Chetan Bhagat’s article “Creaming the People” (TOI October 3, 2015) is a piece with the general stream of thinking in educated upper middle class India. In terms of its response to the genesis and consequences of reservations this stream of thinking is based on certain fundamental but fallacious assumptions regarding the raison d’ etre for reservations. These assumptions betray not only a less than nodding acquaintance with Indian constitutional history but more sadly an innocence of the principles of political theory and science on which the structure of affirmative action is erected in most mature democracies around the world. A structure which also found place in India’s constitution through the medium of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.
If taken as direct quotes from the Bhagat article there are four assumptions on which his arguments are built:
1) The primary objective of the reservation policy is to obtain a fairer, more equal society for which reservations are a short cut;
2) The constitutionally guaranteed reservations for SC/ST are “caste based” reservations of the same category as the reservations for the relatively higher castes which came in the wake of the Mandal Commission and are again gathering momentum under the new dispensation.
3) Income is a better indicator of the need for opportunity than caste and hence the children of SC/ST who have high incomes are not deserving of reservations
4) Reservations also increase the social status of a caste
After making these assumptions the writer then comes to the surprising conclusion that the alternative to reservations is de-legitimization of the caste system. This conclusion, though eminently desirable and closely linked to the philosophy behind reservation for SC/ST in India, does not flow from the assumptions made because when properly seen these assumptions would take us in the opposite direction. History and facts are hard task masters and so a closer look at each of these assumptions is necessary to test them against historical, factual and social truths.
Assumption no. 1
The primary objective of the reservation policy is to obtain a fairer, more equal society for which reservations are a short cut.
Neither in India nor in the United States does the case for positive discrimination rest on the belief that such discrimination will obtain a fairer, more equal society. If sixty years of reservations have proved anything it is that unfairness and inequality continue to plague society without a dent. Ambedkar’s argument for reservations laid no claim to such lofty goals. The simple premise which forms the basis for the SC and ST reservations is that Caste is an essential feature of Hindu society and without Caste that society will cease to exist. Hence as long as Hindus survive castes will also survive. The untouchables being outside the pale of the caste system cannot expect to find a place in the political and social arrangements made by the Hindus. This has to be self evident to all who are acquainted with the social and cultural practices of the Hindus.
The starting point for both Jinnah and Ambedkar was therefore the same, namely, the demand for separate electorates as the price for remaining within the framework of the Nation. This construct was cogently and comprehensively argued by both of them in the round table conferences at London in the early 1930s. The legitimacy of the argument was duly recognized in the form of the Communal Award announced by the government in 1932. Gandhi and the congress accepted the communal award in respect to the Muslims but opposed it vehemently for the untouchables. Gandhi went on a fast unto death on this issue which lasted twenty-one days, the longest fast of his career.
The entire Hindu nation painted Ambedkar as the villain of the piece who was bent upon dividing the nation and taking the Mahatma’s life. To cut a long story short a deal, which was subsequently described by Ambedkar as “dirty”, was cut between the untouchables represented by Ambedkar and the Hindus represented by Gandhi, the Congress and other parties of the right. Bhagat would do well to read the text of the Poona Pact and get his facts right. In this deal the untouchables were offered Reservations as a consolation prize in return for giving up the demand for separate electorates. In due course Jinnah was able to convert his demand for separate electorates into a demand for a separate nation. It was well said at that time that while Jinnah and the Muslims got Pakistan in return for separate electorates, Ambedkar and his untouchables had to remain content with Reservations.
The deal was described as “Dirty” by Ambedkar because he was blackmailed into it by the congress luminaries not to mention the loony right which promised to burn every harijan basti in the land should anything happen to Gandhi. This is the genesis of reservations for the SC/ST and the so called intellectuals of middle class India need to recognize that nothing is more removed from the truth than the belief that reservations were somehow “gifted” to the SC and ST by the enlightened statesmen who framed the Government of India Act of 1935 and thereafter the Constitution in the interest of creating a “a fairer, more equal society”.
Reservations for SC/ST were born in the hard fought gutter of realpolitik, a betrayal of the untouchables by the colonial government keen to wrap up their show on the one hand and a subterfuge in the form of a poor substitute for separate electorates “granted” by the Hindu political parties, including the then Congress, on the other. Separate Electorates were the perfect mechanism for ensuring that the interests of the untouchables are represented and protected if the casteist nation that is India is to become a true democracy. As a substitute for separate electorates Reservations are expected to play this role. That is all that they are expected to do and linking them with the fantasy goal of creating a “just and fair” society has no basis in fact or logic.
The answer to the failure of reservations to properly protect the interests of the SC and ST is not to do away with them but to strengthen them to the point where they can actually do the work that separate electorates would have done. You do not close the police department if it fails to control crime. You, instead build its capacity to handle crime. There is only one way of strengthening reservations. It is to let the SC and ST select their own leaders and appointees in all arms of government. If you let the opposing camp choose your generals there is very little chance of your winning the battle. The battle in this case is the upliftment of SC and ST in all aspects of life. Hence the flaw is not in the concept of reservations but the manner in which it is implemented and the irrelevant goals which it is required to achieve.
Assumption no. 2
The constitutionally guaranteed reservations for SC/ST are “caste based” reservations of the same category as the reservations for higher castes which came in the wake of the Mandal Commission and are again gathering momentum under the new dispensation.
Any one with a modicum of knowledge of the Hindu scriptures will know that SC and ST are not recognized as a part of the chaturvarna or the four fold division of castes and are in fact “out caste”, technically known in the Hindu scriptures as “Antyajya”. Ambedkar drove home this point in his book “Who were the Shudras?” In this book Ambedkar proved to the hilt that SC and ST are not and were never the Shudra castes mentioned in the Hindu scriptures. Reservations of SC and ST cannot therefore be described as caste based reservations. Unlike the caste based reservations now being extended to the shudra castes the reservations for the untouchables are political rather than social or socio-economic in nature. They are more concerned with Liberty and Equality of Opportunity than with Equality per se.
Hence the pros and cons of reservations as mechanically trotted out from time to time by Bhagat and company do not apply to SC and ST but apply rather well to the caste based reservations being extended to the shudra castes or castes now delicately described as Backward Castes by the Hindus. The caste system does indeed ensure that the shudra castes continue to perform low paid functions and continue to carry low status. However, the fundamental difference between the BC and SC/ST is that if the BC is educated and financially well off he is very easily accepted as an equal in middle and upper middle class India. The SC and ST is doomed by the Hindu DNA to being outside the pale to be ever considered an equal.
Beverly Nichols brought this out rather well in his book Verdict on India (1944) which, though otherwise an apology for colonial rule, did hit hard with some undeniable home truths. Chief among these must be counted his elaborate thesis that despite his LSE and Columbia achievements there was no chance of Ambedkar being recognized as a giant intellect by the Hindus for the simple reason that it went against their basic impulse. The fact that the witting or unwitting hatred of the Antyajyas continues to fester to this day in India is amply proved by the daily record of atrocities which make the headlines in some form or other in some part of the India or the other.
There is also the fact that regardless of how anglicised middle India might get it can never give up the distinction between upper caste and lower caste. In fact India is now one of the very few countries on the globe where the concept of “Class IV” continues to enjoy social acceptance and servants and servitude are par for the course. In short, while the caste based reservations for the caste Hindus can be praised or rubbished on the “creamy layer” platform the inclusion of the SC and ST is this equation is a non sequitur.
Assumption no. 3
Income is a better indicator of the need for opportunity than caste and hence the children of SC/ST who have high incomes are not deserving of reservations.
The case for reservations for SC/ ST as embedded in the constitution rests on the ground that all social arrangements in the country, wittingly or otherwise, conspire to pro-actively prevent the SC and ST from achieving his potential by depriving him of the opportunity to do so at every turn. In this argument it is not material if the SC /ST is rich or poor, educated or uneducated, dark or fair. As long the task of judging his merit is in the hands of the caste Hindus there is very little chance of his being declared merit worthy. This is a logical construct on the separate electorate principle.
SC and ST, being victims of negative discrimination, are deprived from reaching their potential due to the prejudices native to their victimisers. They may have diverse talents and skills but the social arrangements of the Hindus keep them away from their rightful due for reasons which are external to their potential and their capacities. In the United States, this fact, often described as racial prejudice or racial profiling, has been recognized over the years by all sections of thinking society, private and public. Positive discrimination is their answer to this social ailment. Positive Discrimination begins by recognizing the very basis of inequality as a state of the mind.
This is difficult for Indians to digest because of the organic linkage between caste, religion and culture. Thus, to a thinking Indian mind “Unequal” is unequal because he is genuinely not “equal” and not simply because he is treated as one despite the possibility of his being as good as or better that the “equal”. Thus reservations are meant not to treat “Unequals” differently but rather to safeguard them from being treated differently. So the relatively high income of an untouchable family does not protect its children from becoming victims of prejudice in schools, colleges and most certainly at work places.
The best example is the selection process of the Indian Administrative Service which comprises a written component and a viva component. A quick look at the results of the highest ranked SC and ST candidates will show that if the selection had been purely on the basis of the written exams these candidates would have found place in the merit list on their own. The fact is that all these candidates without exception fare very poorly in the viva which then drags their overall score below that of the non SC and ST candidates. The simple reason for this is that from the very beginning in 1949 when reservations first started right up to the current date the UPSC follows the practice of segregating the SC and ST candidates into separate groups for their oral interviews. The interviews are then held separately by upper caste members of the commission who have no compunction in marking down their numbers. The protection of anonymity offered by the written exam is lost in the viva. What is true of the IAS is true in greater measure of other services and in fact selection processes.
Assumption no. 4
Reservations also increase the social status of a caste.
Inherent in this assumption is the belief that the social status of castes is flexible and the hierarchical nature of this status can be demolished through the intervention of reservations. The fact, however, is that the social status of a caste is determined by the Hindu scriptures and has little to do with whether the members of a particular caste hold jobs or do not hold jobs or the nature of the jobs they hold. There are two excellent markers of the social status of a caste. These are marriage and housing. It is absurd to suggest that the status of an untouchable caste has risen because of reservations to the point where caste Hindus would accept an untouchable caste as its equal for the purpose of arranging a marriage. As for housing, most young people from the SC and ST communities will tell you that outside the five metros it is very difficult to find housing and one of the reasons why government jobs are coveted is that it often carries a government house along with it.
At the end of the day it is the real world and not the ideal world that matters in everyday life. In the real world the children of SC and ST continue to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in all situations and at all times. Hence the original basis for Reservations continues to hold ground. This basis is not economic and certainly not social. Reservations have nothing to do with improving the economic status of the untouchable nor with improving his educational or professional attainments. These are not the goals of reservations because these goals will not help him to gain a share in the decision making forums of government and society which comprise almost exclusively of caste Hindus. Neither a rich untouchable nor an educated untouchable is acceptable to the caste Hindu as worthy of sharing his table. Only reservations per se can achieve the end of obtaining for the untouchable a share in governance and education. Whether one agrees with this premise or not the demand for reservations was based solely on this goal as was the constitutional guarantee
This is not to say that a just and fair society or improvement in the economic and status of the untouchable are not desirable goals. They are certainly desirable but these goals are applicable not just to the untouchables but to all those who are deserving of them. The point, however, is that that there is no need or justification for linking reservations with these goals because the sole purpose of reservations is to ensure that SCs and STs get their due share in the governance of the country and in the education of its people. In other words it is a part of the power sharing arrangement which goes into the making of a democracy.
The basic premise is that without reservations the caste Hindus will neither elect untouchables nor appoint them to positions in government nor admit them to institutions of learning. This will hit democracy and change the nature of the polity because a huge segment of the people will go unrepresented in various aspects of government.. The inevitable conclusion is that as long as castes exist reservations for SC and ST must exist. The United States has progressed to a state where not only slavery but racism itself is a crime.
In India untouchability is a crime but casteism is rampant and its practice is permissible by law. In the US a white man, unless he is of the Ku Klux Klan variety, would, if not feel ashamed, at least hesitate to call himself a white man except in a very technical sense. In India a Brahmin has no compunction in calling himself a proud Brahmin or a Rajput in calling himself a brave kshatriya. Caste based associations and caste based political parties are a thriving reality. Unlike race the castes have respect and honour attached to them. In this background the compulsions of democracy demand that if reservations are to be done away with then separate electorates have to brought back on the agenda. The revolution wrought by the good doctor, alias babasaheb, would have to start all over again. The Chetan Bhagats of this world would be well advised to let sleeping dogs lie.
A.K.D. Jadhav is a Delhi University Graduate with a Master’s from the University of Birmingham, UK. He retired from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) in 2007 as Secretary, Ministry of Mines, Government of India. Earlier he held the positions of Principal Secretary (Finance) and Additional Chief Secretary (Home) in the Government of Maharashtra. He was Chairman of the State Water Regulatory Authority in Mumbai till 2015 and holds independent directorships in select companies. His father, D.G. Jadhav, was an active associate of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in the emancipation movement and arguably his closest confidante in both public and personal matters.