Not even Manu, that much maligned protagonist of castes also could have imagined the infinite instrumental value castes would assume in governance of globalising India at the hands of the ruling classes. Poor Karl Marx had prophesied in 1845 that with the spread of railway network in India and consequent industrialisation the traditional social structure of castes would crumble.
Over a century, thereafter, India acquired the second largest railway network and one of the biggest industrial bases in the world but saw no signs of that happening. Castes are very much around and kicking and will possibly remain so for a long time to come.
While the lament over the failure of Marxian prophesy is very well known, the precise nature of surviving castes and their dominant source in the supposedly modern institutions (and not in the Hindu Dharmashastras) remains largely unappreciated. The divisive prowess of castes was recognised and deftly used by the ruling classes but the dalits, whose movement appeared to echo the Ambedkar’s call for annihilation of castes, have also rushed forth strangely asserting their caste identities. The book under review foregrounds this sad development in recent years.
Early Seeds of Division
Right since dalits came on the political scene as an independent interest group, there have been attempts to divide them. None other than Mahatma Gandhi had pioneered these attempts at the second Round Table Conference (RTC) in 1931. Gandhi refused to acknowledge Bhimrao Ambedkar as a spokesperson of the entire dalit community and rather projected himself as one. Using caste differentiation among dalits, both Gandhi and the Congress prompted untouchables to create an alternative leadership to Ambedkar’s, to speak on behalf of the Congress. It was a part of this strategy that after the RTC, Gandhi developed “sudden love for untouchables” and formed Harijan Sevak Sanghs, to promote “accommodative politics and selective appropriation of the then untouchable activists in their respective regions across the country” (p 11). Thus the incipient dalit unity under the leadership of Ambedkar was successfully nipped in the bud as the book notes:
Gandhi’s reformist endeavours and politics of ‘inclusion’ of Depressed Classes culminated into a ‘Harijan Movement’ that became a major national campaign between 1932 and 1936. One of the major fallouts of the Harijan Movement of Congress in general and Gandhi in particular was the encouragement of ‘nationalist’ anti-Ambedkarite dalit organisations, most notably the All India Depressed Classes League in Kanpur, and the Bihar Khet Mazdoor Sabha, both under the leadership of Jagjivan Ram and aimed against Ambedkar’s leadership (p 11).
Ambedkar tried hard to foster unity among the dalits and to consolidate their strength for the struggle against castes. However, he could not thwart the process of divisions initiated by the Congress and Gandhi, backed by huge resources at their disposal, and had to face the bitter reality of various dalit castes staying away from him and even opposing his leadership. He had to face defeat in the very first Lok Sabha election from a Congress candidate N?S?Kajrolkar, a Chambhar by caste and whose education qualification was limited to class VII pass and who, at one time happened to be his personal assistant.
The Reservation Imbroglio
Reservations came as an exceptional policy for the select social groups to overcome the exceptional social handicap obtaining in India. Dalits and tribals needed reservation because otherwise the Indian society, with its deep-drawn social prejudices, would never grant them their dues. It was in the nature of a countervailing force of the state against the inherent discriminating attitude of the society with implicit objective of removing this societal disability within a specified time frame. But the manner in which it was formulated missed out these important premises. Politically, it was instituted as some kind of insurance for the state against the risk of leaving huge masses of the proletariat without any structural stakes in the system. Despite initial grudges against the policy, it was largely reconciled with, by people. But as the politics turned competitive, the ruling classes picked it up as a weapon to manipulate masses. The logic of exceptionality was disbanded and backwardness got associated with reservation. It opened the floodgates for infinite politicking with promises of reservations for all and sundry. Every conceivable social group today wants reservation claiming backwardness for itself.
Reservations are now being treated as a panacea for the problem of backwardness of the people. Reservations, howsoever unsatisfactorily implemented, have benefited the beneficiaries in the scheduled caste (SC) and scheduled tribe (ST) communities. These benefits, however, have not accrued to all their constituent castes/tribes equitably. Both these social groups are administrative constructs and comprise many castes and tribes. For many reasons the tribes within the ST have not yet noted iniquitous distribution of reservation benefits as many castes within the SC have. Instead of probing the lacunae in the policy and demanding its rectification they articulated their grudge in a typical casteist way against the caste that benefited most. That is the way castes behaved through millennia contending for superiority in their vicinity but ignoring the ones above who oppressed them. This characteristic of castes precisely gave them their longevity. This incipient grudge of dalit castes then could be easily exploited by the unscrupulous politicians to their advantage.
The solution proposed to the problem of iniquitous distribution of reservation benefits across castes is the apportionment of the SC quota among the constituent castes. For hiding the ridiculousness of the proposition this apportionment is conceived among the caste categories. That is the focus of the subject book. Although categorisation of SCs came into the limelight in the mid-1990s with the movements of Madigas in Andhra Pradesh, the first instance was played up in Punjab way back in 1975. The then chief minister Giani Zail Singh introduced classification among the SCs of Punjab for the jobs reserved in the quota system. In this scheme, the prescribed quota of 25% for the SCs was bifurcated; 12.5% being reserved for the Mazhibi and Balmiki Sikhs and the other 12.5% for the Ad Dharmis and Chamar/Ravidasi/Ramdasi Sikhs. The ostensible reason was that the reservation benefits were disproportionately grabbed by the latter group. The real reason, as outlined by the first essay by Surinder Jodhka and Avinash Kumar was political. Among Punjabi dalits, the Chamars and Ad Dharmis traditionally voted for the Congress Party but the Mazhibis and Balmikis, being more enthusiastic about the Sikh religion voted for the Akalis. Giani Zail Singh wanted to break this alliance by wooing them by apportioning half the quota for them in jobs. It is in this context that one ought to see the quota politics of the Congress Party during the 1970s (p?55).
The proportion of SCs in Punjab population is 28.31%, the maximum in the country. But their influence in state politics, thanks to this cunning strategy of categorisation, has been negligible (p 16). Later Haryana, under the chief ministership of Bhajan Lal adopted similar categorisation of its 20% of dalits in 1994 with a similar political motive. The Congress in the state was threatened by the increasing influence of the Bahujan Samaj Party and it needed to curtail its influence as well as to add the minor dalit groups to its voters. In Andhra Pradesh, following the recommendations of the Ramchandra Raju Commission, constituted in response to the agitation of Madigas, the SC population in the state was divided into four categories proposing apportionment of the quota to them in September 1997. The government order however was struck down by the courts and even the Act promulgated by the government to subvert the court verdict was invalidated. Now, a constitutional amendment is being proposed to overcome the technical hurdles and ease the categorisation of dalits all over the country.
Will It Solve the Problem?
In the face of it, there cannot be any objection to the demand for equitable distribution of reservation benefits among all the castes constituting SC. The arguments of the most beneficiary castes (e g, Malas’ in AP) against this proposition therefore ring hollow and smack of brahmanism. The point, however, is whether the solution to the problem be conceived in terms of castes or something else, given the fact that inequality is the inherent property of the castes. The other point is to suspect the motive behind such a demand in the painful context of speedy decimation of reservations itself. By discarding the quasi-class category of SCs, the going back to castes and sub-castes is a tremendous leap backward, without any possibility of benefits to the aggrieved castes is indeed bewildering. These points may lead us to entirely different strategic options. But instead of exploring some progressive automatons, they strangely express support to this regressive proposition.
Can the categorisation really constitute the solution to the problem of iniquitous distribution of reservation benefits? Those who think it can, confuse people with castes. For instance, one essay sees social democracy in providing “opportunities for each caste, both big and small” (p 99). Leave apart caste categories, even if reservation is apportioned to each caste, the problem would not be solved. If it succeeded in equalising distribution of prospective benefits across castes by this way, it would create inequality within the castes. The basic argument for categorisation is fallacious. The caste-based reservation in the present form is bound to produce inequality, not only across but within castes. The basic fallacy is that while the beneficiary is an individual or a family, the attribution is to the caste to which he or she belongs. Those who argue for categorisation should also see that the degree of inequality may be far greater within the most beneficiary caste than between it and others or within the less beneficiary castes. This understanding should make one at least sceptical about the categorisation solution.
One should not lose sight of the fact that any such solution could operate only if the base for reservation stays intact. In this context, it is important to note that at least in the domain of employment, the reservation base has been fast eroding over the last decade. As per the Economic Survey 2009-10 (p A 52), the total employment in the organised public sector in 1991 was 190.58 lakh, which with the initial liberalisation euphoria went up and achieved its peak at 195.59 lakh in 1997. But thereafter it has been on consistent decline and has come down to 180.02 lakh in 2007, a decrease by a huge 15.57 lakh or about 8%, over a single decade. The negative growth rate of employment in organised public sector clearly implies end of reservation since 1997. Reservation, however, is still relevant in a few elite educational institutions for professional courses because of a huge gap between demand and supply. However, the increasing privatisation and commercialisation of education, particularly higher education, also would constrict the scope of these reservations.
If there is no reservation, the entire argument for categorisation falls flat. The storm raised however still serves the purpose of politicians as it does in any other reservation discourse.
A Sans Caste Solution
Assuming the reservations are extant, the solution to the problem of iniquitous distribution of its benefits could be conceived sans caste. I had proposed such a solution in this very journal (“Reservations within Reservation: A Solution”, 10 October 2009, pp 16-18), which involved dynamically dividing the entire dalit population into two categories of families: those that have availed of reservation and those that have not benefited from it so far. A family could be defined as husband, wife and their children. Any reservation, educational or employment, should be prioritised to the families that have not availed of it so far. The category that has already had access to reservations will now get it only after those who have not availed of it are given access to it, and obviously, only if some of it remains – all other things remaining the same. An amazingly simple solution to such a vexatious problem but without caste and hence any scope for political manipulation.
The greatest merit of this solution, besides its simplicity, is that it discards caste after the various sub-castes are identified as SC. It provides a solution to the iniquitous distribution of benefits of reservations not only to various castes within the SC, but also within the same caste. This proposition would not have much difficulty in securing approval of all the castes since it transcends the caste idiom and proposes a just distribution of benefits to all. Moreover, it may not conflict with the Constitution as it did with the categorisation problem, for it does not tinker with the constitutional provision of reservation to the SCs but only brings in a modality to ensure that its benefits reach all the potential beneficiaries. Most importantly, it would pave way for consolidation of all the sub-castes of dalits into a class. The only possible objection to it shall no doubt be politically prompted. It might argue that even the family units which have not availed of reservations belonging to the advanced castes would have an edge over those belonging to the disadvantaged castes. Though untrue, even if it is taken as valid, it would be far outweighed by the true emancipatory benefits it promises to the entire dalit population.
This book is very well-timed, appropriately planned and is a superbly executed exposition of the perplexing problem of categorisation of SC population by castes. It exposes the readers to all shades of thoughts from the prominent scholars on this issue and hence becomes a very important resource for understanding the problem. As discussed before, its value would have gone up manifold, had it taken into account the decimation of reservation during the globalisation era and not been unquestioningly fixated on caste as the base for equality. Considering the serious consequences to social fabric and polity, it warranted an out-of-the-box approach, as suggested. Indeed, it is time we had rethought our ways in which we look at any issue connected with castes.
COURTESY: ECONOMICS AND POLITICAL WEEKLY , AUG 31/10