing in casteism, a distinction many tend to blur, though discrimination in either case is unjustified. However, articulating opposition to reservations certainly does not necessarily amount to casteism or elitism (when the beneficiaries are actually usually the “creamy layer” folks, and we don’t often get to hear voices of the poorer, non-casteist upper caste folks, and it smacks of elitism to imagine that the less well off can’t often be very broadminded in their thinking, and in college, many of my upper caste and Dalit friends from villages and small towns were best of friends, even eating from the same plate – India has changed over the centuries on this front too!), as some people often try to portray on an ad hominem basis. It is shameful for us as the world’s largest democracy how movies promoting a debate on this issue like Tamil film Ore Oru Gramathile and Hindi film Aarakshan were banned by state governments to appease some protesting Dalits, though the bans were fortunately lifted after judicial intervention.
I understand that social discrimination is problematic, and demoralizes a child, as would losing a near or dear one, or being ridiculed for one’s complexion or physique, but we can’t start giving everyone reservations, nor have reservations put an end to ghastly hate crimes against Dalits (though Dalits are more empowered than earlier times, owing to political representation, social reform movements and the increasing prevalence of a modern outlook, because of which more upper caste Hindus are open-minded on this front as well, though there have been reformers opposing untouchability right from ancient times), and very many rural Dalit children drop out of school owing to discrimination, with reservations in colleges offering them no solution.
Like terrorism, economic backwardness should be seen as having no caste or religion, and should be dealt with as such. Untouchability is illegal, and fighting its practice in any form should be left to the domain of law enforcement mechanisms (which do need serious reforms on all fronts, and that is another story), but not by way of compromising on merit, with absolutely incompetent people getting into the best of colleges (read this in the context of the IITs and this in the context of the IIMs), becoming public authorities and getting promotions, at the cost of competent people.
I see no problem with the Right to Education (RTE) Act mandating 25% reservation for economically backward children (with no mention of caste or creed) in private schools, with the government bearing the financial burden, in spite of the challenges associated with social intermingling of such children with their financially more well-off counterparts, and in fact, I was disappointed with the Supreme Court for exempting unaided minority schools from this statutory obligation, which the poor from the minorities had as much to gain from. Indeed, when poverty alleviation programmes and the Public Distribution System can operate on a basically economic basis, rather than a caste basis, why not have the same model for reservations at the elementary level, where merit is, in any case, irrelevant? I support reservations on an economic basis too only at the primary level (not at the college level where merit is relevant), though I do appreciate and respect the opinion of those supporting income-based reservations, without caste considerations, even at the college level, like AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal, or earlier, Congress leader Janardhan Dwivedi. Opposing caste-based reservations or even income-based reservations is indeed a position many Dalits also take in private.
The idea of legitimizing privilege based on the community one is born into is what has manifested itself in demands for reservations by communities like the Gujjars (who are resentful of all Meenas of Rajasthan getting reservations, rather than only Bhil Meenas, owing to a punctuation error committed decades ago), the Jats and even the supposedly privileged Patels, who are now clamouring to be seen as backward, showing how aspiration in the 21st century is being seen as more important than where one is seen as positioned in an anachronistic caste hierarchy. Another incident demonstrating this is stated as follows – while interning with CRY in my college days, I visited a slum in Delhi to meet beneficiaries of the Ladli scheme, and one of the girls there asked me as to how she could fake an SC certificate, and while I obviously dissuaded her from doing so, pointing to how it was dishonest at a moral level and even an unwise idea were the truth to expose itself, it made me ponder over how many people would have pulled off something like this successfully, with some being caught, and I later read this news report. Caste certificates can be faked just as income certificates can be, and the possibility of faking income-based certificates is no reason to perpetuate caste-based reservations.
There is much I disagree with Hardik Patel on, and find him to be an uncouth rabble-rouser with no pretensions of civility, and someone who has passed anti-Muslim remarks that offended me as a secular Indian, but he is indeed reasonable on the point that he would be willing to withdraw his agitation if there were caste-based reservations for none.
(With inputs from my friend Akash Arora.)