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From Quota to Affirmative Action
January 24, 2003
When then prime minister V P Singh first announced the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report to counter a potentially damaging rally being called by then deputy prime minister Devi Lal, he unleashed a storm that still hasn't settled down completely.
It instantly sparked rioting by 'upper-caste' students across the country and reached the point where some students burnt themselves, despairing that the almost 50 per cent 'quotas' all but shut the door on employment opportunities for them.
I also have to confess something. I took part in some of those agitations, boycotting classes against what we thought was a blatantly unfair law and at least once taking on the police. Around the same time, another word entered the private lexicon of many of us as a derogatory term to refer to someone who entered the education and/or government system through reservations: 'quota.'
Part of the reason was that we were scared of opportunities being shut to us, but the larger reason was because we didn't quite understand the implication of what we were saying or doing.
I came across that word again recently, under entirely different circumstances -- in America, and under a different name. Affirmative action. In the backdrop of not caste, but race.
A recent lawsuit by two white students alleged that affirmative action as practiced by the University of Michigan has prevented them from getting a place in the college. This was new to me. Until now, I had only heard of cases in India where someone eligible under the reservation system fought a case for a promotion denied.
What was even more surprising for me was that the President of the United States stepped in to say the university policy was wrong and unconstitutional. Then something else happened. The Census Bureau declared that Hispanics were now the largest minority group in the US, overtaking African Americans for the first time.
Why was I, an anti-reservationist until less than a decade ago, surprised?
Two reasons. I realised, and I simplify my argument here to avoid going into the complexities of caste relations in India, that race in America and caste in India are lived along very similar lines, with an articulation that is remarkably similar, from the peaceful to the militant.
The issues are almost identical -- a history of institutionalised discrimination/slavery or near slavery, denied access to opportunity of any kind for betterment, particularly education, and economic inequities.
The other reason is a very dear friend who I met while I was doing my MA at JNU. He is a Dalit, comes from one of the most backward districts in the country, went to a boarding school where dinner comprised watery boiled lentils and coarse rice, often with insects in it. He made his way through college and finally reached JNU, one of the best centres for higher education in the humanities in India where he was working towards his PhD in English Literature when he left to take up a teaching job.
Today he is a middle to high ranking officer in the civil service of the state he grew up in. I realise some of the opportunities he received were because of the quota system, because they opened doors of education that could well have been denied him due to his economic status.
Indeed, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice herself admitted that affirmative action has helped her in her career when she was being considered for Stanford University.
Secretary of State Colin Powell had gone on record criticising the President's stance. Unfortunately, that story has all but disappeared from the media radar because of Iraq.
It has also made me realise that race is still a touchy subject in the US, just as caste in India. There, caste (read Dalits) has been politicised and empowered to the extent that there is some talk of having the first Dalit prime minister soon.
In America, race debates often bring up a similar question -- when will America have its first black President? The closest I have come to that is in a Hollywood movie.
But there is a larger issue here.
As I said earlier, Hispanics are now the largest minority in the US. So where does that leave the blacks? Out in the cold? How does a school decide on affirmative action? Who gets preference, blacks or Hispanics? What about other people of colour or ethnicity? Like browns or Chinese or Koreans or Vietnamese? Some will argue that Asians anyway make good grades or that Indians are the second largest income group in the US so they don't need affirmative action.
True. But if the goal of affirmative action is to afford an opportunity to someone on the basis of race, what race/s should that/those be? Or should affirmative action be economic, in which colour blind admission policies will determine who gets in.
That's a tricky question, and it's been suggested in India as well. Problem is, if you make it economic, then you open it up to the majority as well, thereby depriving at least some black or Hispanic or Dalit student of a chance.
Race in America is alive, as the recent furore over Trent Lott showed, and as the current University of Michigan case is showing.
And that is precisely why the Indian American community needs to reach out to other minority groups, irrespective of nationality or colour. By not reaching out to other people of 'different' ethnicities or colour, we lay ourselves open to charges of racism as well.
I am still not comfortable with the idea of 50 per cent quotas in India, but I have come to accept that if economic gaps are to be closed, we will need to keep some sort of equalising factors -- call them quotas or affirmative action. Whatever it takes.
Based in New York, India Abroad/rediff.com Special Correspondent Tanmaya Kumar Nanda is a keen observer of life and politics in the US and India.