The reservation debate is going the wrong way

Instead of furthering social justice, reservation has become a trump card for political parties to hide their failures.

ByHarish Wankhede
The reservation debate is going the wrong way
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Reservation is not a poverty elimination programme or a job guarantee scheme. Instead, the proponents of social justice understand that the policy is an effective measure to democratise the government workforce and educational institutions that have historically been dominated by the social elites. Reservation policies direct public institutions to be more socially inclusive by representing historically underprivileged communities. In Ambedkar’s opinion, reservations are needed to empower the worst-off sections and to enlarge the scope of the fraternity.

Which is why the announcement by the Modi regime to provide 10 per cent reservation quota to economically backward sections amongst the general caste misses the ethical directives of the policy. Instead, it overtly looks like a political gimmick intended to charm saddened upper caste voters.

Upper castes have been a major support base of the Right-wing party. However, in the recently concluded Assembly elections, there were critical voices that suggested that the upper castes have deserted the BJP because it was too inclined to protect the interests of Dalits. Announcements like these are meant to showcase that the BJP is still concerned with upper caste interests. But it lacks a sound understanding of constitutional values and equally misses the ethical credentials on which the social justice policy has been envisaged.

The criticism against the reservation policy builds on this particular premise that meritorious upper caste candidates lose their opportunities due to caste-based reservation policies. The general upper caste candidate is always projected as the victim of the reservation policy, arguing that the reserved category candidates are often meritless, undeserving and inefficient. The poor upper caste candidate is seen as the target of quota politics, and thus the gap between the communities is created. The political class neglects the concerns of poor upper caste candidates and only in intervals raises the issue. The current announcement categorically addresses this particular grievance. In doing so, it snatches the policy from its core constituency and pushes the debate towards a wrong end.   

Upper castes are overwhelmingly represented in all sectors of power today. The public sector and educational institutions are, in fact, dominated by social elites. Whether it’s political establishments, the judiciary, administrative services, media, sports, industry, market—the upper castes control most positions. These spaces are often exclusive and run through stiff internal mechanisms of caste favouritism, social nepotism and communal networks. However, in the neoliberal economy, government jobs are in decline and the competition for jobs in the public sector has increased manyfold. Poor upper caste youths face hardship here as they lack the economic resource and networking in this competition. In response, general poor candidates looked down on their Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Castes (OBC) counterparts as undeserving job snatchers.

The bigger and visible fact is that the SC/ST/OBCs, and now increasingly the Muslims, have remained outsiders, only marginally present in the core corridors of power. The Dalits—for whom the idea of reservation was originally constituted—are yet to find respectable spaces in state-owned institutions. The reservation policy has never been implemented effectively, as most of the jobs meant for the reserved category have remained unfulfilled or vacant. In the 1990s, the OBCs were provided with the benefit of the reservation policy. But after nearly four decades of its announcement, the representation of OBCs in the elite Grade I and II services is nominal. Further, during the job recruitment process, reserved category candidates face open discrimination and humiliation.

It is the socially backward communities that need effective safeguards and affirmative action policy to break the domination of the social elites. Their participation will ensure that power centres are more democratic and inclusive. Instead, the current government has turned the discourse on social justice on its head. By introducing the unconstitutional economic criterion for reservation, it wishes to challenge the conventional moral outlook that defines the reservation policy.

The beneficiaries of the social justice policy have been historically defined by coupling social deprivation and economic marginalisation together. Even the OBC quota has to abide with such directives. In 1991, the Supreme Court in the Indra Sawhney judgment firmly argued that economic backwardness cannot become the sole condition to avail the benefits of reservation policy.

On many fronts, this announcement will be in crisis. From the government side, there’s no logical and empirical explanation on which the expansion of the 50 per cent quota is prescribed. There is no fact sheet or survey report which suggests that only the rich upper castes are dominating available government jobs and that the general poor face discrimination and humiliation—because of which a separate quota was announced. Instead, there is ample empirical data available on the minuscule representation of Muslims in the government sector and how often they face overt discrimination and humiliation (such as the Sachar Commission Report). However, when the governments of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana proposed exclusive reservation for Muslims on the basis of economic backwardness, the same Right-wing party opposed the proposal, calling it unconstitutional. The current expansion of reservation quota beyond 50 per cent is therefore not based on sound empirical reality or social facts.  

In the last four-and-a-half years, the Modi government had the opportunity to build an engaging deliberation on the reservation policy to make it more promising and inclusive. The government’s desperation to hide its economic failures results in such half-baked rhetoric served to its core constituency. This announcement resolves that the BJP is the party to serve the interest of the upper castes but it also showcases that it is not interested in any intellectual and ethical dialogue over the future prospect of social justice. Like any other political jumla, Prime Minister Modi played to the galleries and averted many substantive issues of job creation, market growth and inclusive development. Reservation has become a trump card for political parties to hide their visible failures.


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