Without Reservations

Before formalising quotas for SC/STs in governmental positions, Parliament would do well do look to the West.

Any system instituted to reverse injustice must be founded on justice else it will inevitably lead to permanence of the injustice it is ironically instituted to address. I would oppose with all the conviction at my command any attempt to appoint Negro [sic] teachers to teach the Negros [sic] unless they have been imparted the teaching skills so necessary for the job. – Frederic Douglas

Douglas was an American, who was born a slave and remained so for the first 25 years of his life. It was during his time as a slave he first learnt to read and write courtesy his owner’s wife who used to give him lessons on the sly. Imparting education to slaves was virtually unheard of. When the slave owner came to know of this, he put an end to this practice – but by that time, Douglas had acquired the literacy which enabled him to read newspapers and crystallise his anti-slavery views.

In his mid-20s when he was sold off to another family, he hid himself on a train and managed to escape to Pennsylvania, a Quaker colony which because of religious traditions never had any slave-owning practice. Here he began attending the churches and obtained lessons from several abolitionist ministers. A brilliant man by any reckoning, he became a riveting speaker attracting huge audiences. He undertook a long trip to the British Isles dividing his time between Ireland and England where he lectured widely. So popular were his lectures that people set up a collection for him which gathered enough money to enable him to barter his freedom back from his legal owner.

At the time he was asked to remain in London but he could not bear the thought of abandoning his fellow Afro-Americans who were in chains. He returned to the United States and began his campaign not just for abolition of slavery but also universal suffrage which was a truly revolutionary concept in those days – even card-carrying feminists like Lucretia Mott were sceptical about women being given the right to vote. Douglas believed firmly that every human being living in the US had to have a stake in the preservation and continuance of the government.

His views brought him to Abe Lincoln’s attention. His first impression of the great man was not positive. In his book, The Life and Times of Frederic Douglas he states – “Though Mr Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow-countrymen against the Negro [sic], it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery…” He remained a close confidante of the president, and is regarded by many as the prime force behind Lincoln in his anti-slavery crusade. After Lincoln’s assassination he formed the Equal Rights Party and in 1872 was the Vice Presidential candidate.

If his life has uncanny parallels with Dr Ambedkar, so do his views. Ambedkar of course became a formal part of the state governance – a privilege which Douglas could never enjoy. Like Ambedkar he was monumental in leading a struggle after having experienced first-hand the indignities that were undeservedly heaped on him and having noticed the in-built barriers to any progress his race could legitimately aspire towards. Unlike Ambedkar, he could not find a patron who could open doors for him to obtain the highest level of formal education and in this regard he was self taught like

Why do I feel the need to elaborate on this remarkable man? It is because I note with some trepidation the debate that is being conducted in the media over the last few days vis-à-vis the Constitutional Amendment Bill that has been placed in Parliament to formalise quotas for Schedule Caste/Schedule Tribes at every level of promotion in governmental positions. I am tempted to wonder whether Ambedkar would have actually approved of this move. And it is in this context that I recall Douglas.

Some might question the temptation to draw the analogy between the respective contexts in the US and India. Interestingly, while researching Ambedkar I came across his doctoral dissertation in which he unhesitatingly described the situation of the slaves as much worse than the oppressed castes in India. I personally am not too sure of that but that was apparently how Ambedkar thought at the time. Therefore it is axiomatic that the solutions Ambedkar suggested would be in consonance with these views.

Attempting even an honest debate on the subject of reservations and quotas is regarded as supremely politically incorrect. The former Cabinet Secretary, Zafar Saifullah discovered this to his cost when on a panel debate on NDTV 24X7 he suggested that while it was perfectly in order to have reservations at the entry-level of the governmental positions, he would perhaps be comfortable extending a promotion quota at the early levels but could foresee many problems if the reservation quotas were made a permanent feature right to the very top. It might seem to be an eminently reasonable position but not so to several other panelists. One of them berated him for stating what he did and went on to state that the very fact that no Dalit had made it to the Cabinet Secretary’s position was an indication of an inbuilt bias against Dalits.

Saifullah’s attempt to explain that most of those inducted in the civil services through quotas were older than the others, hence were not able to remain in the services sufficiently long enough to make it to the secretarial rank – did not cut much ice. Again he was berated for bringing merit into the equation which the panelist believed was a ploy to keep the
Dalits repressed.

On another channel, Ravindra Kumar, a Dalit activist and an academic at the JNU was making the same point.

There is another tendency which although not relevant to this context is related to the reservations debate i.e. the tendency to present unsubstantiated statements as facts. Renowned journalist, Swaminathan Aiyar makes a reference to this in his blog. In a panel discussion on TV some time ago, Ram Vilas Paswan declared that the quota system was functional in the US and working well. Anyone familiar with US laws would know that the Supreme Court in 1978 in University of California vs Bakke ruled that job quotas are unconstitutional. Aiyar claims that he protested that this was not true but Paswan did not budge. Interestingly I noticed the Dalit activist, Udit Raj make the same point in a debate with Rahul Bajaj a while ago.

It would be politically suicidal or so it is believed for any political party to even ask for a reasoned debate on the Bill placed lest they be labelled anti-Dalit.

Every country has historically been lumbered with the uncomfortable baggage of history that is has to carry. The experience of the Afro-Americans in the US is well-documented. Less well-documented is the appalling treatment that was historically meted out to the original Americans, the Red Indians. Let us not forget Australia where over 200,000 Aborigines were systematically killed over 100 years. And the notorious practice of Abo-hunting was legal well into the 20th century.

Admittedly India’s historical baggage has been – if not as cruel as the ones I adumbrated – certainly prevalent over a greater length of time. And every country while learning from the experience of the other has to devise its own solutions.

But it remains a fact that no other country to the best of my knowledge has codified a system that ensures promotion quotas right to the top. Even a person like Douglas who suffered injustice and retained his dignity the way very few can, never ever in his writings justified a system where merit did not play any part at all in governmental hierarchy.

What Zafar Saifullah had to say at the very least merits a calm and reasoned debate. But whether that will ever happen is anybody’s guess.

To illustrate my point, I would like to take the readers back to the recent presidential elections when I had backed a Dalit candidate – Narendra Jadhav, an academic, top economist and now a Planning Commission member who came from a background very similar to Ambedkar but thanks to the reservation policy at the entrance level was able to make a mark as an economist earning a doctorate from Indiana and then as the Vice Chancellor of Pune University. He fully acknowledges that without reservations his career would not have got a kick start – and it is this kick start that the section of society he belongs to needs. Despite the Constitutional provision, he refused to allow his daughter to avail the reservation benefits as he believed that would violate the spirit if not the letter of the Constitution.

It is the views of people such as Jadhav, which Parliament should look to while considering amendments to the bill in question.

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Contribute Your Views
  • Smita

    For once, Mr Prasad, I agree with you. The reservation-in-promotion advocates must consider that at some point, only merit should be a consideration. After all, there is important work to be done at that level. The truly meritorious will rise irrespective of caste.

  • Amit

    I have few good friends who are from SC community. Their parents got reservations in job and are very well off. Then they took the quota for there B.Tech then for M.Tech & then for job. Now if you give quota in promotions also, isn’t that spoon feeding them and making them to sit idle? Isn;t this self defeating the purpose of providing quota?
    I agree that there are under-privileged people in India and they need support. GOI should provide them good basic & higher education free and provide other incentives also but after that make them compete with others. If quota has to be there then it should be for economically weaker section not a blanket quota based on caste or religion.

  • Ayyappan

    Totally agree with the article. Reservations at entry level are good to create opportunities for the downtrodden. But once provided that opportunity, it is their hard work and merit which must get them promotions. You are not downtrodden anymore after you have a good, nice paying, respected job in the government.

  • Brz

    This quota in promotion thing, for govt jobs, aims to have all the govt departments headed by ‘reserved category’. I am not saying that would be necessarily mean bad situation, but at such responsible positions you would expect a little more merit.

    Another biggest havoc that it would create for sure, will be the unrest in govt jobs. To cover up for the social inequality metted out to our tribal brothers and sisters, in history, you are trying to create inequality, in present.

    Lets understand with an example, Two guys join at same time, a general and a category, the category guy would reach up to head of a department coz of quota and the general would still be at some staff level. This will create a workforce of “unsatisfied and frustrated officers” which will never do any good to the working culture of the govt jobs.

    There could be another motivation behind this quota in promotion, to discourage the general category students coming into government jobs. If this bill is passed certainly general category students will think twice before opting for any govt job, as he/she will be signing his joining letter, agreeing that discrimination will be part of his future and merit wont be valued. In contrast ‘category’ students will be encouraged more and more to take up the govt jobs.

    I think it will benefit the private sector companies.

  • Rao

    Since you brought in the US analogy, it is worthwhile looking into how the US military handled the issue of promotions for black soldiers after President Truman desegregated the US Armed Forces in the late 1940s: As I understand it, due to discrimination, most African-American soldiers were not qualified for promotion (since they very rarely had opportunities for command and for challenging assignments, and for attending training courses, plus they might have been psychologically unprepared for commanding troops that included whites); it was decided by the military brass to not lower the standards–as that would mean compromising the quality of the superpower military–but to simply conduct specialized courses for raising the standards of African-American soldiers and relax the time and age limit. In this way, the pipeline for promotions was “primed” so that there was adequate representation for African Americans. After a time, the need for special treatment no longer existed. Of course, this approach could work primarily because the black soldiers were never looking for a free handout (as evident from Frederick Douglass’s life story), only for the artificial barriers to be removed so that they could prove themselves as good as the next man.

  • deep gogoi

    what is merit anyways???? is it marks.. the caste reservations in promotions is a move in right direction. if anybody because of his caste cant get promotion then there should be reservation…

  • swaraj

    The question is about merit??

    What is merit in Indian context, how well you can memorize things and how well you have access to coaching centres. The present merit system doesn’t grantee in anyway that person scoring 90+ percentile will perform well. There are very good chances that he might fail or pass or top or dropout. Hence it is as random as filling with quota. The fact that merit is overrated was proved by this experiment

    Israel Air Force Test
    Scientific study done by Daniel Kahneman with Israeli Air force.
    In this experiment some pilots who failed the pilot selection tests were selected and trained with those who passed. After the training the previously failed pilots who were selected, their performance was on par with those who passed test.So by the convention of merit shouldn’t they have performed abysmally
    I will tell you the real thing how appraisal of an employee is done and merit “by the performance scale” is thrown out

    My father is banker who has 5 degrees in subjects ranging from commerce, law and banking, was rejected promotion for 7 years in spite of making 200+% profit for successive years that made him to receive the best recoverer in the region. Everyone thought he would be promoted and lo behold he wasnt even called for interview as he was not given minimum 75 marks by the appraiser and a cock sucker in a regional office got promoted for the virtue of being “a higher caste hindu” ,who had friends in top echelons and dont even get me started on transfers, The patterns of transfers is horrible.
    So in organisations its the caste and strings which you can pull at the top can get you promoted and fact that there are no cabinet secretary from the deprived caste ensure that the people stay only at the entry level as there is no one at the top to protect them.So being deprived of promotion for seven years is testimony of “merit in India”. So the author please dont come with historical facts and selective juxtaposing. Please look at the other side.
    There is no test in the world which can decide whether a person is meritorious or not. If Einstein wrote Indian entrance exam tests then definitely he could have failed miserably.
    An IIT roorkee student who got 17th rank at IES exam was caught accepting bribe. So merit should milk efficiency right?
    Out system is sans ethics and with delusional view of merit.
    The jobs in a country are its resources and the historical displaced have to have a share in it. Leave aside the dalits there hasn’t been anyone from other caste to break into richest in India list which is dominated till 55th place with baniyas and even when it goes to 100 there are handful of others. SO in 6 odd decades of independence there isn’t anybody other than these castes to make into richest Indian. When certain sections of the society can reap the benefits of their historical placement and others are deprived of this placement then it definitely needs your term” reverse injustice” to draw the starting line again