Say Yes To Affirmative
By Praful Bidwai
21 August, 2004
The Prafu Bidwai Column
1990, at the height of the anti-Mandal agitation in India's Northern
states, editorial page writers of The Times of India were divided over
the issue of reserving government jobs for the non-savarna backward
castes (OBCs). Our differences sharpened as upper-caste students immolated
themselves in protest against the new policy. So some of us decided
to conduct a survey of the staffing practices of our Delhi office.
The results were
stunning. There were no Dalits and just 3 OBCs among the 300 journalists
of the newspaper group, most of them Brahmins, Kayasthas and Banias.
This was not due to conscious policy: it was just how things were-"naturally",
"spontaneously", as a manager put it, emphasising
that "merit" alone guided recruitment and promotion. It is
astounding, and of course incredible, that the upper castes, who form
a tenth of the population, concentrate within themselves nine-tenths
of India's entire pool of "merit". But that's the nature of
the discrimination in this super-hierarchical
society, where ritual purity assigned by the varna system is far more
important than educational achievement, professional talent or diligence.
Fourteen years on,
this systematic discrimination and denial of social opportunity has
not changed. The Times of India group only embodies a trend that's pervasive
in all private business. Contrast this with the frankly capitalist United
States. There, two-thirds of all newspapers with a circulation of 100,000-plus,
draw 15 to 20 percent of their journalists from racial-linguistic minorities
like Blacks and Hispanics. Thus, 16.2 percent of The New York Times'
staff belongs to such minority groups. The proportion is 19.5 percent
for The Washington Post and 18.7 for The Los Angeles Times. Presumably,
"merit" counts as much in these papers as in the Indian press!
Even the ultra-conservative Wall Street Journal has 17.1 percent minority
This change hasn't
come about through government directives, but through a 1978 decision
of the American Society of Newspaper Editors to raise the minorities'
representation from a pathetic 3.95 percent to the same level as their
share in the population. This was done through special programmes such
as diversity promotion, scholarships, ethnic and racial censuses, training
schemes, and job fairs to recruit historically disadvantaged minority
groups. The key is affirmative action or positive discrimination.
This worthy principle
must be strongly commended and adopted in a horrendously unequal society
like India's-where discrimination is so deeply ingrained and pervasive
that anthropologists like Louis Dumont were tempted to posit a new category
of social organisation to describe it-Homo
hierarchicus. India is marked by cascading inequalities. If you are
born underprivileged, you face growing discrimination in education,
freedom, employment, income, etc.-each step of the way. In most people's
case, the injustice is never compensated. This denial of social opportunity
destroys the very possibility of realising the human potential of millions
of people. It can be effectively countered by levelling the originally
tilted playing-field-through affirmative action.
This is the framework
in which we should debate the reservations issue, which is being raised
afresh in respect of the private sector (especially in Maharashtra)
and of Muslims. In Andhra Pradesh, 5 percent of government jobs have
been declared reserved under a policy initiated by Mr Chandrababu Naidu
and continued by his successor. The policy of extending reservations
for SCs and STs to the private sector is part of the UPA's National
Common Minimum Programme. It promises to "initiate a national dialogue
[on this] with all political parties, industry and other organisations"
to "fulfil the aspirations of SC and ST youth". This is unexceptionable.
But reservations for Muslims as Muslims may be undesirable.
The proposed affirmative
action in the private sector has drawn a negative industry reaction.
Confederation of Indian Industry chief Anand Mahindra "welcomes"
a dialogue, but says "reservation without reference to merit may
have a distorting effects" Some magnates have threatened to relocate
in case Maharashtra goes ahead with the move. This is bizarre coming
from business families in which birth and inheritance count infinitely
more than "merit".
families jealously guard their lineage and privilege at the expense
of all else-as the latest controversy over Priyamvada Birla's will shows.
Efficiency and "merit" aren't exactly the forte of India's
business culture. Or else, we wouldn't have 250,000 private factories
lying closed, with tens of thousands of crores tied up in non-performing
assets. Nor would we have scandals in every major industry. In private
business, most people are recruited on the basis of contacts, sifarish,
loyalty and political influence, not "merit".
However, the strongest
argument for affirmative action derives from the persistence of cruel
and often barbaric forms of discrimination against marginalised groups
such as Dalits. This discrimination enjoys the sanction of the Dharmashastras.
One only has to take a fleeting glance at the Manusmriti to note the
hierarchy it stipulates and the gruesome punishment it prescribes for
the Shudras (including Dalits and most OBCs), who must forever obediently
serve the other, twice-born, varnas. They must be "gentle in speech"
and "free from pride", and own no property "other than
donkeys and dogs".
Should a Shudra
try to place himself on the same seat with a man of high caste, say
the scriptures, "he shall be branded on his hip and banished. If
out of arrogance, a Shudra spits on a superior, (the king) shall cause
both his lips to be cut off. If a Shudra threatens a Brahmin with a
stick, he shall remain in hell for a hundred years; he who strikes a
Brahmin, shall remain in hell for a thousand yearss. A chandala, a village
pig, a cock, a dog, a menstruating women must not look at the Brahmin
when they eat. The Chandalas shall be outside the village and their
dress shall be the garments of the dead, they must always wander from
place to place. A Shudra who sleeps with a maiden of the highest caste
shall suffer capital punishment".
To this day, inhuman
and degrading casteist practices prevail in India: Dalits must take
off their shoes and their women must uncover their faces while passing
through an upper-caste area; their dead cannot be carried through savarna
streets. In many states, Dalits are banned from making ghee. In Andhra
and Tamil Nadu, they have been punished for asserting their legal rights
by being forced to eat human excreta. One only has to read the reports
of the SC/ST Commissions to verify this. Such vile discrimination against
Dalits and most OBCs cannot be eliminated by calling for equal opportunity-among
unequal people whose starting conditions are grossly unequal. Correcting
them demands affirmative action.
principal function is not individual betterment, but acknowledgement
of historic injustice against a group and compensation for it through
preferred recruitment, etc. So long as anti-Dalit discrimination persists,
we must continue with reservations. For the same reason, the Mandal
principle cannot be faulted. However, we must recognise that reservations
or quotas are a particularly strong form of affirmative action and pose
practical difficulties. It won't be easy to implement them in the private
sector, which creates very few new jobs. The organised private sector
accounts for just 8.4 million jobs-down from 8.8 million in 1998. The
whole organised sector employs just 27.2 million.
What might be preferable
to reservations are other forms of positive discrimination, either voluntary
or promoted through bodies like the remarkable Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission of the US. By fighting for employment for ethnic minorities,
EEOC has brought a major change in countless industries and occupations
like automobile dealerships and even TV anchorship. It ruled that 5
percent of all government purchases must come from minority suppliers.
Thus, major Fortune-500
corporations like Exxon-Mobil, General Motors and Wal-Mart recruit 16
to 23 percent of their workers from among the minorities. GM and Ford
have been buying components from minority suppliers for years. IBM has
15 percent of its staff drawn from the minorities. Over one-third of
the faculty of Harvard Medical School belongs to such groups. By contrast,
Dalits and Adivasis (23 percent of our population) have abysmally low
representation: just 7.1 percent in factories, 3.1 percent in construction,
4.1 percent in trade, 3 percent in transport, and 3.4 percent in domestic
India must emulate
and adapt affirmative action methods from the US and post-apartheid
South Africa too. To start with, we must ensure jobs for Dalits and
Adivasis roughly in proportion to their share in the population.
Finally, a word
on reservations for Muslims. In recent years, many Indian Muslims have
suffered discrimination, especially at the hands of the state. But they
don't fall into the category of Dalits who face historic injustice.
Nor are Muslims homogenous. They will be better served through education,
especially for girls, modernisation of madrassas, opening up of special
state services (e.g police intelligence and RAW) which are closed to
them, and conscious recruitment of professionals through EEOC-type programmes.
Given the history
of communal conflict and the active social-political presence of the
sangh parivar, there will be a strong backlash to reservations-through
screams of "appeasement". Instead of reservations, the Andhra
government should announce affirmative action for Muslims in education
and job training.