In the wake of Hardik Patel’s theatrics demanding reservation for the prosperous Patel community in Gujarat, there has been a concerted appeal for a review of the policy of affirmative action, based on the well-worn arguments that reservation has hardened caste identities; that discrimination against Dalits is a thing of the past; that reservation is eroding efficiency in administration; that Dalits are now empowered and have a sizeable share of government posts, etc. Convoluted, impractical methods to recalibrate the reservation calculus are being trotted out. Baijayant Panda, a BJD Lok Sabha MP from Odisha, invoked a 2013 analysis by The Economist on the debatable benefits of reservation to endorse the view that making government service representative rather than capable “makes it hard to remove the dysfunctional or corrupt”, thereby smearing the beneficiaries of reservation with the most odious attributes. The unmistakable subtext is that reservations must be scrapped.
Casteism in this country has never needed props and it is a mistake to blame the reservation policy for strengthening caste identity. Caste consciousness is integral to our everyday lives; we are all scarred by it. So ingrained is caste in our collective psyche that even a Dalit who converts to Christianity or Sikhism or Islam is hobbled by her social origins. An irrational belief in Dalit inferiority is embedded in our culture. Recognising the social exclusion and oppression faced by Dalits, our founding fathers ensured that the Constitution had provisions such as Article 46, which says: “The state shall promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections… and in particular of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.” More than six decades later, we are nowhere near fulfilling this pledge.
For purveyors of the myth that discrimination against Dalits is no longer a social problem — the “look at Mayawati” argument — reports from the last few days must be discomfiting. Dalit families in Yellaram village in Telangana recently allegedly faced a social boycott because some of them had been in the vicinity of two temples. As retribution, they were not offered work and their children were denied milk. In another incident in Karnataka, upper castes reportedly imposed a penalty of Rs 1,000 on four Dalit women for entering a temple. According to home ministry estimates, thousands of atrocities against Dalits are committed every year. In 2013, there were 39,408 registered cases of atrocities against SC/ STs. Many more went unreported.
Panda’s aforementioned article celebrates the fact that the “proportion of Dalits at the highest levels of the civil services has increased from just 1.6 per cent to 11.5 per cent in 2011”. What is conveniently glossed over is the fact that in 2011, out of 149 secretary-level posts at the Centre, where decision-making is concentrated, there was not a single SC officer. SCs and STs constitute almost 45.5 per cent of the safai karamcharis (sweepers) employed by the government. Needless to say, nobody begrudges them the disproportionate share of these posts. The resentment against reservation seems heartless when one considers that affirmative action is restricted to only a fraction of the millions of jobs where Dalits are otherwise marginalised.
Critics never tire of using the phoney pennant of merit to vilify Dalits, ignoring the complexities and rationale behind affirmative action. In our caste-ridden social milieu, a common mischievous assumption is that Dalits are at the bottom on account of their inherent inferiority. Sadly, recent judgments of the apex court have placed equality of opportunity in the narrowest sense above social justice by undermining reservations as conflicting with efficiency and excellence. How different that is from the worldview of Aristotle who, recognising the unevenness of social structures and relations, moderated the universal ideal of equal treatment of all human beings with his observation that justice implied the equal treatment of similar persons. Indeed, equal treatment of the unequal is an insidious way of perpetuating inequality. As Justice O. Chinnappa Reddy pointed out in a 1985 judgment: While “efficiency is not to be discounted, it cannot be used as a camouflage to let the upper classes take advantage of the backward classes in its name and to monopolise the services, particularly the higher posts and the professional institutions”.
In our elitist world, there is not a murmur when the state gives huge annual tax concessions to industry, or when people’s representatives sanction generous privileges for themselves. But the same society is outraged at the crumbs given to its most exploited and oppressed sections. The sheer virulence of the assault on affirmative action is evidence that the bastions of privilege will never willingly open their doors to Dalits. It is not the policy of reservations but the selfishness and prejudice of the privileged that stymie the national goal of a casteless society.
The writer, a former civil servant, is secretary general of the Lok Janshakti Party. Views are personal