The battle lines in the anti-Mandal agitation of the early 1990s were clear: Those against quotas called themselves “pro-merit”, with supporters being dubbed “casteist”, a label that became synonymous with “anti-merit”, reinforcing the stereotypical equation of upper-caste status with merit or ability. Even though the proximate cause of the turmoil was the extension of quotas to OBCs at the Central government level, the anti-reservation agitation attacked the policy in its entirety, including publicly mocking the constitutionally mandated quotas for SCs and STs.
Coming on the heels of the anti-reservation agitations in Gujarat in the mid-1980s, the dominant discourse of the time condemned reservations and those that used them. The need for reservations was seen as a public display of weakness, an admission of inadequacy, of lack of intrinsic “merit”, a dependence on the state that could only be pitied.
As the public sector was retreating, the domestic economy was increasingly becoming globalised, the loosening of state control and growing privatisation were expected to open up new opportunities for advancement, both by increasing the size of the pie (via sustained higher growth), and by introducing new types of jobs. The anti-quota discourse blended in seamlessly with this optimism — who needs reservations in the dark and dingy public sector when there is a shining new world outside?
Clearly the events of the last decade and a half didn’t deliver the promised prosperity, not sufficiently anyway, for the state sector to lose its allure permanently. The ferocity with which dominant castes — Patidars in Gujarat, Jats in Haryana, Kapus in Andhra Pradesh — have turned towards the state and the public sector, demanding access to jobs and higher education, indicates that the fortunes of a large proportion of these communities didn’t swing upwards adequately.
The irony of this new quota rush among the dominant castes is obvious. One, the earlier insistence on quotas being for the weak or the incompetent has been abandoned. Two, if we examine which communities benefited from the liberalisation and globalisation of the economy, these have overwhelmingly been the upper and dominant castes. The new avenues that did open up were, by and large, cornered by those who were able to take advantage of the new opportunities — namely, those with English language and technical skills. The existing evidence does not point towards a reduction, over the last 15 years, of historical inter-caste disparities. Thus, while not all members of these groups benefited from market-led development, those that did belonged overwhelmingly to the upper, dominant castes.
Affirmative action has been the predominant mechanism to desegregate the elite, to increase the presence of marginalised groups in decision-making positions. As the role of the state shrinks, so does the redistributive potential of affirmative action. The new quota rush by the not-backward communities ends up eroding this already limited, continuously dwindling, entitlement for Dalits and Adivasis.
The loud, forceful and violent demand for quotas by the dominant castes runs parallel to the state’s exhortations to Dalits to turn towards self-employment, as if that is a panacea for discrimination. My research with Smriti Sharma shows that Dalits and Adivasis face discrimination in the business sector as well. However, given these multiple demands, how should we identify individuals/ groups/ communities that need a special push to achieve substantive equality? This question can (and should) only be answered empirically. Do large data sets reveal persistent, contemporary, significant disparities and discrimination by caste? Yes, and so caste is indeed a major axis of disadvantage. However, in order to make quotas truly commensurate with backwardness, the criteria for eligibility and the assessment process should be transparent, which is only possible with publicly available detailed caste-level data. The 2014 National Commission for Backward Classes study already rejected the Jats’ claim to backwardness. The government should reiterate these results and reaffirm the original purpose of affirmative action — to translate legal or formal equality into substantive equality by focusing the policy on the most marginalised.
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