Why Caste-based Reservations for SCs, STs Must Stay
Sometime ago, I was standing in a rather long queue in front of one of the counters at the General Post Office (GPO) in Bhubaneswar. The hassled young man on the other side of the counter was trying to dispose of his business as fast as was humanly possible. Yet, the queue was refusing to move at more than snail’s pace. Those standing in the queue were getting restless by the minute. All of a sudden, someone in the queue quipped; “What better can you expect from someone who has got his job through ‘quota’?” said the man to no one in particular. I was startled by the comment and protested because I could see, as could anyone who cared to, that the young man was already doing the best he could and no one, even if he did not get through ‘quota’, could have done any better.
I don’t know whether the man at the counter, who looked a tribal by appearance, failed to hear the blatantly casteist and grossly uncalled for remark or deliberately ignored it. But this one incident taught me how deeply casteism is embedded in our society. It also convinced me why caste, rather than financial status, should be the basis for affirmative action in India. The fact that this young man was educated and had got a job did not make him an equal with those belonging to the higher castes. If anything, it made him even more vulnerable to casteist jibe than he would have been otherwise.
This is the pattern all over India. Far from being accepted as social equals, those who have done well for themselves by taking advantage of reservation in education and jobs actually face greater hostility than their less fortunate brethren. If you don’t agree, go talk to a youth belonging to the barber caste in Puri. Having received some education – and with it some awareness – many new generation barber youths now refuse to do the abominable chore of washing the feet of the groom during marriage in a family belonging to the so-called higher caste. The retribution to such refusal has been brutal with members of the barber community assaulted physically, their homes burnt and their women manhandled and abused by members of the Khandayat Sabha. In the Hindi heartland of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, Dalits are pounced upon by higher castes for something as innocuous as wearing jeans, using a smart phone and playing DJ music or riding a horse during their marriage. Only recently, a youth in Gujarat was bludgeoned to death by members of the upper castes for having the cheek to ride a horse. It is thus clear that those among the lower castes who have climbed the socio-economic ladder are in even greater danger of caste violence.
There are other reasons why the reservation in education and jobs must stay for the scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs). Despite having the benefit of reservation for nearly seven decades now, their representation in the higher echelons of the bureaucracy, academia, judiciary and police is negligible. A Dalit at the Rashtrapati Bhavan or as the Chief Justice of India does not take away from the fact that a great majority of government posts reserved for these communities lie vacant for years on end or are gobbled up by those belonging to the higher castes fraudulently.
The ‘merit’ argument frequently used by the anti-reservation lobby, is actually a spurious one. Merit can be the sole consideration in jobs when there is a level playing field for everyone in the race which, as everyone knows, is not quite the case – at least not yet. There is, however, some merit in the argument for excluding the ‘creamy later’ while doling out reservation to the oppressed classes.
I, however, have an altogether different view when it comes to continuation of reservation for other castes, including those categorised as backward classes, and bringing more and more castes into the reservation fold. Competitive populism by political parties, camouflaged as ‘social justice’, has seen even the Patidars (Patels), one of the most prosperous castes in Gujarat and Brahmins, supposedly the inventors of the caste system, elsewhere demand a share of the reservation pie. In their eagerness to create vote banks, political parties have even circumvented the 50% limit mandated by the Supreme Court by taking recourse to the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution. A case in point is Tamil Nadu, where reservation is to the extent of 69%, 19% higher than the cap fixed by the apex court. This has to end. Otherwise, there may come a time in the near future when 100% jobs will be reserved for some caste or the other.
While reservations for Dalits and tribals, for whom the provision was included in the Constitution, must stay, it is perhaps time to rethink about the ever growing ambit of affirmative action and inclusion of more and more castes in it. This only helps pepetuate the caste system rather than end it.