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One More Reservation

By Anand Teltumbde

08 April, 2010

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

From an 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 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 scheduled castes. Prejudice 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 to the SCs, as a matter of fact had come through the colonial times and it was just a matter of continuation of what already existed post independence. To that was added the STs. The Constitution makers failed to attribute this exception to the disability of the Indian society to treat its own people equal and vaguely associated it with backwardness of these communities. Had it done so, the reservation would have had self terminating logic: motivating the larger society to do away this disability and hence the reservation itself at the earliest possible time. Unfortunately, the way it is couched, has made the reservations self perpetuating.

Apart from the reservations to 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 its default meaning was taken as such by politicians to forge reservation into a political weapon to manipulate people. The cardinal criterion for reservation in a country like India characterized 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. Quota verily represents that force. This criterion cannot be diluted to 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 states at the cost of multitude of masses. Despite reservation galore, this is precisely what has not happened in India. The rich have been getting richer and the poor poorer.

With 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 mid 1960s and inauguration of coalition era from mid 1970s is 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 BCs could skillfully transform the popular grudge against reservations for the SCs and STs into the passion for their extension to other backward castes, thus setting into motion the competitive backwardness to claim reservation.

The Mandal reservations to the BCs eventually opened the pandora’s box. Now, the reservations are naturally being demanded by all conceivable categories. Muslims are closer to getting it, thanks to the Sachar committee recommendations. Dalit Christians should not be very far. There is a demand for reservations to poor among the upper castes and of course the incipient demands for splitting the quota according to sub castes and sub sub-castes. With increasing crisis for people, reservation projected as panacea is bound to get proliferated beyond limits.

Have Reservations Really Worked?

Before extension of this exceptional principle to all and sundry, the responsible polity would evaluate whether it has served the original purpose in its prototype form in the case of SCs and STs. If we objectively look at the evidence, one could definitely say that it has catalyzed huge spread of education among these communities and caused significant socio-economic development through the 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 remedial mechanism, it has accentuated inequality among these castes. The people (and the castes) with first movers advantage increasingly monopolized 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. (see my article Reservation within Reservation, EPW --). This is simple and doable solution but it would not be accepted by the political class as it takes away caste, which has been their 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 find out whether it has benefitted the Dalits masses for whom it was meant. The answer is in definite negative. Late Kanshiram summarized his assessment of this policy in his pamphlet, ‘chamcha yug’ (the era of stooges). It produced 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 producing stooges out of Dalit politicians. While in numbers, this reservation, unlike others, has been always fully implemented; it has never meant even a feeble voice of Dalits in legislature. 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 Dalits, which fattens itself on the political rent derived from the ruling classes.

Reservation to Women

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

Firstly, women are a very 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 rather showed up as inevitable splintering 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 patriarchal society enjoys enormous social power whereas the latter is triple-oppressed, as 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 their women’s liberation Day on 25th December, (instead of 8th March) the day the Manusmriti was burnt during the Mahad conference. Its stance is not against men but against the mainstream women’s movement that seeks to overlook the oppression of majority women. There is a tendency seen in even other caste and community groups to articulate their dissent against the mainstream women’s movement.

Secondly, 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 ones 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 generations of beneficiary Dalits are around, the evils of reservation system have surfaced clearly. The demand for categorization 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 reservation policy. Since reservation for the SCs and STs is premised on the social prejudice, its outright abolition is out of question in view of these prejudices still visible, but there is certainly a case for plugging their obvious lacunae.

Politics behind Progressive Veneer

The situation at the time of instituting first reservation no more exists for any segment of population, least with women today. The all pervasive clamor for reservation today can be considered as symptomatic of our unscrupulous politics. The proposed women’s reservation 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, innured 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 vast population such as women’s, under the purview of reservation, they could hope to cross the coalition barrier. Women’s reservation bill in the current form can benefit the major political parties, with relatively more feudal hold on population than others, in getting their women elected to disproportionately more number of reserved seats to improve their tally. Behind its progressive veneer, this appears to be the motivation.

The objection of Mayawati and Yadavs to the bill for not providing quota for the SCs, STs, BCs and Minorities actually smack of this precise fear that the bill if passed in the present form would erode their base. In face of it, it would appear misfounded, but in reality it may not. While there will not be any difference to the constitutional reservation for the SCs and STs, in case of others the disturbance in constituencies due to rotational system proposed in the bill, the more entrenched political halo of traditional political families would score over the parties such as BSP and SP. This may not even be remedied by reserving seats for BCs and minorities.

As regards its core objective, it is naïveté to believe that this reservation would benefit oppressed section of women. If even in a relatively cohesive population like Dalits, the political reservation has produced huge negativity, the outcome of the political reservation to women, as disparate as Indian society, fragmented by castes, classes, communities, religions, languages, regions and so on, could only be expected to be worse. What way more number of elite women in parliament going to empower Dalit women in a village? Largely, these ladies would act as proxy of their men benefactor, who got them elected with their 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 this one. Also, if there is a real political will for improving 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 laudable objective. The pathetic state of women in our country cries for urgent action to improve their situation. India ranks 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 legislature bodies is certainly desirable but if it is going to be mere surface reality and contrarily reinforcing the traditional power structure, it needs to be rethought. Most issues of democratic representation sought to be solved through reservation perhaps could 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 our progressive people. That is unfortunate because it makes so much easy for the ruling classes to play havoc with the polity. Reservation in the Indian society divided with numerous fault lines is intrinsically fraught with many lacaunae, 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.

Anand Teltumbde is writer and civil rights activist with CPDR, Mumbai tanandraj@gmail.com




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