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Saturday, June 7, 2008

Is the reservation policy still a form of affirmative action ?

Posted by: danish Ahmed 12:50 AM

Gujjars in North India are on a war-path demanding schedule tribe status to avail reservation in government jobs and educational institutions. For a long time I believed that reserving seats in educational institutions and jobs for backward classes violated principles of equality. The government should provide free and good education and take every step to ensure that all sections of the society have equal access to jobs and higher education but when it comes to determining eligibility all candidates should have equal opportunity. This had been my belief until I realized that the present inequality in the Indian society is so acute that there cannot be a fair competition unless the socio-economic backward class is given some advantage over the forward class.

It is a common knowledge that since thousands of years, a large segment of the Indian population has been living in discrimination and deprivation on the basis of their castes. Such was the segregation and subjugation of the members of the "lower castes" that they were not allowed to even come into physical contact with members of "higher castes." The repression,subjagation and vilification of "Dalits" ( which literally means "trampled") was so great and assault on their dignity and self-esteem so damaging that even hope and aspirations had been snuffed out of them. Pitting them in fair competition against members of privileged class would amount to injustice towards them.

This discriminatory social structure has existed since more than a thousand years but there had never been a uniform code until the British era. While the British colonialists brought with them many social reforms, they were not particularly successful in discouraging casteism while creating a generic code. It has been alleged that the British actually legitimized the rigid and exploitative stratification of Indian society. When the Constituent Assembly was formed to draft the constitution, it found the undaunting task of rectifying this blunder of thousand years. Dalits and Adivasis were so hopelessly cut off from the mainstream that mere outlawing caste-based discrimination was not enough, the Assembly needed to introduce measures for upliftment of the backward castes. It was under these conditions that provision for caste-based reservation was incorporated in the Indian Constitution. It was a form of affirmative action aimed at restoring dignity and increasing political participation of the members of the backward castes (SC/ST OBC). These constitutional provisions were temporary in nature and were intended to be discontinued after the under-privileged classes had been integrated with the mainstream.

But since the commencement of the constitution, almost all political parties in India have viewed these provisions more as opportunities to consolidate their electoral bases rather than policies to bring about social justice. In the last two decades most political parties have been indulging in votebanks politics by exploiting caste antagonism. Far from eradicating unequality and integrating the backward castes to the mainstream, this brand of politics has led to further divisions and schisms in the Indian society while equality and social justice remains a distant dream. Further, caste-identity has now assumed sub-nationalistic proportions turning the Hindi-speaking states into a political battlefield where groups formed on the basis of castes vie with each other for greater share of the Indian pie.

In the process the very purpose of the reservation policy raises questions. Electoral success of political parties like BSP and SP which claim to represent backward castes indicates that members of scheduled caste may no longer be as socially and politically oppressed as they had traditionally been. Statistics from recent surveys suggest that the condition of the backward castes has improved significantly which may partly be attributed to the reservation policy. Backward castes' members now secure greater percentage of seats than their population fraction. The forward castes on the other hand are securing a lesser number of seats than their population ratio. SC/ST OBC are not the only section of the population who get preferential treatment in the matters of jobs and educational institutions, there are many other categories (women, handicapped, sportsperson, ex-service-men, their dependents, widows etc) for whom seats are reserved. After reservations for all these classes, the forward castes or the general class is left with very little opportunity, the percentage of seats secured by them is much lesser than the percentage of their population. Another factor which questions the merit of this policy is the fact that it perpetuates the caste system when the need is to abolish it.

The reservation policy needs rethinking especially in light of new political trends and surveys. Reverse discrimination policy exists for the upliftment of oppressed people and should under no circumstance be allowed to be used as a tool of votebank politics. I do not intend to say that the government should stop making special provisions for the upliftment of backward classes. The present inequality in the Indian society is too great and any effort to integrate the under-privileged with the mainstream would require special provisions. But the governments should look beyond caste identity in determining the sections of society that are really in need of help. At the same time care should be taken to ensure that the members of the forward class are not denied educational and employment opportunities due to them on the basis of their merit. It has been observed that rapid development in post-reform era has largely been contributions of private players. If successive governments had been unable to put India on fast track to development, it is doubtful if social justice can be achieved without participation of the private players. India Inc. should be encouraged to take affirmative action as part of its social responsibility programs.

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