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Rethink upper-caste quotas

June 10, 2003 17:15 IST

Now that Sonia Gandhi has put her stamp of approval on Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot's proposal to reserve 14 per cent of state jobs for the Economically Backward Category among the upper castes, such quotas are soon likely to become official policy in one-half of India's states where the Congress rules.

Yet, very little deliberation and careful weighing of costs and consequences went into Gehlot's suddenly-announced May 21 decision. Some Congressmen have rationalised the decision as 'a response to public demand.' This is a distortion of reality.

The demand for EBC quotas was made by the Social Justice Front, an uneasy alliance of the state's upper-caste groups, chaired by BJP legislator Devi Singh Bhatti. This represents no more than 11 castes (of Rajasthan's total of 316) which stand outside the ambit of reservations. This is surely a tiny minority of the 'public.'

From the short-term perspective, Gehlot's move is undoubtedly astute. It has taken the wind out of the Bharatiya Janata Party's sails and pre-empted its plans to agitate for EBC quotas and win upper-caste support.

The BJP was so taken aback at the decision that its General Secretary Pramod Mahajan first dubbed it a mere 'political gimmick.' Yet, within three days, Mahajan himself set up a meeting in Jaipur between an SJF delegation and L K Advani, who commended their demand. Within a week, the BJP adopted the same agenda and demanded a 'national commission' on EBC quotas.

The Centre has referred the issue to the attorney general for his opinion. India will now witness intense competition between its two biggest parties for upper-caste votes. Both claim it is their original agenda -- the BJP by quoting a 1985 national executive resolution, and the Congress by citing a 1991 order of the Narasimha Rao government.

How ethical, constitutionally sound and political wise are EBC quotas? Aren't there economically disadvantaged Brahmins, Rajputs and Banias, who deserve job reservations, much in the way the middle caste OBCs were granted these by the Mandal Commission? The mushy, elitist, negative answer is that all reservations are bad, in principle, because they devalue 'merit.' But we know that this super-hierarchical society has never run on merit, but rather on the perpetuation of extreme stratification. 'Merit' is often a mask for privilege, monopolised by society's upper echelons.

The no-nonsense answer is that there are poor layers among the savarna (upper castes), but that job reservations are not the right solution. Reservations are not bad per se. Indeed, affirmative action is necessary to help those who face chronic social discrimination. But when applied to upper castes, job quotas will distort and subvert the ends of justice. To understand why, we must recall the original rationale of reservations under the Constitution.

The Constitution did not provide for reservations for Dalits and Adivasis because they are poor or economically disadvantaged (which most of them are). It did so because these groups faced an explicit, structured, systematic denial of their human dignity, and exclusion from public life for centuries on grounds of descent. The denial of the Dalit's humanity was sanctioned by the dharma shastras, beginning with the Manusmriti. Anti-Dalit discrimination based on ritual 'impurity' and 'untouchability' has received more religious legitimacy than any other obnoxious practice in Indian society.

Reservations were above all an acknowledgement of this horrifying injustice and a means of bringing these hitherto-ostracised sections into the social and political mainstream. This was the moral rationale of Article 16, which creates the right to equal opportunity and employment in public offices, but with the proviso under Article 16(4) that the state can reserve appointments for under-represented 'backward classes of citizens.' The founding fathers recognised during the Constitution Assembly debates that although equality of opportunity is important, there must 'be a provision for the entry of certain communities which have so far been outside the administration.'

Job reservations for the upper castes cannot possibly have such justification. The savarnas were never excluded from the mainstream or discriminated against on grounds of descent. Nor have they, by any stretch of the imagination, faced a denial of their human dignity. The scriptures, which they interpret, have never sanctioned discrimination against them as a group.

The function of quotas in jobs and educational institutions is not so much to help individuals improve their economic condition, as to uplift and empower a whole community of underprivileged people whose aspirations were crushed for centuries. The function is political, rather than economic. This rationale doesn't apply to savarnas, however poor. As a group, they are privileged and hence undeserving of preferential treatment. Undeniably, there are some underprivileged savarna individuals, who are under-represented in government employment too. After all, India is a society of 'competing inequalities' and injustices, and of extremely uneven development. But reservations aren't meant, and shouldn't be used, to address the grievances of individuals.

Again, reservations for savarnas cannot be equated with quotas for Dalits without obscuring the quality of discrimination and oppression the wretched of the Indian earth face. To this day, Dalits are killed, made to carry human excreta on their heads, and humiliated in a hundred other ways, or raped -- by virtue of being Dalits. Even an economically better-off Dalit remains socially disadvantaged. Most Dalit children are never exposed to books and newspapers. They learn 'dialects,' rather than the 'standard' language of the savarnas. They don't remotely enjoy equal opportunity vis-a-vis upper-caste children.

The poorest of Brahmins can excommunicate a Dalit or impose ritual insult or punishment upon her, however rich she might be. So uniquely special is the Dalits' oppression and exclusion that it is necessary and justifiable to reserve jobs for them in proportion to their population share. This does not apply to the OBCs although they too face systematic social discrimination, as the Mandal Commission documented in respect of 3,743 castes. That's why it recommended 27 percent reservation, roughly half the OBC population share. The moral rationale of the Mandal Commission was to break the savarna stranglehold on government jobs and the professions, unaffected by two centuries of modern education and nearly half a century of democracy.

There is a practical problem with EBC quotas too. Almost anyone can obtain a false income certificate in India. Our rich are known for their propensity to cheat -- as countless corporate scandals prove. It will be hard to prevent abuse of EBC quotas. But it's not easy to fake caste certificates. Analysts agree that over 90 per cent of such certificates are authentic because even the village patwari is worried by the consequences of issuing fake certificates -- eg the rival of a close relative getting a government job.

We must distinguish between three kinds of measures to help the socially disadvantaged: affirmative action, positive discrimination, and strict quotas in school/college admissions and jobs. Affirmative action can take many forms: setting up special schools or vocational guidance facilities, and even declaring that the government will encourage specific groups to apply for jobs, etc. Some of these can be extended to the truly poor savarna strata.

Positive discrimination, such as loose quotas or preference in state employment or fee concessions in schools and colleges, should be confined to Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs alone. Strict quotas in seats in educational institutions and state jobs must be available only to the most disadvantaged of the Dalits and tribals, barring 'creamy' layers.

Thus, there is good reason why the Congress and BJP should reconsider the EBC quota move. Yet, neither is likely to do so in a hurry. The Congress has lost most of its upper-caste base in the Hindi belt. It would like to make a dent in the savarna vote before the coming assembly election. The BJP is desperate to win back its eroding support. In UP, its savarna base is in tatters. It cannot possibly win the assembly elections unless it regains its savarna core-constituency. That's why EBC quotas make the BJP salivate. The Indian Express quotes a party office-bearer: 'This … is going to be the Ram-baan (panacea) for all our ailments …[By working for EBC quotas], we will beat our adversaries hands-down even in UP.'

The Congress should know that in the long run, the BJP is better placed to win savarna support. Its Hindutva core-ideology has a distinct upper-caste bias. It emphasises the Greater Traditions within Hinduism, including the smritis and Brahminical scriptures, not the Little Traditions that are popular among the lower castes. The savarnas are 'naturally' attracted to the BJP's pro-globalisation, pro-privatisation policies which favour the upper-caste elite. Their bond with the BJP is far stronger than that with the Congress.

The Congress lacks a coherent upper caste-friendly identity and risks losing some of its core support by pushing for EBC quotas. This is even truer of other secular parties -- certainly the Left, and also Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Bahujan Samaj Party, Telugu Desam and Janata Dal. The Congress has a clear stake in returning to ordinary people's agendas. The BJP doesn't. But will the Congress resist the temptation to make short-term gains at the expense of its own long-term interests? This is anybody's guess.

Praful Bidwai