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
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.