Written by M Rajivlochan
Reservation has proved to be one of the most useless of strategies to provide social equality, justice and opportunity. Indians remain bound to each other in mutual contempt in the name of caste. Reservation was supposed to provide more equitable access to scarce resources in education and employment. However, the lack of educational and employment resources was, and remains, so intense that instead of reducing caste discrimination it has unintentionally sucked out hope. Everyone feels cheated. Those who benefit from it and those who do not.
If the research of professors Sukhadeo Thorat, Gopal Guru, Jean Dreze and their associates is anything to go by, then one of the consequences of reservation has been that far from being empowered, those who use reservation to enter the portals of higher education and corresponding employment, continue to suffer from low self-esteem, and, problems of asserting themselves in public life. People have even succeeded in replicating the same inequalities, indignities and unfairness, to fight which reservations had been provided in the first place. Privileged groups have come into existence which corner all the benefits of reservation. Women continue to be doubly disempowered within the reserved category, and targeted by families for marrying into a lower caste. Reservation seems to have done little to make society more equitable and fair, or in providing people with enough opportunities to grow out of the pernicious system of mutual contempt that goes by the name of the caste system in India.
It was in October 1951 that Babasaheb Ambedkar had included the promise of reservation in institutions of higher education in the manifesto of his All India Scheduled Castes Federation. He had argued that “advanced education of (a) high order, both in this country and outside, will enable these classes to fit themselves for taking hold of administration”. He promised to provide reservation in government appointments since “the services have become the monopoly of a few communities”. This, Ambedkar said, had created great enmity between the “higher classes” and the “lower classes” which resulted in “murders, arson and loot that were committed by members of the lower classes against members of the higher classes in 1948 in certain parts of India after the murder of Mr Gandhi.”
Giving “the lower classes higher education and to open to them the door of services is the only solution of this problem,” Ambedkar would say as he laid out his scheme to raise “the lower classes to the level of the higher classes in the matter of education”. This was in sync with the spirit of Articles 340, 341 and 342 of the Constitution that enjoined upon the government to make special efforts to “improve the conditions of the socially and educationally backward classes” in India.
It is a matter of fact that Ambedkar’s party was comprehensively defeated in the elections that followed. Nevertheless, noticing the misuse to which caste could be put by the existing power holders in India, on August 21, 1955, the meeting of the Working Committee of the All India Scheduled Castes Federation unanimously passed a resolution that “the provision for the reservation of seats for the Scheduled Castes in Parliament, in State Assemblies, in Municipalities and District and Local Boards be done away with immediately even before the next election”.
The Congress government which came to power implemented reservation in government employment and in higher education, and decided to ignore Ambedkar’s opinion on abolishing reserved seats in elected bodies. Seventy years have passed since then. Cases of murder, arson and loot by those whom Ambedkar called the lower class against the upper class have not been heard of. Rather, the opposite. There has been considerable empowerment of those from the lower castes. So much so that the successful among them have even created a Dalit Chamber of Commerce to help Dalit businesses understand and navigate the complicated and inefficient system of laws and regulations that hampers India. But this empowerment was not the result of reservation but of individual effort and opportunities. Creating more opportunities for everyone continues to remain the weakest link in India’s journey towards becoming a more equitable society.
The writer is professor, Contemporary History, Panjab University, Chandigarh
— This article first appeared in the July 1, 2019 print edition under the title ‘The Weakest Link’