(This is the second part of the article ‘The compulsive need to oppose reservations’, continued from here)
What does Pratap Bhanu Mehta really want? He wants ‘alternative paradigms‘ other than caste based reservations to be considered. Why? To build a sense of ‘common citizenship’. His worry is ‘we are also about to do that to the state‘, by which he means we’re infusing caste into the state.
Perhaps he did write, talk about these ideas before 2006, but one gets the idea that it was the second phase of Mandal reservations introduced during that period which provoked him to think more on the issue. Was the state clean until then?
If there were no reservations, he would perhaps have not thought so hard on caste and citizenship. Reservations have forced him to compulsorily think about caste. Doesn’t that make reservation itself an effective alternative paradigm?
Alternative paradigms, but same location
But how does he plan to create alternative paradigms? That’s not always clear from what he says in this article or from his earlier writing, despite his obvious interest in the subject of reservations. But one key point can be deduced: even though he says he doesn’t share the grounds on which many of the arguments against caste based reservations are made– ‘unthinking usage of an abstract idea of merit’– he makes all his arguments from the vantage point of merit. He’s not thinking of any ‘alternative paradigms’ away from that location.
This perpective binds him to a very hypocritical stance: while he talks about de-casteing our ‘modern secular institutions’, he doesn’t talk about lessening the tendency of those institutions to embrace and favour upper caste elites. He isn’t talking about puncturing the disproportionate sense of entitlement that the instrument of merit infuses into the privileged communities, only about how the Dalit-Bahujans shouldn’t make any claims on the basis of their disprivileged, ‘compulsory’ caste identities.
Commenting on the Supreme Court judgement which finally okayed the second phase of Mandal reservations a few years ago, Mehta said:
The court has, in deference to the legislature but in line with its own precedent, upheld reservations. It has upheld the constitutionality of the 93rd Amendment and 27 per cent quota for OBCs. But it is in modest ways forcing the government to rationalise the system in at least two ways: the exclusion of the creamy layer from the OBC quota and an injunction that the inclusion of specific groups be reviewed every five years. The rationalisation imposed is modest.
That’s probably one issue that probably bothers Mehta a lot: the creamy layer. One can assume Mehta prefers rationalisation too, that he approves of the skimming of the creamy layer. But why should any student who wishes to study further be denied the chance to do so? The popular logic runs thus: only the truly needy and deserving should avail of reservations. The well off should be excluded.
Mehta obviously believes, like many others, that a lot of rich aspirants from the reserved categories corner all the reservation benefits. He also believes, while writing on the quota for minorities, ‘particular castes in the categories of SC and OBC have disproportionately benefited from reservation’.
Creamy layer individuals and creamy layer castes. His ‘alternative paradigms’ should resolve those two issues, perhaps? All alternative paradigms suggested in the past, including the ‘deprivation index’ method promoted by Yogendra Yadav, have neccessarily focussed on assuaging those two major anxieties of upper caste opponents of reservations and so-called defenders, upper caste again, of ‘affirmative action’. Alternative paradigms?
But there isn’t any substantive evidence that only rich aspirants, and a few castes across categories are grabbing all benefits of reservations. Those are at best assumptions, especially the first, and not even very intelligent ones at that. Can we build any alternative paradigm on the basis of such assumptions? You definitely cannot build any alternative paradigm based on the prejudice on which those assumptions are predicated.
Let’s skim the upper caste creamy layer
Let’s look at the first assumption first: it’s impossible to convince the upper castes of India that only rich, lazy, incompetent and untalented people among the reserved categories, the so called ‘creamy layer’ in other words, are not eating away all the seats and jobs offered through quotas. Are only rich, lazy, incompetent and untalented people among the upper castes grabbing all the ‘general category’ seats and jobs offered?
That question would seem absurd to most upper caste opponents of reservations. Why? Because they obviously believe no one can succeed without hard work and merit. But why do they think the success of the reserved category students or applicants is not because of hard work and merit? Because they know they’re rich, lazy, incompetent and untalented.
That kind of reasoning would be universally recognized as racism; but no, not in India. Therefore, the Dronacharyas in Delhi University, for instance, think nothing of stealing thousands of reserved seats every year, and admitting many more thousands of upper caste students than sanctioned by the government. And you can be quite sure they are quite proud of doing that, as proud as Oskar Schindler must have been adding more and more condemned people (to be rescued) to his list, except the people being ‘rescued’ here are from the classes which do the condemning, mostly.
Let’s ignore ‘lazy, incompetent and untalented’ for the moment: but are none of the people in the general category lists rich?
Their parents and grandparents and their parents and grandparents etc have been ‘meritorious’ through generations without making any money? That couldn’t be true. Why would they continue to strive so hard to prove their merit, generation after generation, to grab the best educational opportunities and jobs if they were not going to make some money from it? Why go through all that hard work for nothing?
It is reasonable to assume at least some of them must be rich, even if not all of them like the successful quota grabbers from the reserved categories. Let’s skim that creamy layer.
But many among the upper castes might object to that. How can meritorious students from the ‘general category’ be skimmed? Well, how can meritorious students from reserved categories be skimmed? If the rule is that only rich students corner all reserved seats, then it is very reasonable to assume that only rich students corner all the general category seats too.
Let only poor candidates from all categories get all the opportunities. If it makes good sense to skim rich aspirants from the reserved categories in order to benefit the truly poor and marginalized, then it makes much better sense to skim them from the general category because there are quite possibly more rich aspirants there. Why? Because more marks mean richer candidates, right? And as all of the candidates in the general category score more marks than the creamy layer of rich aspirants in the reserved categories, they must all very obviously be richer than the former creamy layer.
If this proposition militates against the fine sensibilities of people who worship merit they should think about all the poor, needy, very deserving upper caste aspirants who are deprived of opportunities because of those rich, meritorious freeloaders.
The second assumption– particular castes in the categories of SC and OBC have disproportionately benefited from reservation— is quite ironic really. Because reservations came about because a few, particular castes were hogging all the opportunities; and those few, particular castes still continue to hog most of the general category seats, on an average, and also steal seats from the reserved categories in huge numbers, wherever possible.
But Mehta isn’t going to talk about that. In his view, only the reserved category is tainted by the impurity of caste. When he talks of cleansing our ‘modern, secular institutions’ of caste, he means only those parts of those institutions which have been unwisely thrown open to accommodate the lower castes to whatever extent.
In other words, he has no issues with how the ‘general category’ is constructed, how it has been monopolized by a few castes for the last couple of centuries, ever since the British first admitted them into their institutions by reserving some seats for them, because they were too unmeritorious to get in otherwise. When the ‘general category’ has such a long history of caste, Mehta doesn’t spare even a brief glance at it. How modern and secular is his conception of our modern, secular institutions?
Caste has been stifling the egalitarian potential of our modern secular instititutions even since they came into existence, and the introduction of reservation itself, as pointed out in the beginning, should be considered as the exploring of an alternative paradigm. How can tinkering exclusively with reservations, while ignoring the flawed nature of the ‘general category’ or merit, be considered as a solution to rid our institutions of caste?
If anything frees these institutions of the stagnant miasma of caste to some extent, breathes some refreshing air of modern ideas like egalitarianism and diversity into them, it is the system of reservations. The general category is the seat of caste, not the reserved categories.
To be continued.
Please read the previous part of this article, ‘The compulsive need to oppose reservations’, here.
Cartoon by Unnamati Syama Sundar.