Mainstream, VOL LIV No 1 New Delhi December 26, 2015
Saturday 26 December 2015, by
The following is a note by the author on a discussion on Affirmative Action in the private sector during a two-day international seminar on ”Dalits and African-Americans in 21st Century: Learning from Cross-Cultural Experiences” in Bengaluru on July 10-11, 2015. It is rejoinder to the comments in favour of reservations made by Prof Sukhdeo Thorat.
During the customary question-answer session following the presentation of Armugam Raju on Affirmative Action (AA) at the international seminar, I commented on the mistaken emphasis on this fancy issue of Affirmative Action (AA) in the private sector saying that its potential to provide jobs to Dalits is extremely constricted.
Rhetoric and Reality
I cited figures to give an idea of the size and composition of the private sector which is likely to be the candidate for extending the AA. Briefly, I stated that the Indian workforce is about 480 million. It is broadly divided into two segments. Nearly 94 per cent of the workforce is in the unorganised sector and the balance six per cent is in the organised sector. Over the years, the organised sector has shrunk from nearly eight per cent in the 1970s and 1980s to six per cent today because of the shift towards informalisation of labour during the neoliberal period. This tiny organised sector is further divided into two: public sector and private sector. The public sector still contributes close to 68 per cent of the organised sector employment and the private sector contributes the balance 32 per cent.
Unlike the public sector, which had some definitive structure, inherited from the adminis-trative bureaucracy (but which is breaking since the 1990s under market pressure to be competitive), the private sector reflects a spectrum with amorphous structure, one end of which could be depicted by fly-by-night operators and the other by the megalith multi-nationals like the Tatas and Reliance of this world. The space of the private sector could be seen further divided in terms of workforce into two segments: Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) and the big private companies, the former comprising approximately 70 per cent and the latter 30 per cent. While AA can be theoretically imagined to be applicable to the entire private sector, practically, only the big companies in the private sector can be seen as the real candidates. Notwit-hstanding this division, if one takes increasing casualisation, informalisation and contractuali-sation of labour, which today may be to the tune of 1:3 ratio (if one person is on the roll of the company, there shall be three workers on contract), the potential space reduces to a range of 0.019 per cent to 0.08 per cent, the realistic figure being closer to the former. This tiny space also may be deceptive. Much of it might comprise the working class space which may already have a preponderance of Dalits. The only difference it would make is that today they are incognito, unstigmatised; tomorrow they would be counted and get stigmatised as the undeserving beneficiaries.
The huge space of the private sector is occupied by the service sector companies like IT and telecom, which employ thousands of people every year. They face a huge crunch on the supply side and have been recruiting Dalit students en masse from the campuses. It is a different matter where these Dalit students get placed; they do get relatively lower rungs than others in the organisational hierarchy. It is not, however, only because of their caste but factors which constitute their class. They may not look as smart as non-Dalits in campus interviews, they may not speak as good English as others, may have relatively poor grades, etc. The difference can be marked in cases of first generation of Dalits and the second and third generation of Dalits. (first generation refers to the first-time beneficiary of reservation, second generation to the sons/daughters of parents who availed reservations and so on). Today they are respectably there without the caste stigma and have been progressing on their own steam. Tomorrow they will get branded as undeserving ‘sons-in-laws’. The potential space for AA in the private sector thus reduces to very small, may be just 10 to 20 per cent of the theoretical space that is computed above.
If one takes stock of the experience with the implementation of the quota system in the public sector, which infamously reflects insincerity of the establishment to give the Dalits their dues, it stands to anyone’s imagination what would happen to AA in the private sector. The potential benefits to the Dalits from AA in the private sector will as such be extremely small and nowhere close to constituting a solution, even a partial one, to the burgeoning problem of jobs for the Dalit youth. It is therefore that I called it constructing a mirage which most Dalits, reared in the identitarian culture, will be running after.
Aspects of Cost-benefit
The next point I made was about the cost-benefit analysis of the reservation, particularly in reply to a question asked of me by Comrade Bharat Patankar seeking elaboration of what I said. To his metaphorical question about what I would do in a drought situation, insinuating that reservations in the private sector were necessary to alleviate the drought of jobs being created by privatisation, I said that whatever we do cannot ignore the cost-benefit aspect of the action. We cannot pour money into the ditch in the name of drought eradi-cation. There is no benefit that does not have its associated cost. Reservations, if they were seen as benefit, also must have had cost.
However, I have not come across an iota of suggestion, much less discussion, about the cost of reservations that the Dalits paid. As a matter of fact, Dalits, though blissfully unaware, have already paid a huge cost for the reservations. The cost could be gauged in terms of the psychological damage Dalit children incur when they are made to stand up in a class as Scheduled Castes. It is the cost that conditions them to persistently produce self-fulfilling prophesies in terms of their performance.
The cost could be conceived in terms of political emasculation of educated Dalits, who are the only investments of this poor community. The cost may also be counted in terms of lifelong loss s/he accumulates through prejudiced prospects and eventually untimely burnout. It is therefore that I called the public sector a veritable burial ground for Dalit aspiration. For the sake of statistical compliance, the managements over the years strategised to take due numbers of Dalits but thereafter unleash a complex caste-dynamics by which they move up the ladder with the slowest pace, all others passing them by inducing demotivation and setting in a vicious cycle. In order to stress how this obsession for reservation has completely neglected the demands for inputs such as education, health, and livelihood security, indisputable basics for the empowerment of human beings.
What is the use of inclusion of a fellow who cannot even walk into a cricket team with reservation? This is no rhetoric; it depicts the reality today. Even reservation requires some basic wherewithal which is being systematically denied. It can be seen glaringly in the fact that the seats reserved in our IITs and IIMs are not getting filled for the last several years. I argued with Comrade Patankar, that if the state ensures that a child coming into the world without carrying an imprint of his parents’ disabilities and gets equal quality education through neighborhood schools, gets basic health care through the public health care system, one can see much of the need of such palliative as reservation being eliminated.
The thrust of my argument was that reservation in the private sector might prove to be a mirage. It does not have the capacity to compensate the losses due to privatisation. This, of course, was in a familiar format. The larger target was the obsession of the educated middle class for reservation to the utter neglect of the basic needs of the masses, which unpardonably betrayed their ignorance that even reservation subsumed them. If the masses are guaranteed basic ingredients for empowerment, reservations may not be needed, but never vice versa as the current situation of rural Dalits amply illustrate. If Dalit children continue to be stunted and anemic, excluded from quality education, what is the use of reservations? If there is no supply base to avail of reservations, any amount of reservation is bound to remain on paper.
Does this reflect the either-or proposition (either reservation or redistributive policies)? Actually, reservation itself being a redistributive measure, I did not quite understand how reservation could be pitched against redistribution, whatever the latter meant. However, Professor Sukhdeo Thorat, who was chairing the session, spoke for nearly an hour assuming that I was taking an either-or position between reservation and redistributive measures, conveniently marshalling historical arguments Dr Ambedkar made to emphasise his agenda of social justice in contention with the Congress as well as Communists. He did not counter any of my arguments about the incapacity of the private sector or the cost-benefit aspects of reservations or the primacy of the redistributive measures. He just focused on a single point: how redistri-bution (mistakenly equated with socialism) will not solve the problem of social discrimination and how most countries have some form of reservations in favour of their weaker sections in appreciation of this fact.
While I may deal with these points later in this note, I must say that they did not relate at all with the points I made. While his entire comment thus was off the point, it clearly created an impression in many superficial listeners that he refuted my points and reinforced the popular sentiment of the middle class Dalits in favour of reservations.
A Ruling Classes’ Weapon
No sane person can discount the need for historical reservations for Dalits simply because without them the Indian society would not have given them their dues. But the way the policy is formulated and enacted, it loses this sense and reduces it to become a powerful weapon in the hands of the ruling classes. It turned the concept on its head and consequently distorted everything to the detriment of Dalits. One can note many other infirmities of the provisions which not only produced deficient outcome but also had seriously affected the lives of Dalits in other spheres. One does not have to smell conspiracy, but if one takes a hard look at these policies one cannot miss that these policies have served the interests of the ruling classes many times more than they benefited the Dalits. It is unfortunate that none smelt this rot and kept singing praises to reservations.
Most people know that I am not sold to uncri-tically upholding reservations. I have presented my outspoken analysis to people over the last three decades exposing the politics and econo-mics of the policies along with some of its infirmities. I have also engaged in contemporary debate such as ‘sub-categorisation’ that first arose in Andhra Pradesh in 1995 and thereafter has spread across the country like a virus. I had proposed a solution in the pages of EPW as to how this issue could be best overcome while simultaneously criticising the Dalits’ obsession for reservation and readiness to be a plaything in the hands of the ruling classes for petty gains. I have even written on reservation in the private sector when the demand first popped up in the Bhopal Declaration and thereafter was nourished by the people who openly upheld neoliberal globalisation. While I upheld reservation as it was initially instituted in colonial times as an exceptional policy measure by the state for exceptional people, and problematised it for having arbitrarily restricted it to only the public sphere, I have unequivocally denounced the dilution of this principle in the Constitution that made reservations the most potent weapon in the hands of the ruling classes. I have been critical of the implicit premise of backwardness behind reservations and its faulty design that perpetuates inequality rather than eradicating it. It was not just sterile criticism; I provided simultaneously alternative remedies.
Painting Ambedkar Neoliberal
Post-1990, when the government adopted the elitist neoliberal reforms, a section of so-called Dalit intellectuals uninvitedly rushed in to support them, obviously to seek favours from the ruling classes. They shamelessly invoked Ambedkar painting him as a petty neoliberal to sell their arguments to the gullible Dalits. Many of these low calibre people made their careers in the process during the neoliberal years.
The people however could not be fooled for long as they began facing the heat of these policies in terms of widespread job losses, curtailment of basic services, and general livelihood crisis. The ruling classes rather sensed the heat early on and threw up ideas of reservation in the private sector through a bunch of Dalit intellectuals to vent off the building-up resentment among the Dalits. The idea caught on when the government began speaking openly about privatising the public sector, particularly when the Vajpayee Govern-ment created a Ministry of Disinvestment. Globalisation since then became a threat to reservations for Dalits.
Such a constricted meaning of this monster itself was unfortunate but instead of exposing its social Darwinist character, the Dalit intellec-tuals fed into their ignorance and projected the idea of reservation in the private sector as the mitigating measure. While the juggernaut of globalisation was fast reversing the wheel of progress and pushing the Dalits back into the dark ages, Dalit intellectuals busied themselves with discussing reservations in the private sector in their state-supported seminars, feigning concerns for the people. While in speeches few were foolish enough to treat reservations as a panacea, practically it meant the same inasmuch as none pointed out the rapid devastation of education to the rural masses or paltry public health services or increasing informalisation of jobs.
My intervention in this discourse was to dispel the widespread misconception of the private sector, as the one who is formally trained in business management as well worked in the corporate sector, both in public and private, right from the shop-floor to the board-level positions. Firstly, the amorphousness of the private sector was unsuitable to institute reservations in the familiar quota form, as imagined by most people and secondly its capacity to contribute jobs was extremely limited. A US type of affirmative action could possibly be considered keeping in mind the cons of it in the present context. My overriding concern was to show that reservation in the private sector was creating another mirage for the gullible Dalit masses who have squandered the energies to run after the existing mirage of reservations.
My opposition basically related to attempts of the vested interests to disorient Dalits from rejecting the neo-liberal globalisation and accepting reservations in the private sector in exchange, obviously at the behest of the ruling classes. It obviously did not amount to an ‘either-or’ position between reservation and redistri-butive measures (sic), while certainly I will unequi-vocally stand for the latter if someone forced me to take it.
In retrospect, I am happy and grateful to Prof Thorat that he really picked up the point and put forth his views in an almost comprehensive manner. As one who has been in the forefront in seeding the demand for reservations in the private sector and pushing it into the consideration zone both in the government and corporate circles, his views are undoubtedly most important. It has created an opportunity for me to put forth my counterpoint, which was articulated hitherto in a piecemeal manner through the pages of EPW and elsewhere.
Private Sector’s Capacity
Although Prof Thorat did not contest any of my points, he did comment that there was no need to assume away the MSME part of the unorganised sector from the purview of reservations. It meant that there shall be reservations even in the farm wage employment or the seasonal labour engaged by petty contractors and industries. This sector may not be clear to the readers and hence some idea of its size and shape may not be impertinent. There are 15.64 lakh MSMEs in the country in which the Micro enterprises are 14.85 lakh (94.94 per cent); Small, 0.76 lakh (4.89 per cent); and Medium, 0.03 (0.17 per cent). In terms of ownership, there are 14.09 lakh (90.08 per cent) proprietary units, 0.63 lakh (4.01 per cent) partnership units, 0.43 lakh (2.78 per cent) private companies, 0.08 lakh (0.54 per cent) public limited companies, 0.05 lakh (0.30 per cent) co-operatives and 0.36 lakh (2.36 per cent) others. In terms of caste composition, there are 1.19 lakh (7.60 per cent) SC-owned enterprises, 0.45 lakh (2.87 per cent) ST-owned; 5.99 lakh (38.38 per cent) OBC-owned and 8.09 lakh (51.26 per cent) owned by others. In terms of employment, Micro units employ 65.34 lakh (70.19 per cent); Small, 23.43 lakh (25.17 per cent); and Medium 4.32 lakh (4.64 per cent). That means a majority of them employ less than five employees per unit (which would include significantly self- and family employment). This being the feature of the SMEs, one can imagine their capacity to implement reservations for the Dalits.
Notwithstanding this, there cannot be a theoretical objection to the proposition that there should be reservation in the MSME sector. However, the only problem with it is that the application of AA might restrict the opportu-nities of Dalits to the ratio of their population. These sectors are subsistence sectors where they already preponderate. It is wrong to imagine that Dalits do not have entry into the private sector or they just do not exist there. As a rule, the hierarchy of jobs approximately corresponds to the caste hierarchy. While the bottom is preponderated by Dalits anywhere, as one goes up they simply become scarce and vanish. Even the public sector projects the same picture despite reservations over the last seven decades; the lowest sweeper category comprise over 80 per cent of Dalits, but none in the top slots in Class A category (Secretary in government, CEOs in the public sector and banks, etc.). The only difference in the private sector is of degree; the lower labour category may have Dalits but thereafter (technicians, engineers) they may vanish.
The right question to ask therefore is not the employment but the level of employment. One should not ignore the influence of supply and demand behind these numbers. The Dalits preponderate in the sweeper category because there is no supply from the non-Dalits. Now in the modern sectors of the economy, where the sweepers become janitors equipped with liveries and modern gadgets, the old caste associations are disappearing, Dalits getting displaced from sanitary jobs by many non-Dalit/upper caste youths. The inertia of the Dalit intellectuals may not let them see this phenomenon. As one goes higher up the organisation ladder, the employers have more options to choose from and hence prejudice creeps in.
An example of the modern service sector to further illustrate this point may not be out of place. It faced until recently huge shortage of qualified people, and therefore they employed people en masse irrespective of castes. Many Dalit engineers got into IT and telecom companies. But now when supply is in excess of demand, prejudices necessarily creep in. This dynamics is more pronounced in our elite institutions (NITs, IITs, IIMs, etc.). In the campus recruitments, invariably, Dalit students, with some exceptions, find the lower-end jobs. Many a recruiter make it a point to screen out people of the reserved category right at the beginning in the process (they could be identified with a digit in their enrolment code).
It is an empirical fact that barring a few exceptions, Dalit students, besides having a cultural deficit (family background, proficiency in English language, mannerism, confidence, etc.), also possess lower CGPAs (I would attribute it to the psychological factors and take them as the cost of reservations) and get even secularly pushed down.
The simplistic discussion on reservations does not reflect awareness of this dynamics. Therefore, the application of reservations to the farm sector and the MSME sector may prove to be counterproductive. Many SMEs constitute a subsidiary link in the supply chains of big firms as shock absorbers, which they accomplish through contract labour. There are specialised companies that have come up in a big way to supply all grades of manpower. They facilitate these new management strategies. An employee, so long as he is employed, remains on the roll of these companies but works for some other company. Once he is out of the job, he auto-matically ceases to be on any company’s roll. This is the increasingly preferred model for the companies, to variablise their costs.
How shall the reservations be implemented in such cases? The only impact of these policies will be to re-incur the stigma of caste to the already existing employees. It stands to anyone’s imagination that in the MSMEs, where the owners are the managers, there is no question of AA bringing in any likely change.
Prof Thorat stressed that redistributive policies were necessary but not sufficient; they needed to be supplemented by the AA policies. He belaboured the point that special safeguards were necessary as equal distribution of endow-ment among the socially unequal people was no guarantee of justice. He gave several examples of countries where some kind of AA in respect of certain sections of their population is extant. In China, Mao instituted AA policies in favour of China’s 55 minorities; the USA has its AA policies in favour of its minorities and women; South Africa has reportedly gone to household levels in imposing conditions on the White employers that they should adopt and educate at least one Black member of their household employees; Northern Ireland mandates reports on religious affiliation of employees from employers; and Malaysia has reservations for its Bhumiputras, Malaya people not only in employment but also in investments and in management (that is, in the Board of Directors) of companies.
As explained above, I had not discounted the necessity of AA policies per se; I am prepared to engage with these issues in order to bring clarity to these oft-repeated arguments. When the problem is posed in terms of AA versus redistribution (sic), it necessitates clarity on what is meant by redistribution. The redistribution could range from liberal to revolutionary programmes. All the patch-up, calibrated redistributive measures we speak about are in the liberal realm which, as we know, may prove to be in the long-term interests of the entrenched structures. The so-called land reforms carried out in this country may be a case in point. It may institute AA as a buy-in for the subject people without their basic empowerment. The revolu-tionary redistribution, on the other hand, aims at serving the long-term interest of the society. It would ensure basic inputs in terms of education, health and security of livelihood to all people and thereafter think if any sections needed special safeguards to bring them up expeditiously on par with the rest.
Actually, this contrast itself is erroneous because, as said above, AA itself is a redistri-butive measure. The question reduces as such to what kind of redistributive measures? Whether to provide basics to all population and devise some extra for some who need it or to promise pieces to some sections without providing for basics to all and thereby unleashing manipulative politics? India’s reservation is purely a manipulative device to fragment people along identitarian lines and engage them in internecine conflicts.
AA Policies of Other Countries
The AA policies of other countries cannot be analogised with India’s reservations. The most differentiating factor is caste apart from its mechanics. The caste is a pervasive poison that manifests itself into social prejudice, which is most pronounced against the people called Dalits. The classical view of caste that it is a graded inequality is neither useful here nor is it true anymore. The caste is practically reduced to class-like formation into Dalits and non-Dalits.
AA in other countries is not against pervasive social prejudice against the benefi-ciaries, except perhaps the African Americans in the US. AA in the US is in the form of a diversity-promoting measure. The state of the intended beneficiaries (Hispanic, Blacks, Asians, women) can be analogised with the backward castes with ordered prejudices probably according to the shades of darkness excepting for African Americans who can be compared with India’s Dalits. Although Prof Thorat said that some Black intellectuals had praise for India’s quota system over their AA, the latter to my mind appears better in certain crucial respect.
Much is said about AA in the US being based on the Executive Order whereas India’s reser-vations coming directly from the Constitution. The implication is that the AA policies can be challenged in courts of law, whereas India’s policy cannot be so challenged. I do not understand the significance of these statements. Because although at the level of principle it is true, in practice India’s policy is also effected through Executive Orders and can be challenged in its operational parameters. What great difference does it make? The virtue I see in the US AA is that it assimilates many communities and ordains their fair representation. It thus tends to dilute the racial stigma associated with the African Americans. Another plus with their policy is that there is a monitoring and control mechanism with punitive powers in place whereas the Indian policy has only cascading reporting structures which can only lament over deficient implementation. AA in the US is not in the form of concession to the beneficiary, it just expects the outcome and process is to be decided by the implementing institution. While these processes have been subject to legal challenges, courts have generally validated them. The Indian quota system brings in concessions and therefore explicitly induces grudge in others, adding fuel to the existing fire of caste prejudices.
China has AA policies, called Youhuizhengce, for its 55 recognised minority groups, ranging in population from a few thousand to maximum 17 million against a single ethnic majority of Han Chinese who account for its 91.59 per cent population. However, their traditional home-lands occupy over 65 per cent of the total Chinese territory, which are not only strategically located but are also resource-rich. These strategic and economic imperatives impelled China to continue basically the same tenets of nationality policy (alternative to the Leninist national self-deter-mination) with minor modifications. They have their own histories and culture and may be compared with our tribals, physically segregated from the mainstream. There is social prejudice against them quite like tribals in India but no social stigma like caste.
The policies began in 1949 but explicitly operated since the mid-1980s, and were modelled after those of the Soviet Union. Three principles inform them: equality for national minorities, territorial autonomy, and equality for all languages and cultures. The entire tax collected in the minority regions can be spent locally. Minorities receive proportional representation in local govern-ment. The Chinese Government encourages business to hire minorities and offers no-interest loans to businesses operated by the minorities. Prominent government posts may be filled with “model” citizens who are also minorities. Minority students applying to universities receive bonus points on the National Higher Education Entrance Examination. There is a system of universities exclusively for minority students. The minority families can officially have two children instead of one demanded of the Han people and in practice ignores families having even more.
It is said that these policies are prompted by the analysis of the Soviet failure which was attributed to the ignorance of minorities. The AA in China takes the form of preserving their cultural identities, concessions to provide them with the best quality education, etc. But these policies were instituted over and above the democratic reconstruction of China and not a patchy solution merely to woo the minorities.
Many other liberal democracies have some kind of AA, but they are of type to take care of historical asymmetries in the populations. Malaysia’s Bhumiputra polices are openly racially discriminatory in favour of the native majority comprising Malay, natives of Sabah and Sarawak, comprising comprehensive measures to uplift the entire population. It was meant to eliminate power asymmetry in the Malaysian society which used to manifest into riots between the dominating Malaysian Chinese and local Malays. In these and rather most other countries where some kind of AA exists, it is in the nature of evening out such secular asymmetries.
Continuum of Inequality
In India, the continuum of inequality of the caste system made such AA inapplicable except, as some people advocate, to parcel out everything in accordance with the population of all castes. The AA policy in India, therefore, in order to be viable, had to be exceptional and aiming at not the power asymmetry but its root in the deep-drawn social prejudice against Dalits. I think this conceptual difference is of utmost importance to avoid the mistaken analogy between India and other countries.
When the colonial rulers instituted the reservation policy in favour of Dalits, it, although not described in so many words, had a basic feature of being an exceptional measure for exceptional people. When the transfer of power took place, could this policy be discontinued? Although the theoretical answer to this question could be affirmative, none having political acumen could accept it. Politically, it would have been the riskiest folly on the part of the rulers. If so, the reservations were not to be freshly instituted; they were principally stabilised in the colonial times. More importantly, the colonial powers, despite their zest for marshalling everything to serve their divide-and-rule strategy, created an administration category of ‘Scheduled Caste’ to supersede the religion-ordained caste of the Untouchables.
There was a clear opportunity for the new ruling classes, who took over from the British, to outlaw castes. But they hoodwinked the people outlawing untouchability which happened to be the fond song of all the upper-caste reformers, best represented by Gandhi; but in effect they preserved castes with the tacit alibi of doing social justice to the lower castes. Now even a child could see that with castes surviving untouchability cannot go, which is what survey after survey right from the 1950s to just the previous day (NCAER report) reveal. They had not stopped at that; they diluted it by extending it to potentially all and sundry. They created a separate schedule for the tribals to have provisions that are the same as those for the Scheduled Castes. Notwith-standing the lack of foolproof criteria to identify people in this schedule for tribes, they could have been merged into the existing schedule (suitably renaming it) and thereby diluted the caste stigma associated with the schedule for Dalits (because the tribals did not have any caste).
They haven’t even stopped at that. They would create a vague provision that the state would identify the ‘backward classes’ (read castes) so as to extend similar provisions in future. It verily amounted to constructing a can of caste-worms the lid of which could be opened at an opportune time in future as the Prime Minister, V.P. Singh, did in 1990. The entire schema about castes being kept alive comes out clear when we see similar scheming around religion, the other weapon to divide people. The Constitution scrupulously avoided the term secular that could create a separating wall between religion and politics with an alibi to have space for the state to carry out religion-related reforms. The only reform that one could imagine was in the form of passing the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987 in the wake of the burning of Roop Kanwar on her husband’s pyre. It is important to understand these matters because they directly cross the emancipation agenda of the Dalits.
Generational Loss of Dalits
Prof Thorat repeatedly stated that the reservation policies were meant as compensation for the historical discrimination suffered by the Dalits. I do not understand how it accounts for the generational loss suffered by the Dalits. If the intention is to compensate for the sufferings of Dalits over the last 2000 years, India may have to sell itself million times over to compensate them. I do not think any of the AA policies in vogue in the world aim at really compensating the present generations for the sufferings of their previous generations. This is pure rhetoric; neither is it possible nor is it even warranted. I am not aware of this kind of articulation in justification of our reservation.
Logically, the AA policies in favour of some social groups expect to promote their development with such a pace that they come on par with others over a reasonable time-frame. The Malaysian policy in favour of Malays has achieved this feat within less than four decades. In China, the minority nationalities have been similarly elevated to the levels of the Han majority. How does the reservation policy of India fare on this count? The representation of Dalits in government services cannot be taken as proxy of development of the entire community but even there, the reservations did not reach the prescribed levels.
If one peeps into the categorisations of these services, one would smell a bigger rot. For example, the Class A job itself has a dozen rungs and the 11-12 per cent representation reached by the Dalits (against the prescribed 15 per cent) would be mostly around its bottom, revealing the conspi-cuous absence of Dalits at the top. The hugely prejudiced organisational dynamics against Dalits remains without remedy. The dynamics subsumes promoting pliant mediocrity of Dalits to crush the competent ones leaving the balance mass as passengers. It surely contradicts the notion that all Dalits suffer caste discrimination. A tiny fraction of the Dalit population benefit from reservations and as such has little influence on the development of Dalits as a whole.
Our reservation system does not appear to have even the objective of bringing Dalits on par with others. It merely envisages prospective equi-table share of the public sphere. In other words, their historical development deficit is to be carried on perpetually. It envisages Dalits to be relatively backward forever. If the objective behind reservation had been to bring Dalits on par with others, in the present framework the reservation should have been logically applicable to all spheres of life and at a rate much higher than the ratio of their population. None of these issues bother the Dalit intellectuals. I have heard protagonists of reservation saying that they enable Dalit participation in the decision-making process; they enable power-sharing.
It is utter naiveté to assume that mere existence ensures participation in decision-making. The accumulation of Dalits around the bottom of the highest class and the organisational dynamics obviate any such participation. The participation, however, is allowed for select Dalits, as demo pieces, who carry the writ of their masters. These days another term, ‘inclusion’, has got into academic discourses. It belongs to the neoliberal taxonomy devised by the Bretton Woods Institutions. It has overshadowed the discourse of equality of the Dalit movement and is rather the international equivalent of the RSS’s samarasata.
Peep into the Policy
One could look into the policy per se the way in which it is framed. Any such exceptional policy has to have terminability embedded within it. When can one say that the objectives behind the policy (which itself remain unstated) are accomplished and therefore decide that the policy be terminated? Whose responsibility is it to see that it is terminated? Today, the entire society is divided into two warring camps: one comprising the beneficiaries wanting the policy for eternity and the others not hopeful of getting the benefits, comprising the upper castes, wanting the policy to be terminated at once. As stated above, there is no arrester to the prejudicial behaviour of the society against the Dalits except for the assumed force of the state, which cannot really perpetually act against the society at large.
Therefore, the policy could have been formulated in such a way as to make the society realise that it has a disability that it cannot treat its own members equally and hence the policy to help overcome that disability. To the Dalits, it would simultaneously communicate that it is in their larger interest to do away with their historically stigmatised identity and aim at larger progress in society. Needless to say, this conception only applied to the Dalits who were the stigmatised people because of the caste system and may be the tribals who, though not belonging to the caste society, are in someway looked upon as inferior by the society. This should have been the conception of reservation in India, which could have convinced the larger society of its rationale and eliminated the communal strife; motivated the society to overcome its disability so as to remove this anomaly at the earliest possible time.
On the side of the Dalits, they would have also sought to discard their stigmatised identity at the earliest possible time and come forward to demand the end of the policy. By doing so, they could have aspired to make far more progress than what reservation promised them. Such a secularised formulation would have eliminated the stigma and preserved the self-esteem and confidence of the Dalits.
Reservations are essentially a redistributive measure not only in the society but also within the Dalit castes. It is necessary to ensure that the benefits of reservations reach the needy and not an increasingly smaller number of beneficiaries. This could be easily accomplished with conceptual integrity. Since reservations benefited individuals and their own families, family (husband, wife and their children) should be the unit of recognition, not the caste. Once a family availed reservation, it should get dampened in its chances to get further reservations, thereby pre-empting the beneficiaries from monopolising the reservation benefits at the cost of marginalisation of the balance people. If such a principle had been followed, it would have secularised the operation of the reservation policy and ensured that the benefits are reached equitably across sub-castes within the SC-category.
As against this, the reservation policy as it exists is grossly ill-formulated. It does not spell out the premise and what it tacitly conveys is that reservations were warranted because Dalits (and later tribals and backward castes) were ‘socially and educationally’ backward implying thereby that the state would help them out to rise. It naturally gave rise to an ill feeling in the rest of the society that its resources were unduly wasted over undeserving people as there is nothing in policy that communicates to them that they are equal but are prejudiced against by the society for certain historical wrongs. The policy did not give assurance that reservation would end when some goal was met. As it exists, it appears irrationally perennial; creating vested interests in the subject people to claim backwardness and correspon-dingly aggravating the ill feeling among others. It does not motivate anyone to mend the prevailing situation that warranted this policy. In a backward country like India, backwardness could not be the criterion for any such policy. Any and every caste could claim it by playing up backwardness and thus strengthen caste consciousness among its members, paradoxically against the Dalits, identified with reservations. The reality glaringly testifies to this fact.
The policy thus can be seen to have aggravated the problem instead of solving it. If atrocities are taken as a good proxy for caste consciousness, which I think they are, then there is incontro-vertible evidence that castes are far stronger today than ever before. The atrocities, by the police’s own records, have galloped to stratospheric levels of 40,000 today and have become far more vicious in their ferocity. While the ruling classes have systematically worked through their policies towards this end, there is no denying the fact that the reservation policy has its lion’s share. Sadly, the grudge of the society against the Dalits (it is important to understand that although the so-called OBCs get more reservations, at least 27 per cent, it is only Dalits who get identified with reservations) translates into atrocities on the lower strata of the Dalits that lives in villages nearly cut off from reservations. Such is the prowess of caste consciousness that the poor rural Dalits as well as the poor non-Dalits (who perpetrate atrocities) do not realise that they identify with their caste elites against the people of their own class.
Tinier Section of Beneficiaries
Another flaw of the reservation policy is that it does not flow to those who need it most and tend to create an increasingly tinier section of beneficiaries. It surely aggravates the class divide among Dalits which, in absence of the class idiom, is identified as sub-caste division. It is not realised that the most populous sub-caste of the Dalits in every region reflects more adaptability, more entrepreneurship and more agitation compared to other less populous sub-castes, not because there is something special with them but just because their population could not have a specific caste vocation. They had thus low valence with the village unlike other sub-castes which had their caste vocation and thus a stake in the village. These were the people who grabbed the opportunities that came their way relatively faster than the others and later followed Ambedkar.
Ambedkar himself could be seen as the product of this process. It is natural that that the populous castes like Mahars, Chamars, Malas, Pariahs, etc. reflect more progress than others. But it is foolish to imagine that they uniformly progressed. It is only a few families that benefited earlier and kept on benefiting, keeping others at bay. One may easily find a similar degree of inequality among them as could be found among other sub-castes. It is, however, true that those families that appear to have benefited from reservations happen to be from these populous Dalit castes. It is not by any misdoing either of those casters or the implementers but it is by the very design of the policy.
While the argument that the majority Dalits castes such as Mahars and Malas have monopolised all the reservation benefits is thus wrong, it provides space for politicians to exploit it and divide the Dalits along sub-caste lines. The Mala-Madiga syndrome is thus intrinsic to the current policy which is a corollary of the basic anomaly that reservation benefits an individual but is attributed to the entire caste. Its fall-out was the demand by the other sub-castes for sub-categorisation to divide reservation among them, decimating the ‘Dalit’ that symbolised their unified identity. This demand, duly prompted and supported by the ruling classes, has spread all over conclusively defeating the Ambedkarian project. It is sad that a plethora of writings on reservations or Dalit movement could never note these flaws.
Annihilation of Castes and not Reservations
Such is the obsession of Dalits for reservations that they do not want to understand that the actual employment base for reservation has been eroding from 1997 onwards. I have spoken with the statistics in numerous public meetings and seminars, that over a single decade (from 1997 to 2007) there has been a decline of over 1.7 million (and it is going on thereafter) in the public employment. This clearly meant that in net terms there has been negative growth in reservations, meaning thereby that by 1997 reservations have de facto come to an end. But no one wants to stomach this harsh reality. The problem with the middle-class Dalits is that their sole agenda has been reservations and they cannot imagine their social engagement without reservations.
Beyond these arguments, I have presented some historical facts to provoke people into rethinking their obsession for reservations. In 1936, when the British made the ‘schedule’ of the Untouchables, the criteria of untouchability worked well all over the country except for the two regions, namely, the South and East. In the South, with the criteria of untouchability, nearly 70 per cent people would enter the schedule; but in the East, none would come in. They adopted additional criteria to normalise the population to the national average. In the process, many castes such as Ezhawa, Gounders, Nadars, who were Untouchables, escaped being included into the schedule. Broadly speaking, their condition was not significantly better than that of the Dalits. If one takes stock of the comparative progress of these two commu-nities (the ones that escaped the schedule and the Dalits who got scheduled), one cannot miss the fact that those who escaped the schedule, and hence the stigma of Dalithood, made thousand times more progress than Dalits who had reservations!
I am aware that the vested interests would simplistically label me as anti-reservationist. I cannot compete with their irrationality. But in deference to it I can certainly reiterate my position that given the societal prejudice, much of it could be attributed to reservation itself, some kind of affirmative action is necessary in their favour. But if the current model is to be operated, I would prefer Dalits discard it and instead demand from the state due prenatal care to every needy pregnant woman so that she brings a healthy child into the world, and thereafter equitable inputs of child care, equal quality education through neighborhood schools, and health care; in exchange of reservations. Let them forget the past and focus on their coming generations to fight it out. Howsoever we try, the past wrongs cannot be undone. Using the deceitful discourse of the past, however, the present can be easily mani-pulated. The only way to end the Dalits’ woes is to annihilate castes as Ambedkar said. But this project unfortunately cannot be accomplished by Dalits alone. However, they hold the key. They must understand that caste is their bane and not the boon; the earlier they annihilate it, the better it is for their future.
The author is a writer and civil rights activist with the CPDR, Mumbai. He is currently a Professor of Business Management at the IIT, Kharagpur.