Reservations should be about equality of opportunity



The agitation by Gujarat’s Patel community for inclusion in the Other Backward Classes list has brought the issue of reservations in education and jobs screaming back into the headlines. Reservations and the politics of caste had last collided forcefully with the politics of religion back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Those movements propelled first the Janata Dal and then the BJP to power at the Centre, and in state after state. Similar forces are starting to move again.


The demand for reservations by the Patels is being regarded by many as ridiculous because the Patels are not historically disadvantaged. They have long been a dominant community in Gujarat, with wealth and power disproportionate to their numbers.


But the Patels are not the only historically dominant community looking for reservations. In Maharashtra, the Marathas are seeking reservations. A demand for reservation for Muslims (who may be disadvantaged now but were not backward historically) has been raised by many people including Asaduddin Owaisi. The Jats, who are a dominant group in much of North India, want reservations. The Gujjars, who don’t fit the stereotype of socially backward, have also been fighting for inclusion in the OBC list.


It’s natural that everyone should want a piece of the pie. There is no doubt that in the modern world, status flows from wealth. In an earlier era, a penurious Brahmin or a fakir could have respect. Now even Godmen and women need helicopters, Mercedes cars, and celebrity bhakts to count for anything. Otherwise, the Kumbh Mela is full of a million unknown godmen who no one cares about.


The fact that money trumps caste when it comes to the modern economy is demonstrated by the status of Dalit millionaires. Rich is a caste; if you dress right, go to the right schools and colleges, and live in the posh part of town, no one will ask you your caste unless you want to marry them. On the other hand, if you are poor and unemployed, you can be a Brahmin but it won’t get you any respect.


Obviously the people who are slipping down the social ladder will fight back. Agriculture, which the land-owning Patels (and Jats, Marathas and Gujjars) practised as traditional way of life, is shrinking and will continue to shrink as India develops; that is the experience of every advanced economy. Today’s youth have little choice but to move out of agriculture. The youth who was born in 1994, like Hardik Patel, cannot be expected to cheerfully embrace unemployment and penury because of the good or bad fortune of their ancestors in centuries past.


What caste or community you are born into is something no one can control. It is a matter of chance, or destiny. No child should be penalised for being born in any caste or community, high or low.


Justice would be done if every child born in every household, irrespective of caste, community, or economic status, got the same opportunities in life. The aim of social justice is not to ensure equality of outcomes; it is to ensure equality of opportunity.


The Indian system of affirmative action turns this very basic principle on its head. We don’t ensure that all kids go to equally good schools starting from kindergarten. Instead, some children go to fancy schools, and some go to schools without teachers, toilets, or even classrooms. Some have good, highly educated teachers, plus tutors on the side. Others have nothing. Some have parents who can help them with homework. Others have poor, illiterate and often abusive parents.


The inequities in initial conditions heap up higher and higher year after year, until we are left with two entirely different classes of individuals. Then the state decides to make its belated entry on the scene. The kid who’s had it bad all his life is told that he need not worry about marks as much as the other guy, because he’s backward. He will be given a seat in engineering or medical college for a much lower test score, and then a job at a much qualifying mark.


Why? Is it because the kid is stupid, and can’t secure good marks? No, it’s because the system is stupid. After making him lame, it now wants to give him crutches.


This carries on for generations. If reservation works to elevate people socially and economically, then why should successive generations need the same benefits?


But no political party dares question quotas. Even the communists in India support reservations based on caste rather than class. They say there is an overlap between caste and class. So why not call it class, rather than caste? Why go by Manu’s nomenclature instead of Marx’s? If the same people are low caste and poor, reservations for the poor would automatically benefit low castes more!


Instead of pointing out this obvious fact, the argument of “righting historical wrongs” is trotted out as a final defence. That is dangerous.


India’s history is long and chequered. Many groups that now consider themselves oppressed have also been oppressors at some time in the past, in some place or the other. Opening the Pandora’s Box of “righting historical wrongs” would mean that anyone who feels aggrieved about something that may have happened in the remote past could dredge it up and call for revenge. Something like this happened during the Babri Masjid movement.


The notion of “righting historical wrongs” is also against a basic principle of justice. It is a communal logic; it suggests that a child born into a community today must pay the price for the “historical wrongs” of his remote forefathers.


Compensating the disadvantaged for inherited disadvantages is necessary for social justice. Penalising the privileged for inherited privileges, real or imagined, is not. Social justice is not a zero sum game.


If people are treated as individuals, as they should be, then there is no room for any righting of historical wrongs based on community. The principle of righting historical wrongs is really the principle of revenge stretching across centuries.


We don’t need more of this. What we do need, badly, is a country that gives all its citizens equality of opportunity. That is what our Constitution promises. Article 16 says, “There shall be equality of opportunity for all citizens in matters relating to employment or appointment to any office under the State.” The Article allows for exceptions. The exceptions have continued to grow, and the basic promise of equal opportunity was never really kept.


This article was first published in The Asian Age, Mumbai



(Samrat, is a journalist and author from Shillong. His short stories and essays have appeared in English and in translation in German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. As a journalist, he has written for The Hindustan Times, The Times of India, India Today, Outlook, Open, Caravan, The New York Times, The Friday Times of Pakistan, and others. He is currently editor of the Mumbai edition of The Asian Age. You can find him on Twitter as mrsamratx)