One More Reservation

April 18, 2010

By Anand Teltumbde. EPW April 2010.

It is rather telling that the ire of the people that was building up against price rise all over the country was so easily punctured by the government with the help of the women’s reservation bill. In a break with its tumultuous history of 14 years, the bill has already been passed in the Rajya Sabha and could well be passed in the Lok Sabha but for the opposition from the Yadavs and Mayawati. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has decided to table it in the next session, perhaps to use it to overcome some other crisis. Reservation has proved to be a potent weapon in the hands of the ruling classes to raise public passion and control the political barometer. Indeed, it is strategic that the UPA holds on to the bill as long as possible. Because if it is passed and made into law, it will lose a weapon in hand until it can create another reservation bill. Of course, there is no dearth of demands for reservation; going by the trend they may rather outlive the polity.

From Exception to Proliferation

The provision of reservation came as an exception to the fundamental right to equality in favour of the scheduled castes (SCs), who suffered deep and entrenched social prejudice against them and the scheduled tribes (STs), who were physically detached from the mainstream society and potentially faced the same fate as the SCs. The prejudice against them was such that no matter what attributes they possessed, the society would not accept them anywhere other than where they were traditionally supposed to be. The reservations for the SCs have come from the colonial times and it was just a matter of continuation. The STs were added later. The Constitution makers failed to attribute this exception to the disability of the Indian society to treat its own members equally. They vaguely associated it with the backwardness of these communities. Had they done so, the reservation would have had self-terminating logic: motivating the larger society to do away with this disability and hence the reservation itself at the earliest possible time. Unfortunately, the way it is expressed has helped to make reservations self-perpetuating.

Apart from the reservations for the SCs and STs, the Constitution empowered the State to make special provisions for the advancement of the classes which are “socially and educationally backward”. The special measures do not necessarily mean replication of the quota system as for the SCs and STs. But it was taken to mean so by politicians who wanted to forge reservations into a political weapon to manipulate people. The cardinal criterion for reservations in a country characterised by pervasive backwardness can only be the insurmountable social prejudice, which leaves no other viable option than an exceptional measure such as the countervailing force of the State to counter it. Quotas verily represent that force. This criterion cannot be diluted into backwardness. The special measures to be taken for others to remove the ubiquitous backwardness could well be to ensure that the few traditional elites do not get further enriched by the developmental investments of the state at the cost of the masses. Despite reservations galore, this is precisely what has not happened in India. The rich have been getting richer and the poor poorer.

The huge empowerment of the landed middle castes as a result of the post-independence Nehruvian modernist project comprising land reforms and the green revolution, among others, drastically changed the course of politics in the country. The elite of these amorphous middle castes taking advantage of the caste ties and the electoral system consolidated themselves to wield enormous economic, social and political power and threatened the monopoly of the traditional ruling castes. The phenomena of emergence of regional parties from the mid-1960s and inauguration of coalition era from the mid-1970s is a manifestation of this process. The main plank of their consolidation was the rhetoric against the upper castes and the hatred for dalits, perceived as unduly pampered with reservation. The elites of the backward classes (oBCs) could skilfully transform the popular grudge against reservations for the SCs and STs into a demand for their extension to OBCs, thus setting into motion competitive backwardness to claim reservation.

The Mandal reservations for the BCs eventually opened a Pandora’s box. Now, reservations are naturally being demanded by all conceivable categories. Muslims are closer to getting it, thanks to the Sachar Committee recommendations and dalit Christians are not very far. There is a demand for reservations for the poor among the upper castes and of course the incipient demands for splitting the quota according to sub-castes and sub sub-castes. Reservation projected as a panacea for all ills is bound to proliferate beyond limits.

Have Reservations Worked?

Before the extension of this exceptional principle to all and sundry, a responsible polity would evaluate whether it has served the original purpose in its prototype form in the case of the SCs and STs. If we objectively look at the evidence, one could definitely say that it has catalysed huge spread of education among these communities and caused significant socio-economic development through their employment in government and public sector. Although extremely limited in its potential, its motivational impact has been tremendous. Notwithstanding these positive aspects, like any other developmental scheme without a remedial mechanism, it has accentuated inequality among these castes. The people (and the castes) with the advantage of first movers increasingly monopolised its benefits and left the rest relatively poorer. While the beneficiaries are individuals or their families, with the ruling idiom of caste, it engendered feelings of resentment against the beneficiary castes, and provided fodder for the vested interests to further divide these castes.

This flaw in the policy could be easily plugged by bringing in a non-caste criterion of a family unit. The prospective reservation should be considered applicable to the families, which have not yet availed of reservation. This is a simple and practical solution but it would not be accepted by the political class as it takes away caste, which is the golden goose.

In addition, there is political reservation which is ignorantly mixed up with the reservation in education and employment available to the SCs and STs. It came from the Poona Pact between Gandhi and Ambedkar in 1932 as a compromise to do away the grant of separate electorates in the Communal Award of Ramsay McDonald. At the time of its incorporation into the Constitution, Ambedkar himself was not sure about its efficacy and wanted it only for 10 years. However, this reservation has been getting unanimously extended before it is due to expire by the ruling class parties. From this broad evidence also one could surmise who the real beneficiaries of this reservation are. But, even beyond this, one could try and find out whether it has benefited the dalit masses it was meant for. The answer is definitely in the negative. The late Kanshiram summarised his assessment of this policy in a pamphlet, Chamcha Yug (Era of Stooges). It produced a totally contrary result to what was perhaps intended. Instead of creating a proportionate representation of dalits in the legislative bodies, it has completely decimated their representation by making stooges out of dalit politicians. While in numbers, this reservation unlike others, has been always fully implemented; it has never led to even a feeble voice of dalits in the legislatures. The so-called dalit representatives have been always subservient to their ruling class upper caste bosses to whom they owed their existence. It only created a political class among the dalits, which fattens itself on the political rent derived from the ruling classes.

Reservation for Women

The current bill purporting to give 33% reservation to women in state legislatures and in the Lok Sabha is also destined to be counterproductive in a much bigger measure. There can be no two opinions that women who hold up half the sky are short-shrifted in a male-dominated world. There is no dispute about their suffering myriad forms of discriminations and atrocities: as children, they are discriminated in terms of access to food, health, education; as adults they are discriminated in choice of livelihood, wages, and also suffer physical abuse and rape. There cannot be any controversy therefore about the need to restore what is rightfully theirs but is unjustly denied to them. The issue is about the manner of doing so.

First, women are a generic and broad category, comprising castes, classes, races, and communities of all kinds. Despite the history of over 150 years of women’s movement, they have not achieved a coherent voice and have even showed splinters in recent years. There is nothing common, for instance, between an urban upper caste woman and a typical dalit woman in a village. The former though suffering subtle discrimination in a patriarchal society enjoys enormous social power whereas the latter is triple-oppressed, for being poor, dalit and a woman. The mainstream concept of women’s liberation therefore is alien to dalit women. As a reaction, they have been observing women’s liberation day on 25 December (instead of 8 March) the day the Manusmriti was burnt at the Mahad conference. Its stance is not against men but against the mainstream women’s movement that seeks to overlook the oppression of the majority of women. There is a tendency in even other castes and community groups to articulate their dissent against the mainstream women’s movement.

Second, the idea of reservation has been problematic with regard to its professed objective but certainly useful to politicians. Reservation by design promotes the interests of the better placed among the target population. As a result, while a small section of the population progresses, the rest is left behind. At the time when reservation was conceived for the SCs and STs, these considerations were not material simply because there was no visible elite among them. Whosoever came up was to be a role model for the rest and was supposed to represent their interests. Now that the second and third generation of beneficiary dalits is around, the evils of the reservation system have surfaced clearly. The demand for categorisation articulated by Madiga Dandora may not be maintainable in many ways but cannot simultaneously be dismissed as baseless or motivated. The point is that it basically bares the limitation of the reservation policy. Since reservation for the Scs and STs is premised on social prejudice, its outright abolition is out of question in view of these prejudices being still visible, but there is certainly a case for plugging their obvious lacunae.

Politics behind Progressive Veneer

The situation prevailing at the time of first instituting reservations no more exists for any segment of the population, least of all for women. The all pervasive clamour for reservation today can be considered as symptomatic of our unscrupulous politics. The proposed women’s reservation bill is also not beyond it. It has extended its hands beyond castes and communities to a new terrain of gender. Ever since the rise of the middle castes ushering in the coalition era of governance, our traditional ruling classes, inured as they are to monopoly power, have been uncomfortable. While other reservation issues can be raked up, they have small potential and uncertain outcome. However, if they could bring in a vast population of women, under the purview of reservation, they could hope to cross the coalition barrier. The women’s reservation bill in its current form can benefit the major political parties with a relatively larger feudal hold on the population, to get their women elected to a disproportionately larger number of reserved seats and improve their tally. Behind its progressive veneer, this appears to be the motivation.

The objection of Mayawati and the Yadavs to the bill for not providing a quota for the SCs, STs, BCs and minorities actually smacks of this precise fear. If passed in its present form it would erode their base. There will not be any difference to the constitutional reservation for the SCs and STs. In the case of others, the rotational system proposed in the bill would disturb their hold on the constituencies and the more entrenched political halo of traditional political families would score over the parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party. This may not be remedied even by reserving seats for the BCs and minorities.

As regards its core objective, it is naïve to believe that this reservation would benefit the oppressed sections of women. If even in a relatively cohesive population like that of dalits, political reservation has produced huge negativity, the outcome of the political reservation to women fragmented by caste, class, community, religion, language, and region, could only be worse. In what way would a larger number of elite women in Parliament empower dalit women in a village? Largely, these ladies would act as proxy of their male benefactors with a political halo, money and muscle power. Women’s woes are not as much a matter of legislation as it is a matter of societal attitudes, which could be challenged at the level of practice and arrested by an efficient administration. In this way, reservation at the panchayat level becomes more important than what the bill proposes. Also, if there is a real political will to improve the situation of women, it would be better achieved by instilling gender sensitivity in the administration and making it accountable.

Progressive Automatons

Empowerment of women is a laudable objective. India ranks a shameful 114 among 134 countries of the world on the scale of gender equality. This situation cannot be remedied by instituting lopsided reservation. Increased representation of women in our legislative bodies is certainly desirable but if it is going to be superficial and reinforce the traditional power structure, it needs to be re-thought. Most issues of democratic representation sought to be solved through reservation could perhaps be resolved better in the electoral system of proportional representation as proposed by many analysts. It may be worthwhile to have a national debate on these issues than rush with stereotypical solutions.

It is a pity that our national life is governed by stereotypes. Reservation as a universally progressive policy is one such stereotype. It has assumed the status of a holy cow for the progressive section. That is unfortunate because it makes it so much easier for the ruling classes to play havoc with the polity. Reservation in the Indian society divided as it is with numerous fault lines is intrinsically fraught with many problems, which could turn it quite counterproductive if not conceived properly. It is being certainly used effectively by the ruling classes as a strategic tool to manipulate people. Our progressive automatons need to learn this basic fact.