The problems behind the reservation ‘solution’

Suraj Kumar Thube
Suraj Kumar ThubeSep 25, 2016 | 14:19

The problems behind the reservation ‘solution’

Last year, it was a demand made by the Jats and the Patidars. This year, it is the Maratha community that is demanding reservations.

One of the reasons why these dominant castes have suddenly found muster in being vocal about their agitation is an observation made by the Supreme Court in 2015. After rightly quashing the demand of the Jats for reservations, the SC tried to make an unambiguous foray into the very idea of reservations for contemporary India.


How caste alone cannot be an indicator of backwardness was put forward along with a suggestion to consider the plight of the "upper castes" in economic terms. At a time when public jobs are nowhere to be seen, private investment is hard to come by and the economy is surging ahead at a snail's pace, the anxiety level, especially among these dominant castes, has skyrocketed.

Reservations in this situation come as a messiah, an easily available "solution" for amelioration and something that will guarantee a sense of stability in one's life.

The problem with this entire proposition is with the very idea of reservations, which is undergoing a malicious change. A change that seeks to dilute the politico-constitutive element of the same to incorporate a positivist element of material stabilisation which was never a part of the classical rubric of reservations.

Reservations, to begin with, were envisaged as a scheme that will help to foster social inclusion, social equality and social justice. The latter is significant as it formed the core of BR Ambedkar's political ideology whose ultimate goal was to cement the notion of citizenship in a deeply fragmented polity like ours.


This idea of citizenship was far from being achieved at the time of Independence as political equality was not an automatic guarantee to social and economic equality. The pronounced social cleavages were a sign that the project of the "Indian citizen" was still a work in progress.

Social polarisation, the immense plurality across the population profile and the convoluted sense of the heterogeneous understanding of time and space in India were all emblematic of a country being "chaotic in diversity".

Reservations in this background have to be seen as a politico-constitutive and a social-symbolic gesture to realise this larger dream of Indian democracy. Its antecedents in the name of the Government of India Act, 1935, and before that the Poona Pact, which saw a compromise being made between the untouchables and the upper castes, should form the basis of the reading of the social underpinnings of reservations.

The latter in fact can be seen as a substitute for the separate nation that was demanded by Ambedkar for the untouchables. For this marginalised community, their promise of an egalitarian future came to be seen through the prism of this constitutional provision.

Reservations as an idea inherently possesses a language and a vocabulary that caters to the needs of the "community" and not of an isolated, free market-based individual. The inclusion of the economic criteria goes about blurring the wider scope of reservations to some sort of a welfare scheme that will provide tangible benefits to the society at large.


This visualisation has almost given a testimonial, vicious spin to the flawed idea of societal happiness of the Benthamite Utilitarian variety. By moving the social and politically dominant castes at the same level to that of the marginalised, it tries to iron out the humiliating hierarchised societal set up and also acts as a superfluous impediment to their political surge in what has been called as "Dalit Assertion".

Reservations for all practical purposes was neither thought of as a poverty alleviation programme nor as an employment generation scheme. The term signifies much more than the easily understood arithmetic of the prescribed quotas.

At the same time, as Ashwini Deshpande says, it has still been mired in a polarising conceptualisation of it being either a demonising initiative that is behind all present day wrongs or as the panacea for all evils.

The classificatory nature of this description of extremities is baffling to say the least as the everydayness of our lifestyles fails to make sense of such inhospitable poles. This position today has taken a form of relative convergence, in the sense that many communities have come to appropriate reservations according to their own needs.

It increasingly has come to envision reservations with attributes of "affirmative action" almost in the similar fashion as was been exercised in the US historically.

According to Rekha Pappu, M Madhava Prasad and Susie Tharu , the problems with this economic-centric reading of “affirmative action” in the Indian scenario are three-fold, namely - the distinction between "deprivation" and "discrimination" sought to be bridged by a foreign vocabulary in the Indian case; the idea of how the project of social inclusivity was an integral part of the Indian national movement whereas it was a “post-revolution” development in the case of the US, and how unlike them - which saw a minority in the name of blacks fighting against the majority - it was exactly the opposite in the Indian case which saw the majority struggling for dignity and equal respect.

All three endeavours, that seek to speak a language of an economic level playing field, deliberately make an instrumental use of reservations to mitigate or even eliminate the starkness of the social fault-lines of our society.

The reason why social relevance is still important in contemporary discourse is because the oppression and suppression of the historically marginalised community continues even today. The overt nature of this humiliation is a story of the past as “caste” itself has undergone a significant change in post-Independence India.

Reservations were envisaged as a scheme that will help to foster social inclusion, social equality and social justice. It formed the core of BR Ambedkar's political ideology. (Photo credit: India Today)  

An insidious institutionalisation of casteism and the stubborn way in which it has gripped our modern social consciousness without even realising it, makes it all the more significant today for achieving social equity. The question is not whether it should be abolished or not but how it solely is incapable of bringing about a change in the modern-day conscience.

The reason why we do not see ourselves as purveyors of caste perpetuating further divisiveness is the utter negation of caste in our lives. The "we" over here is the great Indian Middle Class or what Satish Deshpande calls the "casteless" community, called the General category.

The latter is a group of people who see caste as something that is a characteristic of particularly rural areas, and who most importantly single out the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes as the people who continue to exacerbate casteism in India.

The idea of how a switch to modernity and modern lifestyles with migration to urban areas eliminates caste is a deeply flawed premise. As DL Seth would argue, even if the religious/ritual connotations of caste have seen a decline, the manifestation of the same in “superior identities” along with a sense of kinship-based community being intact is still prevalent.

What should be acknowledged in no uncertain terms is the present nature of upper caste discrimination, and not to relegate the idea of reservations to the dustbin of history with the myopic sense that the discrimination used to happen in antiquity and so the current generation should not be made to suffer for it.

The fact that needs to be understood is the pervasive, vice-like hold of untouchability in India today. To cite a couple of examples, Navsarjan Trust under the able chairmanship of Martin Macwan over the years has highlighted the widening social cleavages which have only increased in neoliberal times.

Another study of more than 1,500 villages in the model, vibrant state of Gujarat undertaken by eminent scholar Sukhdeo Thorat and his team exposes the dark underbelly of untouchability in the state. The situation is similarly precarious or even worse in other underdeveloped and equally developed parts of the country.

The General category people have had another surreptitious rebuttal of how reservations itself promote caste-based discrimination in India. As much as the lament is highly deplorable, a simple question should be asked by them about what the societal condition was before 1902, when Shahu Maharaj came up with the first systematic deployment of reservations in employment and educational sectors.

However, the phase of baseless allegations is on a decline as the very communities that once mocked and loathed the lower castes for receiving "added benefits" are jostling to squeeze themselves under the benign umbrella of reservation. Interestingly enough, it was the same set of communities who castigated the very notion of compensatory discrimination, especially during the heightened period of the Mandal agitations in 1990.

The erstwhile disdain for the “charity” given to the lower castes turns spectacularly into a “right” whose ambit should be increased. This is done under the abysmal claim of equity and societal parity.

The reservation syndrome has gripped all dominant castes like the Jats, Patidars, Reddys and now the Marathas. At the same time, in the case of the latter, a push for increasing the vertical coverage of the net of reservations is what is demanded.

This is unlike the tussle between the Gujjar and the Meenas, for instance, wherein the former was seen in a frenetic struggle for a “race to the bottom” i.e. an SC community trying to be a part of an ST, a much lower identity in the hierarchy.

In the Maratha case, a systematic move away from the much derided Kunbis who presently enjoy reservations should be kept at an arm's length, and the traditional race to the bottom phenomenon gets reversed to a haughty sense of pride and superiority which demands a rectification of their economic position without making the denigrating movement downwards in the hierarchy.

The transition from “charity” to “right” has also witnessed a sharp blunting or even stagnation of the “merit” and “caste” antagonism that formed the crux of the entire Mandal episode. This is one more example of how when push comes to shove, social and the non-positivist goals take a backseat and the economic idea of self-sufficiency and effectiveness reigns supreme. The rules and regulation can be tampered with easily under the name of placating the impending disruption.

The language of the abolition of reservations has suddenly lost to political oblivion as it is unfortunately being reduced to being the sole source of assured jobs at a time of great economic turmoil, both economically and politically.

Even if the economic claim has to be taken seriously, it is the Muslim community that deserves reservations given their state of extreme penury and destitution since Independence. This has been well documented in the last 10 years, starting with the Sachar Committee report documenting the social-economic backwardness of Muslims being even worse than the Dalits.

This was followed up by the Ragnath Mishra report on the same in 2007 which made two demands, namely – 12 per cent reservations for Muslims and an inclusion of Muslim and Christian Dalits in the SC list. Maharashtra itself came out with a backwardness report of Muslims under the chairmanship of Mehboob Ur Rehman which recommended 8 per cent reservations.

Finally, a report headed by Amitabh Kundu simply reiterated the dire conditions of the community even after 10 years of the Sachar Committee findings. The problem still remains grossly unresolved as the present government refused to entertain the demands of a “religious” community and continues to fight for including that community which has remained socially, politically, culturally and economically dominant since Independence.

A precipitous decline in public jobs, a stagnant private investment scenario become the reason for using reservations as a tool to get back to normalcy. It only generates a sense of being a false stabiliser amid a gloomy economy.

Non-functioning of the administrative apparatus, a callous disregard for governmental role epitomising that of a positive state, and a complete reliance on the invisible hand of the market economy has raised questions about the enormous sustainability of our growth model.

These pressing issues need concrete and not makeshift solutions like the reservations to appease the disgruntled dominant communities who are suffering not because of a lack of reservations but because of a lack of a political imagination in laying down an inclusive blueprint of development for the future.

Reservations in this sense only make a limited albeit a crucial interruption in further embedding the democratic credentials in our social psyche. They serve the purpose of realising what Granville Austin talks about in his idea of bringing about a "social revolution" and also what Ambedkar includes in his idea of "social justice".

Last updated: September 25, 2016 | 14:19
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