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Dismantling ‘Dalit’ with a Poisonous PIL
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Anand Teltumbde

Will the removal of the “forward” scheduled castes from the list of SC reservations benefit the “backward” SCs?

Recently a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed in the Supreme Court for excluding some five to 10 named castes and tribes from the list of the scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs) for the reason that they had cornered 99% of the quota meant for the advancement of 1,677 dalit castes and tribes. A bench of justices R V Raveendran and A K Patnaik has sought responses from the centre and the states to the PIL. Legal aspects of the case apart, this development represents the inevitable aftermath of the caste-centric reservation policy as it has been implemented, as also, the upsurge of the sub-caste squabbles that broke out in Andhra Pradesh between Malas and Madigas in 1990s, which have since reached many other states. But more ominously, it marks the victory of castes over the concept of dalit, which has a quasi-class connotation and had emerged as a result of the Ambedkarite movement.

Venomous Action

The PIL has been filed by a retired bureaucrat. His brahmin surname “Shukla” perhaps signifies that he did not want to be identified with his own community, Balmiki. However, he claims to have worked for its welfare over the last 35 years and intervened in many matters that affect its well-being. Currently he presides over the National Coordination Committee for Revision of Reservation Policy, a non-governmental organisation consisting of representatives of extremely backward communities of SCs and STs from all over India. The 100 page PIL contends that the reservation policy that has been in force for the last 63 years is lopsided and has failed in its objective of uplifting the SCs/STs. The basic argument of the PIL is that a few castes among the SCs (and a few tribes among the STs) have cornered all the benefits of reservations and have advanced to the extent that they should be de-scheduled so that the reservation benefits go to the really needy castes. The PIL has buttressed its argument by citing observations of some committees, particularly the Lokur Committee (1965) that had recommended a periodic review of the list of the SCs. The prayer made is that the dominant castes like Chamar, Mahar, Mala, Dusad (Paswan), Passi, Dhobi, etc, should be removed from the list of the SCs.

It is an unfortunate but undeniable fact that people of some populous castes, as named in the PIL, have benefited disproportionately from reservations, although not to the exaggerated extent the PIL has tried to present. But the question arises, was this not expected to happen, given the characteristic hierarchical structure of the society. “Scheduled Caste” is an administrative category created and evolved around the basic criterion of “untouchability” since 1931. It did not mean that all of those castes and the people within them had the same or a similar profile as regards their socio-economic past or present except that they were considered untouchables by the society. Unfortunately, they were quintessentially castes themselves, observing a hierarchical differentiation, and refusing to coalesce even under Ambedkar’s leadership. It was practically his own caste in Maharashtra and similarly placed other populous castes in different states that identified with and followed him. Endowed with differential socio-political consciousness, organisational strength and situational compulsions, these castes naturally reflected differential capabilities to profit from reservations. While the initial differential was thus understandable, there was nothing in the policy thereafter to prevent the beneficiaries from monopolising the benefits to the detriment of others.

The solution to this problem however cannot lie in blaming the beneficiary castes and excluding them from the schedule-list as the PIL demands. Contrary to its assumptions, equity was never the objective of the policy, which was superficially meant to assure the caste cluster that it would not be deprived of its legitimate dues, and thereby incorporate them into the system. Rather, propping up a few individuals from amongst the SCs and STs would have been its real objective, for they – and here the Indian ruling class went by Macaulay’s colonial logic – would then act as the agents of the system. The PIL, far from reflecting any such understanding, strangely appears to harm the interests of the so-called backward SCs by demanding exclusion of the forward SCs. For instance, how would the remaining 1,670 odd castes benefit with a reduced quota on account of the taking away of nearly 50% of the SC population? How on earth will the exclusion of the forward SCs ensure equitable benefits to the backward SCs and more so to the people therein? While in the face of it the PIL may appear to take cudgels for those unfortunate castes among the SCs, in reality it is harming their interests with its foolish propositions. The only purpose the PIL serves is to ignite an internecine caste war among the SCs and serve the interests of anti-reservationists who always wanted reservations to go.

Reservation Imbroglio

People of Shukla’s ilk may argue that every caste could be assigned its proportionate share of the remaining quota, i e, say 8% form the 1,670 castes. Surely, there would again be some four to five dominant castes among them to reproduce the problem which was sought to be resolved. Assuming the remaining SCs to be of equal size and endowments, the average share would work out to 0.005%, with no hope of making even an integer figure. When and how with such a hare-brained scheme would the weaker castes hope to benefit? How would the process of the advanced increasingly grabbing the lion’s share of the benefits be arrested? The basic flaw in the policy is an anomaly that while reservation is given to an individual, surely benefiting his family, it is assumed to benefit her/his caste. The necessity of reservations to the SCs as a countervailing force of the State against the discriminating attitude of the society can never be denied. Even after six decades, contrary to the argument of the PIL, even the so-called advanced dalits have not been rid of the caste stigma. Their advancement in secular terms has had little impact on societal attitudes. “Dalit”, irrespective of the standing of the bearer, still raises the antennas of the upper castes. As such, no SC can really be excluded from the schedule merely because it appears to have relatively advanced.

The reservation imbroglio can only be resolved through correcting the anomaly, viz, reckoning the family as the beneficiary unit rather than the caste as perceived in this whole caste-obsessed discourse.

Exclusion of Beneficiaries

I had proposed a simple solution to the precise problem that prompted Shukla to file this PIL (see EPW, 10 October, pp 16-18). Instead of excluding certain castes as the major beneficiaries of reservations on the ground that they no longer need any affirmative action, we proposed the exclusion of the beneficiary families and making their share available to those who have not availed of reservations. The family for this purpose is the nuclear family comprising husband, wife and children. Say a family of a top bureaucrat who had availed reservation would be automatically excluded from subsequent rounds. It is only when his children make their own separate families after marriage that they would become eligible if they had n0t availed themselves of reservations. If the so-called dominant castes have cornered all the reservations, all those families within these castes who have already availed of reservations will be automatically excluded and those families who did not have reservations so far would constitute the potential beneficiaries. This may apply to both reservations in employment as well as education, if not even to political reservations. After all, it will dim the possibility of entrenched sections monopolising political power to the detriment of the masses. May be, in reckoning the realised reservation, its broad category (professional or non-professional in education, class of service in employment and level of office, local self-government or the state or centre, in politics) could be made applicable. Unlike the inevitable reduction of the quota through the present PIL’s proposition, the quota in proportion to the entire dalit population will be available to those families who have not yet availed of reservations.

Can this proposal solve the problem? In the era of unique identification, could there be any problem with its implementation? The only problem  with it is that it tries to do away with caste from the very domain of reservation, which is so inseparably associated with it. Unfortunately, neither the ruling classes nor the dalits want the caste system to go!

It is for this reason that the solution we proposed was completely ignored. Going beyond their initial strategy to create a stake for the masses of the organic proletariat, the ruling classes have forged reservation as their most potent weapon to manipulate people. As the notion of “dalit”, a quasiclass category, was shaping up through the Ambedkarite movement, the category of “scheduled caste”, coming through administrative channels, complemented the former. The latter had all the potential to consolidate the untouchable castes and strengthen the notion of “dalit”. But by the late 1960s, when politics became increasingly competitive because of the entry of the newly enriched Shudra castes, the intrigues to prevent dalit consolidation began with the raising of the question of equitable distribution of reservation benefits through various commissions set up by the state governments.

The Lokur Committee, upheld so much by Shukla, merely stated what was in the Constitution, the need to periodically review the list of the SCs, which was indeed done by adding a few more castes. But the subcaste manipulation started in right earnest from Punjab in 1972, by subdividing the quota between Ravidasias on the one hand and Valmiki and Majhabi Sikhs on the other. The next big upsurge was witnessed in the neo-liberal era, notably in Haryana (categorisation into A and B as per the recommendation of Justice Gurnam Singh Commission), Andhra Pradesh (categorisation into A, B, C and D as per the recommendation of Justice Ramchandra Raju Commission) and Bihar (exclusion of four affluent and advanced classes/castes from Maha Dalit Ayog). The contention between the Malas and Madigas took the form of a virtual war in Andhra Pradesh and inspired others to raise the categorisation issue. Now it is the Mangs versus Mahars in Maharashtra, Arundhatiyars versus Parayas and Palars in Tamil Nadu, Chamars versus other minor castes in the northern states, and so on!

All this, of course, when reservations have either ended or are rendered meaningless by neo-liberal reforms! The PIL, however, has taken a bigger stride in accelerating the process of dismantling the notion of dalit and the hope of any radical change taking place in India.

[Courtesy: Economic & Political Weekly, October 8, 2011]

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