Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat’s call to review reservation and the unending speculation about its impact on the Bihar elections seemed to open a new window for debate on the reservation policy. But this window is set into a wall of upper-caste prejudice and offers only a biased and selective view. From here, reservation appears to be a bribe-like benefit gifted to undeserving but electorally significant (lower) castes by politicians playing vote-bank politics.
Whatever its original good intentions, today reservation has outlived its usefulness — it is a welfare programme gone rogue, perpetuating casteism and strangling merit. It should be scrapped altogether or at least purged of caste; if at all they are needed, quotas should be based on purely economic criteria. The national effort should be to forget caste and focus on development.
To the vast majority of readers of English newspapers, this view of reservation would seem both sensible and unbiased. In fact, the attribution of caste bias to a position demanding the abolition of all caste-based reservation would itself seem prejudiced.
But a different window on reservation is indeed available. Despite sharing the same ultimate goal of transcending caste, it offers an unrecognisably different view.
According to the alternate view, the essential purpose of reservation is not — and has never been — the redressal of poverty, “backwardness”, or some other deficiency suffered by the lower castes. Reservation is the remedy for an upper-caste disease — namely, the practice of systematic caste discrimination legitimised for centuries by law and custom. It counters the socially coerced exclusion of lower castes from positions of power and privilege with constitutionally mandated inclusion via quotas.
In fact, the idea of reservation as a public promise of social inclusion formed the precondition for the idea of India, as embodied in the Ambedkar-Gandhi Poona Pact of 1932, and later enshrined in the Constitution. That is why reservation focused on sources of power and social status within the purvey of the state, such as the legislature, government jobs and higher education. And it ignored economic criteria because it was targeting the social exclusion of specific castes and tribes.
It is crucial to remember that the expansion of reservation to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) at the national level happened in 1991, after a full four decades of forgetting caste and focusing on development. It is a hard fact that pro-poor and supposedly caste-blind development nevertheless turned out to be strongly caste-biased, with the upper castes reaping most of its benefits and the lower castes and Adivasis bearing the bulk of its costs. Contrary to the dominant view, development is not a benign caste-free alternative to reservation. The former generally maintains or widens the social and economic gap between caste groups, while the latter tries to reduce it. It could not have been otherwise in the early decades, because the state apparatus entrusted with implementing development was overwhelmingly upper caste. Only a social revolution could have inspired or compelled privileged state functionaries to sacrifice their caste interests. But this was thwarted by an entirely upper caste leadership that restricted the revolt against caste to homoeopathic doses of “Harijan welfare”. The rhetoric of caste blindness censored caste from public debate and ensured that development modernised
and strengthened its hierarchies. Having inherited the benefits of a formally caste-blind but substantively caste-biased development, today’s upper castes feel a deep sense of caste-less entitlement. They no longer need to invoke their caste — they just need the anonymity of formal equality to leverage their inherited advantages.
Unlike development, reservation refuses to be blind to caste. It is the only state initiative that positively enables inclusion of lower castes, rather than merely deterring discrimination. It is also a robust and transparent programme, whose benefits are long lasting and difficult to divert. On the other hand, its burden is truly immense because quotas are only the means towards the much larger end of fully integrating society and diversifying its elite. The true task of reservation is to make the caste composition of the unreserved category resemble the caste composition of society, and this takes several generations. But it is not an impossible goal, as demonstrated by Tamil Nadu, the state closest to achieving it with the help of the longest running (since 1921) and largest (69 per cent) reservation programme in the country. On the whole, however, reservation has travelled a rocky road in post-Independence India, constrained by the apathy of administrators, wanton misuse by opportunist politicians of all castes and, above all, by the visceral, relentless opposition of the upper castes.
To renew our faith in reservation we need to remind ourselves that upper-caste domination of positions of privilege is very much a part of our present. There are no lower castes among our wealthiest industrialists and businessmen, nor among the top decision-makers in the media. While there are some rare exceptions in the top rungs of the major professions, the overwhelming domination of the upper castes continues. After six decades of reservation, less than 10 per cent of top Central government officers (joint secretary and above) are from the reserved categories, and it is only in the last decade that the composition of elite higher educational institutions has slowly begun to change. Popular prejudice projects landownership and politics as areas from where the upper castes have been evicted, but this is simply not true. Though intermediate castes have a significant presence as landowners, upper castes still lead in most states. Despite the importance of backward castes in regional politics, upper castes have always had the largest share of Lok Sabha members and in 2014, their share was more than double that of backward castes (roughly 44 per cent versus 20 per cent).
Reservation is currently the only programme that directly addresses caste inequality and exclusion. Those for whom “review” is code for killing or crippling reservation must explain how they propose to tackle these problems. Since a strong caste hierarchy cannot coexist for long with a strong democracy, the choice is obvious.