Why Arguments Against Reservation are Flawed
Kalyani, Prashant Ingole
Reservations are one of the most debated topics
in India but in many of these discussions the question of social justice is
completely sidelined. Social justice needs to be understood in terms of
representation and integration of the members of Scheduled Castes and Tribes
and backward classes in the social mainstream. One out of four Indians
continues to practice untouchability a study conducted by the NCAER and the University
of Maryland in 2014 found. Almost every third Hindu (30%) admitted to the practice,
followed by Sikhs (23%), Muslims (18%) and Christians (5%). Thus, questioning
the reservation system instead of the flaws in social justice delivery is the
biggest irony of the reservation debate.
The general perception about reservations is
that they are "perpetuating caste". It is even more ironic that this argument
has any currency today, considering OBC candidates are being denied
reservations at the all-India level under the National Eligibility Cum Entrance
Test (NEET). This is understood to have denied 11,000 candidates from backward classes an opportunity
to compete for seats in medical and dental colleges around the country since
2017. This denial of representation coincides with their almost
negligible presence in central
and state universities and other institutions.
The concept of creamy layer among OBC has
further diluted their institutional representation. In a way, rather than
creating a class distinction, the creamy layer concept has contributed to
diluting the purpose of reservations, which is to ensure integration of the
oppressed masses and the privileged few. A similar logic of creamy layer also
may expand to SC/STs.
Most anti-reservation arguments lack newness,
for they are largely based on a sense of deprivation among the relatively
privileged. Their opposition to reservations also widens the social gap in
India along primordial identities. Many arguments against reservation are also
a Brahmanical gimmick, wherein Dalit-Bahujans are painted in inferior light.
Social media is adding to this cacophony by circulating rumours about how
affirmative action in the form of reservation compromises merit, promotes
caste, and so on.
The fundamental premise of these arguments is
flawed for the elite castes have not yet distanced themselves from their
social, political, cultural and economic privileges. To understand these
privileges consider the representation of the privileged members of the upper
castes in the bureaucracy, media, judiciary, educational institutions, and so
on. The OBCs were only 8.05% of Group "A" and "B" employees in the Indian
Railways, only 15% of the Cabinet Secretariat, and 8.42% of the Human Resource
Development Ministry, the Indian Express recently reported. (The backward classes are entitled to 27%
reservations in central government employment.)
Contestations to the reservation system go back
to former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru's time. On 27 June 1961, in letters
to chief ministers, Nehru wrote, "It is true that we are tied up
with certain rules and conventions about helping Scheduled Castes and Tribes.
They deserve help but, even so, I dislike any kind of reservation, more
particularly in service."
While paradoxical ideas are being spread about
reservations, one needs to look closely at the historical underpinnings of why
the policy came to exist. It was introduced by Shahuji Maharaj, the ruler of
Kolhapur, in 1902 as 50% reservations for backwards and Dalits. Reservation was
explicitly discussed during the Poona Pact of 1932, when Babasaheb Ambedkar
pitched for separate electorates along with Rettamalai Srinivasan.
However, the inclusion of the Dalits in
education and jobs impinges on the continuation of reservations-refer to the
NCAER report cited above and numerous other studies that illustrate their
active and ongoing discrimination. Yet, contradictory winds seem to keep
blowing, wherein reservations in education and jobs are being nullified in
practice by heavily privatising educational institutions and contractualising
employment. This has compromised university access and job opportunities for
all underprivileged students, the least privileged SC/ST students in
Reservation mandates 49.5% seats to be reserved
for SCs, STs and OBCs, while the rest fall in the general category which is
also known as unreserved or UR. Now because the government has introduced 10%
reservations for Economically Weaker Sections or EWS candidates, the general
category stands at 40%. But what really exposes the casteist mindset is that
non-general students who qualify on the so-called merit list are often spurned
by institutions and their peers and asked to seek admission in the "reserved" category instead. This exposes how the charge of lacking "merit" is a ruse to
halt democratisation of institutions. Fact is, non-reserved seats are seen by "upper" caste candidates as belonging to them.
Since the late eighties, Dalit-Bahujan job
aspirants have complained that they are categorised by examiners and interviewers
as "Not found Suitable" or NFS. They say that this is done as a strategy to
raise the bar of entry so that SC, ST and OBCs are unable to cross the
threshold of government service.
Another argument that is often pitched against
the reservation system is that it has benefited "very few" or that it is a "failed" policy. However, the benefits of reservation reaches a small number of
SC, ST and OBC aspirants only because fewer and fewer vacancies are being
created in the government sector. This is not a problem of the reservation
policy per se. Reservation is aimed to ensure adequate "representation" to
those who have been historically denied access to institutional spaces or are
socially and educationally backward by virtue of their class/caste location.
Ensuring wider representation to oppressed and
left-behind communities can ensure their social and psychological integration
on every field on the national stage. It is a mockery that a country with 85%
Dalit-Bahujan composition has them as the least-represented section. The
question is, how poorly are reservations being implemented that their benefits
fail to reach the intended beneficiaries?
What people who oppose reservation choose to
forget is that it is just an entry criterion, and when it comes to performance
its beneficiaries do not get any benefits or relaxations. Besides, time and
again, the students from social categories eligible for reservations have
proven their excellence. In 2018, a Stanford
University finding that ST
and SC engineering students, followed by OBC students, "learn at a faster
rate than those from
the general category" was widely reported. The report also found that the "gains in
learning are higher in elite institutions-IITs and NITs- compared to non-elite
institutions". This points towards the urgent need to improve the quality of
our public institutions and build more of them rather than bicker over who gets
to study in them.
The Stanford study proves that when given an
equitable opportunity SC, ST and OBC students have the same potential and
their peers in any field. In
the garb of anti-reservation arguments, the main objective is to target
students along caste lines and make them feel inferior.
That the reservation system does not re-create
the caste system is proven by statistics which reveal the sharp
rise in violence against
members of the SC, ST and non-elite sections of the OBC communities.
Anti-reservation propagandists need to check their facts. What creates caste is
the violent social structure of stratification and not the affirmative action
which gives hope to Dalit-Bahujan to transcend the boundaries of caste.
Are members of elite castes ready to sacrifice
their privileges? If not, they have their answer to why reservation is needed,
for the old social hierarchy of caste still prevails. Reservation is just one
step to deconstruct the psychological notions that support this social order.
For the oppressed, inclusive politics is not
divorced from political resistance. In other words, making political claims are
a way for the suppressed to contest their status in caste society. A politics
overwhelmed by elite castes is not critiqued for being "casteist". The
Constitution ensures social,
political and economic democracy
and reservations are enshrined in it as a great leveller of the uneven terrain.
Unfortunately, its flawed implementation is ignored and anti-reservation
sentiments get centre-stage thanks to misplaced arguments.
Kalyani is a doctoral candidate at the Center
for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Prashant
Ingole is a doctoral candidate in Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian
Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar. The views are personal.