If we set aside the most obvious objections to the proposal to provide 10 per cent reservation for the so-called “general category” — it is a cynical election stunt, will prove legally unsustainable, and does not address the jobs crisis — we are left with something unexpectedly interesting. The Modi regime may be unintentionally playing the role of the child in the fable about the emperor’s new clothes. Its latest jumla enables us to finally see things about the vexed subjects of caste and reservation that we were blind to even though they were in plain sight.
For starters, consider the deafening silence of the champions of merit. Surely any quota, regardless of the identity of its beneficiaries, reduces the share of the meritorious. But where are all those enraged white-coated, stethoscope-wearing, laptop-bearing young men and women screaming about the murder of merit? Instead, we have the honourable finance minister, Arun Jaitley, explaining in the Rajya Sabha that merit cannot be measured merely by marks in examinations.
It is a lesson we should have learnt already since we know that only caste-based quotas provoke protests, not capitation fee quotas, management quotas, domicile quotas or other such quotas, but let us learn it again: Quotas for “them” are always suspect, but quotas for “us” are always justified, because the issue is not quota but caste, “ours” and “theirs”.
We are thus enabled to see that caste is essentially a relationship and not an attribute. My caste is not a personal characteristic like my height or weight, but something that is embodied in my relationships with others, including both those who are like me and constitute an “us” for me, and those who are different and constitute a “them”. Unfortunately, caste is not just any kind of relationship — it involves hierarchy, and therefore, discrimination. Even more unfortunately, discrimination is a normal and unavoidable dimension of caste — it is not an excess or a pathology. Finally, because caste is an institution deeply embedded in our society, people are socialised into conforming to its norms. This means that good people can and do practise caste discrimination in good faith because it is the social norm. It also implies that persistent inter-caste inequalities are the product of unequal and discriminatory relationships between castes — they are not the result of individual (or collective) virtues or vices.
Now that the Modi government has persuaded us that reservation can also be used to address economic deprivation, we may be tempted to go a step further to ask: Why do we need caste-based reservation at all — why isn’t it based on poverty alone? The answer begins with the basic fact that being poor is different from belonging to the lower castes, even though most of the poor belong to the lower castes. While all poor people regardless of caste face economic discrimination, such discrimination ends for upper caste people once they are no longer poor. But lower caste people continue to face social discrimination in different ways no matter how rich they become — for example, they may find it difficult to rent an apartment or join a club. And they often face discrimination within their own class. Thus, lower caste IAS officers, corporate executives, doctors, and professors have been documented as facing subtle yet debilitating forms of discrimination from their peers.
But the main part of the answer has to do with the fact that discrimination results in exclusion. If we leave society alone, then the normal mechanisms of economy, polity and culture will ensure that customary discriminatory practices will produce exclusive ghettoes of privilege and disprivilege. Indeed, this is how reservation began — as a guarantee of inclusion to those who were rigorously excluded from all social interaction. Reservation was not intended to alleviate poverty or provide any material benefits — it was meant to counter forced exclusion. As a form of mandatory inclusion, reservation is clearly the most effective and perhaps the only means for countering exclusion. But it is certainly not the only or even the best means for countering poverty.
Conversely, caste-blind rather than caste-based methods of reducing inter-caste inequality do not really work. Soon after Independence, the Nehru era adopted precisely such a model of caste-blind development meant to uplift all poor people. But over the next four decades, this served to sustain and deepen caste inequalities, while cementing the prejudiced upper caste misconception that reservation was simply another welfare programme.
The Mandal eruption of 1990-91 was an earlier emperor’s-new-clothes moment. It exposed the public secret that our most lavishly pampered minority were the Hindu upper castes, who cornered most positions of power and privilege as well as the bulk of the wealth of the country despite constituting only around 15 per cent of the population. Even today, the wealthiest 1 per cent of our population (consisting almost entirely of the upper castes) owns more than half the nation’s wealth. The Mandal moment gave rise to the second avatar of reservation for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Though it effected a long delayed social revolution, Mandal allowed us to forget that reservation was merely the means, not the end.
Even as it attempts to revive the myth of a caste-less “general category”, the third avatar of reservation incarnated on January 9 invites us to believe that the non-affluent segments of the upper castes are as deserving of reservation as the SCs, STs and OBCs. Like the third avatar of the Hindu trimurti, this avatar too may prove to be the destroyer. Of course, as the means to an end, caste-based reservation is hardly a holy cow deserving protection at all costs, and its design can surely be refined. Moreover, today reservation can at best affect 3-4 per cent of all jobs, and is therefore like the proverbial grain of jeera in the mouth of the camel that is caste discrimination and inequality. But is this a prelude to a future invitation to believe that there is no camel at all, or that it is actually an ant for whom a single grain is a feast?
The writer teaches sociology at Delhi University