Some preliminary thoughts on the Reservation Issue...(I need to restructure and solidify this article..something to be done later).
Ever since HRD Minister Arjun Singh announced the implementation of consitutionally mandated reservations for OBCs to the tune of 27% in Central Universities and Institutions, a virtual class war has been unleashed, partly fuelled by incessant media coverage, partly by agitated students increasingly getting jittery about their future prospects, partly by corporate and intellectual support (by members of the Knowledge Commission) and partly because India's neoliberal path suddenly hit yet another bumper. Eventually the sum of all the parts have taken a great toll and the Hulk, as you would call it, has raged two weeks now, seemingly not realizing that reservations are here to stay, no matter how long or how loud are these protests, and not realizing that reservations in Central Institutions are part of a process that had its antecedents not in Arjun Singh's train of thought but which has come after a century of social churning, resulting in what many like Yogendra Yadav calls, "The Second Democratic Upsurge" or what Ashutosh Varshney modifies as the "Fourth Democratic Upsurge".
The Media aren't persipient enough (and I am blaming the yellow press and the tele-media, not the sections of the media which care to analyse decisions in depth, like for e.g., The Hindu, but again I am termed prejudiced toward The Hindu, so I will let it pass), but thats another story for another blog. Lets first get to answer, as to whether the Reservations in Central Institutions as a means toward social justice is justified at all, and what else/more/at all should be done indeed for social justice, and whither social justice, social justice vs merit?, all these questions in this short blog piece.
First, Reservations on the basis of Caste. The favorite argument of those against reservations, is that if the end is to eradicate Caste, why do you need Caste based reservations at all? This is a rather innocent question, and the answer would have to start from the definition of Caste in India itself.
Caste is a phenomenon unique to India, which divides people on the basis of birth and cuts across religions..therefore there are caste Muslims and Dalit Christians as well in our country!. Caste as a phenomenon, as I said, exists in two different fashions in the country, accentuating the urban-rural divide. In urban, liberal India, where modern institutions are more active, more relevant to public life, where rationality of the market has permeated to a certain extent, Caste has in the words of Gopal Guru, "transmogrified" itself. You wouldnt' see different sets of people travelling in a train together complaining about "pollution", "distance" etc..thats the dialectical effect of modernity in the form of train travel. You wouldn't see people complaining about using common tumblers for drinking water/ milk at a public hotel, nor would you see people complaining about same sets of chairs and seats for all castes in theaters, in parks etc. You would of course notice a class divide, the sparkling multiplexes and malls vs the filthy chawls and stalls, the expensive shawls and stolles vs the ragged crawls and brawls. But again I am digressing.
In urban India, casteism has to be drawn from the proverbial well using Dronacharya's eye of the needle, caste exists hidden but loosely yet not fully subjugated..Peer into the Classified sections of the newspapers, and lo and behold, you find Caste there.. Marriage columns: caste is a factor, the inner home: Caste hangs over there in the "gotras", "the horoscopes" and in the yearning to create the ideal match for this or that son or daughter. Yes, Caste does exist and cannot be wished away. It exists in a transmogrified form, but it does exist. In some companies, caste acts a factor in recruitment; even in the formally rational Television shows, where fair wins over dark, you notice that those from the lower echelons of the caste system and of the darker, frailer skin, noticed and ignored..Casteism acts therefore in the subterfuge, but exists.
In Villages, the picture is clearer, Casteism is not transmogrified, free to function without the gaze of rationality heaped by modernity, and supported by the bulwark of traditionalism, caste is what that structures village life. The higher your caste, the greater your proximity to resources, the Brahmins hardly work on fields or toil on the lands, they are free to "teach", to "preach" and invariably "usure", and they are the most educated of the lot, they hardly have to move a muscle, the traders, charge and discharge, enjoy the privileges of being the determiners of the village economy and are the first to tide over any village crisis, the peasants are also organized on the basis of caste...the middle and lower peasantry, typically the OBCs, the landless, typically the Untouchables or the SC/STs all hanging on to one another in a pyramidical hierarchial structure, with the topmost having the greatest access to resources, and the bottommost the greatest necessity to toil and physical labour.
You can therefore imagine two pyramids...One pyramid showing the caste hierarchy and the other a reverse pyramid showing the resources..these two pyramids are directly linked..these village structures are almost uniform in North India, while in South India, due to a prolonged churning of society due to the rationality and the anti-Brahman movement in Tamil Nadu, the Communist movement in Kerala and Andhra to some extent, things are slightly changed..there has been a “restructuration” of caste…simultaneously a restructuration of the village structures and the access to resources…which leads to the question of how did this happen? Again..though this is relevant, I think, this question is to be answered in a separate and detailed blog or article, but if one has the patience to read Varshney’s article “Is India becoming more democratic” or Jaffrelot’s “India’s silent revolution” , he can get a picture.
In South India, the non-Brahmin movement and its articulation for social change, was harped on restructuring the iniquitous caste system. Reservations were mandated early in the 20th century, and modern institutions were forced to undergo affirmative action, including the bureaucracy. Eventually, there emerged political power for the lower castes and its political units, and social churning became an inevitable phenomenon, resulting ultimately in the radical transformation of the echelons of power and prestige as well as access to amenities such as education, health and to some extent ownership of land. It was not a direct straight line process, but a rather curved skewed one, but there can be no denying in the changes seen in South Indian society over the years.
If one from, say, the 17th or 18th century visited South India, he could have seen this change, not merely effects of modern institutions but the restructuration of the notions and hierarchies of caste. Deficiencies still remain, what has occurred is not a complete eradication of caste as a system, but a change in the structure and the hierarchy, yet hierarchy and structures still remain. That’s the story of South India.
In North India, however, the political and social movements from the vestiges of the lower castes were late to take off. Firstly, peasant proprietors , after independence acting as a class, tried to resolve their class interests, led by Charan Singh and his Lok Dal in what was a class movement, whilst Ram Manohar Lohia and his “socialists” worked upon to launch a caste based movement, articulating caste based benefits and political power..which has resulted in the strengthening of the OBC parties such as the Janata Dal and later its successors such as the RJD, SP, JD(U) in UP, Bihar and even in Gujarat. Even the pan-Hindu BJP has had to articulate the concerns of the OBCs and that has resulted in the rise of such leaders such as Uma Bharati and Kalyan Singh..the demands and rise of the OBCs therefore has a historical basis and an inevitability to it, owing to the universal adult franchise system that has been put in place and the rise in political power and concomitant social statuses.
There however has not occurred any substantial economic status change and the mixed capitalist system has endured a system of privileges that has stuck with a certain section of the populace, invariably upper caste and historically privileged. Here is where the articulation of reservations have come in. The lower castes and the SC/STs vote overwhelmingly in elections. They are what that determine the fortune of politicians and create leaders and political parties actually in real. If political power cannot help these people gain in their economic statuses, then it would be in jeopardy…no wonder there is a overwhelming consensus for reservations.
Now that one has constructed a historical, social, political and economic profile of the OBCs, even in a rather “blog” like manner and understood the raison d’etre for reservations and its relevance as a weapon for social change and its inevitability, one has to justify the same on certain universal principles of justice, otherwise it would become untenable.
Here is where one has to understand the kind of economic bases that constitute Indian society. India is predominantly a capitalist economy (even if not fully developed) in its urban centers, a semi-feudal set up in rural India predominantly. Social change in such a system, based on tuning of the system from within, is well possible using the tenets of welfare liberalism. Ideal Contractualists such as John Rawls have argued for principles of justice being realized in such societies. Rawls argues for equality of opportunity only to qualify it with the difference principle, wherein he argues for re-ordering of the offices of distribution to that extent that those who have historically been disadvantaged benefit from policies of re-ordering. To this to be possible, he argues for people to think from the original position, by throwing away their identities and arguing for principles of justice by thinking rationally, something that has not been witnessed in the Media, where a war of castes has been unleashed.
Offices, amenities are still invariably lopsided in terms of access and presence, despite changes made by Mandal reservations in the bureaucracy, public institutions etc. Any statistical look at occupation of seats in institutions across India shows a certain lopsidedness, reservations therefore from the Rawlsian axes are tenable. When there is a direct link between access to amenities and economic wealth and the caste system as in Rural India therefore, caste based reservations seem tenable again. Yet this is not the case about urban India. Here is where the creamy layer criterion has to be adopted and implemented.
Again the category of OBCs is a rather loose one. Several dominant castes exist within this OBC category such as the Jats of Punjab, Haryana ( who had been included in the NDA govt.’s tenure) and even the Yadavs etc. A reformulation hence has to be made to strictly match the economic and marginalization profile of OBCs, which is also a true fact, Lodhis, Telis, Vanniyars invariably are marginalized, economically and socially and are deserving of affirmative action.
Next, the notion of “merit”. In a lopsided system, merit is a construct that doesn’t include the social merit that which has been historically and sociologically privileged, creating a certain system, where there are a few who are always de’merited’ and hence incapable of competition. The logic of merit therefore is not sufficient enough.
Thus one can argue for reservations of this form: one which excludes the dominant castes of even the OBCs and creamy layers (deterimined by the simple criteria of yearly income of Rs 1,00,000 which entails someone as a income tax payer). Now the question that arises is whether reservations alone can change society and rid its ills? That’s the most pertinent question.
Despite access to higher education being provided and a share of the amenities pie, that is entailed therefore, no radical restructuring can be made without transformation of ownership of the means of production. Why? Because even if reservations to higher education is provided, people in rural India cannot be in a position to avail it, because they are not even in a position to reach such levels. What therefore is required is land reforms, which provides peasants and others lower in the hierarchy the ability and means to purchase economic power, and also dignity, because the question of land is related to dignity.
State action is invariably therefore required for such things to happen, to enact true forms of social justice, reservations merely qualify as palliatives and helping in the creation of new elites instead of changing the class and caste structure radically. True, a change of elites provides a basis of subjugation of caste as an identifier of prestige and honour, and hence a change in ideas, but mere change in ideas is not enough to answer questions of social justice and the building up of a harmonious society of equitable exchange.
Thus, to conclude, I would suggest that all those who are anti-reservation must realize that the historical processes that have resulted in a situation like today entail that one cannot wish away reservation, as much as one argues against it, there are sociological reasons that are relatively sound enough that buttress the argument for reservations. Then, again, one needs to articulate that even if reservation as a policy is implemented, careful analysis of how exactly it benefits those it intends to benefit, has to be done. At the same time, for those who argue for social justice, it must be understood that mere social change and transfer of elites would not change the societal structure and annihilate caste..a full and thorough blown change in rural India vis-à-vis land ownership and concerted state action are a must. One must therefore strengthen the nation state, at the same time decentralizing power to effect a change in structures in rural areas, and argue for substantial rationality in the functioning of urban modern institutions and not merely push for neo-liberal reforms that perpetuate inequality and exacerbate class and caste tendencies.