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The Question of Reservation and the Future of the Dalit-Bahujanas in India

The Question of Reservation and the Future of the Dalit-Bahujanas in India

Photo Mahitosh Mandal


Mahitosh Mandal

Photo Mahitosh MandalEveryone who feels moved by the deplorable condition of the Untouchables begins by saying: ‘We must do something for the Untouchables’. One seldom hears any of the persons interested in the problem saying: ‘Let us do something to change the Hindu’.

~ B R Ambedkar, ‘Untouchables or the Children of India’s Ghetto’

What do some of the Brahmin-Savarnas do these days? They talk against reservation, then they talk against reservation, and then they get tired, fall asleep, and when they get up the next day, they once again start talking against reservation.

I say some, and not all. There are certainly a handful of the Brahmin-Savarnas who strongly support reservation and are substantially critical of the Brahminical past of this country. However, on what grounds do the majority of Brahmin-Savarnas dismiss the reservation policies? Why, they have some oft-cited reasons. First, they think reservation is not the right solution to the issue of backwardness! Second, that reservation should not be caste-based; it should be based on economic backwardness. And third, that reservation affects the question of merit, and that reserved category candidates are not hard-working and meritorious.

The expressions of anger and disapproval, coupled with occasional support, vis-à-vis the reservation policies are in one sense a good sign; these indicate that the Dalit-Bahujanas are gradually becoming visible in the traditionally Brahmin-Savarna dominated spaces. But it is necessary to understand how far such reactions are justified or wherefrom these originate.

Let us begin with a major objection against reservation. Some Brahmin-Savarnas consider that reservation is not the right solution to the problem of backwardness. If you ask them why reservation is not the solution or what solution they have got to offer, they would initially fumble and then come up with their great weapon: we need to follow the ancient Rig Vedic ideals which did not have caste-discrimination. This is a kind of typical ‘originary’ solution, as Slavoj Žižek calls it, which even Gandhiji or Vivekananda had adapted. Like, let us go back to those good old days and follow the uncorrupted Vedantic ideals which promoted Varna and caste system but allowed the possibility of cross-caste mobility. There are a number of problems with such a regressive solution. First, such a solution is mainly based on, or can actually give prominence to, a particular religious system and might not serve the secular interests of those Indians who are non-Hindus or even non-religious. Second, as Ambedkar has repeatedly shown in works like Annihilation of Caste or Philosophy of Hinduism, this particular religious system with all its apparently glorious Vedantic past had actually produced a Brahminical ideology that had been crushing the women and the ‘lower’ castes for ages. As opposed to this originic and regressive solution, Ambedkar’s solution in the form of ‘reservation for the backward’ is progressive and modern, as would be explained below. It may suffice here to suspect that the objection against reservation sometimes derives from an attempt to perpetuate the age-old ideology of Brahmin-Savarna domination.

Constitutionally, reservation is an affirmative action and a policy of inclusive representation meant to help the ‘socially and educationally backward’ groups so that they can reclaim their human rights and also contribute to the overall development of the country as able and rightful citizens. So when some Brahmin-Savarnas unequivocally dismiss reservation, day and night, we don’t have to immediately undertake the grand project of convincing them why reservation is necessary and why reservation alone can address the problem at hand. Rather, we need to give them some time to answer some apparently simple questions: are you against the interests of the socially and educationally backward groups? Are you against inclusiveness? Or are you against the all-round development of the nation?

Why is reservation caste-based and not based on economic backwardness? This is because reservation addresses the social and educational backwardness which directly derives from centuries of caste-based deprivation and discrimination that still majorly continues. The socially and educationally backward groups in India are by default economically backward, thanks to their Brahmin-Savarna superiors who exploited them for ages. But the struggle of the Dalit-Bahujanas is not just for economic empowerment; it is a question of reclaiming human dignity and social prestige which money alone cannot offer. Reservation policies offer the Dalit-Bahujanas an opportunity to receive higher education and employment, to be in the decision-making bodies of the country, and to have political representation. These fields have traditionally been the monopoly of the Brahmin-Savarnas. As the citizens of this country, the Dalit-Bahujanas have every right to challenge that monopoly and demand their share of things. Not mere economic empowerment; but caste based reservation alone can help the Dalit-Bahujanas in their struggle, and do social justice to them.

What then explains the hue and cry against the caste-based reservation? The hue and cry largely derives from a complex set of experiences the Brahmin-Savarnas derive from around them. They see some fellow Brahmins and find them not quite economically well-off. And then they see a few Dalit-Bahujanas who are well-off, thanks to reservation. That is when they give the judgement: reservation has to be stopped. On one level, such a reaction can be explained away as jealousy, insecurity and selfishness; the Brahmin-Savarnas probably do not want to see the Dalit-Bahujanas flourish or get their share of things. On a second level, they are statistically unaware; they do not know of the crores of Dalit-Bahujanas who live below the poverty line and who are socially and educationally non-entities. On a third level, they remarkably confuse the issue of inclusion (and reservation policies) with the issue of poverty (and the necessary economic empowerment programmes). In other words, knowingly or unknowingly, they carry forward the ideology of casteism, and are often found up in arms to annihilate reservation, while they should rather look into, or fight for, the appropriate constitutional measures to eradicate economic backwardness of the needy Brahmin-Savarnas.

At this point, the anti-reservationist who is reading this article is certainly getting angry. He is bracing himself to ask me that million-dollar question: but what about merit? Indeed, many Brahmin-Savarnas, including the great Professor Balu, have discovered this great truth that the reserved category candidates are a shame for the country since they are a bunch of idiots. The Brahmin-Savarnas are anxious that their age-old meritocracy will be polluted by the leaders of idiocracy. We must remember that if the reserved category candidates are ‘dumb’, the onus is upon the socially advanced people to help them improve themselves. No Brahmin-Savarna has any right to exclude them from any sphere of national life. But wait, why is it that the reserved-category candidates are considered to be unskilful and dumb? This is because the Brahmin-Savarnas probably think that the Dalit-Bahujanas are by nature dumb. And a Brahmin-Savarna who thinks on this line must be hailed as the great bearer of the classical ideology of Brahminism which proclaims that Brahmins are ‘naturally’ intelligent. The question is: is merit hereditary? Is to be born as a Brahmin is to become intelligent by default? If that be the case, one could only wish one had control over one’s birth. Or, rather, is it that merit is a result of karma? That is, does our IQ derive from our actions in the past life? If that be the case, then a person who does not believe in past life or an afterlife is bound to die of despair.

It won’t be an exaggeration to state that the popular discourse of merit perpetuates the ancient belief in Brahminical superiority. Otherwise, why don’t we look deeper into things and understand that merit and efficiency are largely determined by the resources one has an access to since one’s childhood, namely in K S Chalam’s words, ‘educated parents, books at home and a tradition of education within the family and among the kinship groups’? These resources are actually the inputs which are instrumental in the production of output i.e. IQ or academic scores. Merit does not grow on trees. The less the input is the less the output would be. Moreover, our educational system is built in such a way as to prevent the weaker sections from manifesting their potential. As Chalam has pointed out, ‘The language, content, and method of teaching is devised in our system in such a way that it is more favourable and useful to the elite and Sanskritised communities than to the weaker sections whose cognitive skills and capacities have been systematically suppressed for ages’.

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In the face of such arguments, many wise men like Professor Balu, point out that reservation makes things easy for the Dalit-Bahujanas because they know that they will in any case get a job; hence they do not work hard or feel the urge to improve themselves. Statistics and logic, however, would go against such complaints. Firstly, one must take into consideration those hundreds of reserved category candidates who have done exceptionally well both in terms of academic qualification and working skill. Secondly, only a misguided person can say that reserved category students in general are not hard-working. Usually, a reserved category candidate, when he is placed among the advanced Brahmin-Savarnas, always strives to prove himself. The graph of academic growth of the majority of reserved category candidates as compared to that of Brahmin-Savarnas would be found to be positively impressive in favour of the former. In most cases, they start from scratch and go a long way. Only if they could be substantially supported and properly trained, they would have proved that merit is largely a product of environment.

On the other hand, compared to the crores of Dalit-Bahujanas, only a few seats are reserved in different governmental spheres. So it should not be presupposed that to be born as a Dalit-Bahujan is to get a government employment by default. Ironically, a great many reserved seats remain vacant in higher education sectors due to the unavailability of the suitable candidates. We must remember, suitable candidates are not born; suitable candidates are to be produced through proper academic environment and training. We must remember there are hundreds of obstacles in the development of a reserved category candidate which is why he is not always found to be ‘suitable enough’. And the teachers and reformers of our society have to take the charge of removing those obstacles.

Why then do the Brahmin-Savarnas claim that their meritocracy is being endangered? There can be a number of explanations. First, they are uncomfortable with the idea that the Dalit-Bahujanas should occupy some positions in those domains which have been traditionally theirs. It should be noted these Brahmin-Savarnas do not quarrel over getting the job of scavenger or a sweeper since these are ‘inferior’ jobs and meant only for the Dalits. They have problems when the Dalit-Bahujanas aim at ‘higher’ positions. Second, they have a few individual cases which make them generalize that all Dalit-Bahujanas lack merit and the urge to improve; but they do not explain the reasons of such gross generalization nor do they speculate the lack of motivation on the part of a few Dalit-Bahujanas. Third, a few of them are apparently unsuccessful in their own academic life and career; so their frustrations, which have different causes altogether, are unfortunately transformed into the complaint that reservation is the reason why they suffer.

Does it, however, imply that reservation policies are like a holy cow which must not be touched and discussed, fearing blasphemy? Not at all! It’s just that the discussants need to shift their focus from conventional and dismissive questions to more productive and responsible questions. For us, the questions are no more related to whether reservation is the right solution to the issue of backwardness or whether reservation should be merit-based or poverty-based. Undeniably, reservation is the only solution to the kind of backwardness it is meant to address. Rather, the new set of questions cropping up these days is: do the ‘creamy layer’ Dalit-Bahujanas still get all the facilities of reservation policies? Or do we need to bring out some changes in policy for them in order to help the ‘non-creamy layer’ Dali-Bahujanas? And what kind of changes are we talking about?

These questions actually lead to the more difficult questions. Once one becomes ‘creamy layer’, does one’s ‘caste identity’ get wiped out? Reservation ensures the empowerment of the Dalit-Bahujanas; but does it necessarily annihilate caste discrimination? Would the Brahmin-Savarnas consider the ‘creamy layer’ Dalit-Bahujanas as socially equal to them? Are they ready to co-work and co-exist with them as fellow human beings? Will our society allow upper-caste women marrying such Dalit-Bahujanas? Or even, will it have qualms in making the Dalit-Bahujanas heads of some temples?

The contemporary reality of the country, unfortunately, does not offer us much hope. Inter-caste marriage and the presence of the Dalits in temples are still, in some cases, a taboo. But more significantly, there is a kind of glaring ‘upper-caste-flight’ – somewhat similar to the famous concept of ‘white flight’ in the American context – into private sectors from the public sectors where Dalit-Bahujanas are gradually curving a space for themselves. These private sectors, say the newly built private universities, are being considered to be the future of higher education. With a lucrative pay-package, thanks to the emergence of liberal economy, these education sectors are draining out the big names from the public universities. Needless to say, the Dalit-Bahujanas cannot afford to study in such institutions. These private institutions are mainly inhabited by the upper-castes; it is for them a place ‘untainted’ by the presence of the Dalit-Bahujanas. This desire for a ‘pure, unpolluted’ space is extremely alarming precisely because it hides within it, among other things, the seeds of unwillingness to co-exist with the upwardly mobile Dalit-Bahujanas.

That is precisely why Ambedkar’s words quoted in the epigraph become so important: “Everyone who feels moved by the deplorable condition of the Untouchables begins by saying: ‘We must do something for the Untouchables’. One seldom hears any of the persons interested in the problem saying: ‘Let us do something to change the Hindu'”. Volumes of discussions on the changing condition of the Dalit-Bahujanas will be futile, if the discussions do not focus on the unchanging mindset of the Brahmin-Savarnas. The situation is somewhat analogous to the feminists’ struggles for women’s rights. Mere empowerment and advancement of women cannot ensure the success of the project of women’s emancipation, unless the men of our country give up the age-old patriarchal ideology that considers men as naturally superior to women and women as naturally inferior and less than human. Mere empowerment and advancement of Dalit-Bahujanas cannot ensure their emancipation, unless the Brahmin-Savarnas of our country give up, or radically reform, the age-old Brahminical ideology that considers the upper-castes as naturally superior to the Dalit-Bahujanas, and Dalit-Bahujanas as naturally inferior and less than human. If the Brahmin-Savarnas are not willing to co-work and co-exist with the Dalit-Bahujanas then the latter would have a bleak future in this land where we Indians boast of unity-in-diversity.


Works Consulted

Ambedkar, B. R. Selected Works of Dr. B R Ambedkar.

 Chalam, K. S. Caste-Based Reservations and the Human Development in India. New Delhi and London: Sage Publications, 2007.

Navayan, Karthik. ‘What Professor Balu – S.N. Balagangadhara represents before us?’ November 5, 2015.

 Žižek, Slavoj. ‘The Apostate Children of God’. The Outlook. August 20, 2012.

 I am indebted to my colleague Mr. Kalyan Das for drawing my attention to the concept of ‘white flight’ and to Professor Narasingha Prosad Sil (Western Oregon University) for pointing out that even Swami Vivekananda subscribed to the view that Brahmins are ‘naturally’ intelligent.



Mahitosh Mandal is Assistant Professor, Department of English, Presidency University, Kolkata. His areas of interest include Dalit Studies, Hinduism, and Psychoanalysis.