Cast(e) in Iron

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Prashant Negi

Prashant Negi is Assistant Professor, Dr. K. R. Narayanan Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia and Managing Trustee, Centre for Development Studies, Shimla. He can be contacted at negiprashant@gmail.com.

The agitation for inclusion as Other Backward Castes (OBCs) by the powerful Patel community in Gujarat organized around the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) by Hardik Patel; the appeal to the Congress (I) party for “daring” revision of the backward reservation policy by its member and former Union minister Jiten Prasada; the pitch for a review of the reservation policy by the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat; and the demand to include the upper castes such as the “Brahmins, Rajputs and Bhumihars” by the Congress (I) spokesperson Manish Tewari has yet again buttressed the reservation debate to the center stage.

As a part of a wider policy of affirmative action, reservations have always been politically and socially salient. However, it is the timing of the call for a review of the policy or the agitations for inclusion in the OBC list by various forward communities that have virtually resulted in drawing of vertical fault lines within and across the political spectrum and society in India. Given the context of a rather important and impending election in Bihar, it was hardly surprising that various political parties (including those from which these demands emanated) and their leaders jumped into the fray to vociferously contest any such initiative.

Essentially, the reservation debate circumscribes around issues of social justice, egalitarianism and equity. While the latter philosophical concerns are integral to any democratic framework, thinking on reservations has continuously extended to include issues pertaining to discrimination, exclusion, access, disparity etc. Theoretical considerations apart, the manner in which the reservation issue has been addressed at various levels within the polity and public sector in India has been far from satisfactory – a fact appended by a growing body of quantitative and qualitative literature, which affirms that inter-social group disparities have only widened over time.

B. R. Ambedkar delivering a speech to a rally at Yeola, Nasik, on 13 October 1935

B. R. Ambedkar delivering a speech to a rally at Yeola, Nasik, on 13 October 1935

Simultaneously, it is also a truism that the benefits of the reservation policy have been differential and there are pronounced intra-social group variations in the status and mobility patterns among such social groups. This in itself has sustained polarization on caste lines and subsequent identification and accommodation of categories within categories (Mahadalit, Most Backward Classes etc.) and as such decategorization of existing categories. What perhaps needs to be underscored here is that while several of these categories are not constitutionally recognized; they are nevertheless utilized for their political significance. What is perhaps most striking, in the manner in which various events have unfolded, is that while on one hand the efficacy of the entire reservation policy is being questioned; on the other, the same policy is being demanded/advocated for other social groups.

Another dimension of the debate is the casual approach in which reductionist logic is applied to the issue of reservations. Whether it be conceptualizations on merit or efficiency or those of reparations and compensation – the debate is usually pursued in binary terms. It is as if the entire social group under consideration is homogeneous, not just in terms of its shared identity but also in its orientation(s).

The debate on reservations has been further differentiated by its linkage with stigmatized identity with perceptions being created that people from marginal social groups are inferior and lack less than optimal skills. This strand of the debate assumes that definitive standards of status and skill sets are established by social groups other than marginal and that rationalization of the ideal is based on ascribed membership to a particular group. In this context, the recent demands for inclusion into the various backward lists by members of the very communities who define(d) the so-called superlative seems contradictory. A significant social change however is inherent in this contradiction – perceptions regarding reservations have now changed from denoting inferior status, stigma and prejudice to assertion of identity and the manner in which identity is mobilized for appropriation of surplus. Reservations thus seem to constitute, in popular imagination, enhanced access to opportunities and mobility.

In the recent past, various communities (Gujjars, Jats etc.) across India have mobilized around the issue of reservations. The legal tenability of such demands however needs to be examined and ascertained on criteria well established in the Constitution and as such, depends on a variety of factors ranging from social, economic, and educational backwardness, among others. In a nation where majorities of people are poor, rural and marginal, and where access to opportunities is marred on structural and ascribed factors, such demands will only increase; the fallout of which will be felt directly by the polity.

While various governments, aware of caste permutations, have been accommodative of such demands in the past, it perhaps would not be easy for them to accede to each and every request in the future, especially from communities, which do not, prima facie, fulfill established criteria for being demarcated as backward/marginal. That being said, it must be understood that the reservation issue encapsulated and woven in distributive justice is essentially a political question. It is its justification that is of consequence. It is perhaps for this very reason of non-verifiability of claims to social capital that various such assertions have been struck down by the courts of law.

It is not surprising then that various political parties and their ideological gurus continue to devise adaptive and ingenious methods of accommodating various social groups within the ambit of the reservation policy. The demand to revisit the reservation policy in its entirety can be placed within this framework. The fact that prominent members of the Indian polity across the political spectrum have spoken about it denotes the sense of urgency that is placed around the issue.

There is a possibility, though very bleak, that the government may consider bringing the entire reservation policy under major review. Assessment of a policy is a routine matter in the government, but considerably changing its orientation is quite another. In a society where caste continues to be a definitive characteristic feature, the probability of the reservation policy being modified to exclude the presently included or significantly change the criteria of inclusion seems far-fetched. The fact that despite initially being legislated for a period of 10 years, caste-based reservations have continuously been ratified over a 6 decadal period supports the former assertion. This is not to imply that the reservation policy has not been scrutinized over the years – it has – only to include even more social groups within its ambit. The present demand seems to be another step in that direction.

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