Assertion Of Dominant Castes: Time To Relook At Affirmative Action In India

By Dr. Suma Singh

August 2015, the 21-year old Hardik Patel brought the Gujarat government to its knees by leading a massive Patel agitation. Now in September 2016, a young Maratha girl Swati Nakhate is leading a silent Maratha agitation demanding reservation for the powerful Maratha community. This is bound to unleash a storm in coming days in Maharashtra.

Both the Patels and Marathas are economically prosperous, socially progressive and politically powerful communities. So why are the rich and powerful communities led by novice unknown faces on the streets demanding reservations? Isn’t reservation meant for the underprivileged as envisaged by our forefathers? Isn’t that why they made reservation a tool of affirmative action to uplift the millions of downtrodden and marginalized sections?

The objective of using reservations to change the face of Indian society was noble and just. It ensured democratization of Indian polity in the true sense as it took power to the marginalised communities and became a means for social and economic upliftment. Reservation policy backed by strong legislation to address discrimination empowered the deprived communities and turned the wheels of history by ensuring the reversal of centuries old inhumane treatment.

But after seventy years, when a Hardik Patel or Swati Nakhate mobilizes the entrepreneurially progressive Patels and politically dominant Marathas to demand OBC status for themselves, we need to deliberate and debate the reservation policy of the Government. Is the time appropriate for a relook and restructuring of India’s affirmative action policy?

Firstly, it’s time we accept that the reservation policy has widened the divisions in society and strengthened the forces of casteism. Our colleges and universities are symbolic of it as non-reservation category students resent the deprivation of scholarships, admission to programs and even jobs due to their caste tag! Forget the much hyped demographic dividend; it’s not far off when the student community hits the roads and resorts to violence questioning the rationality of this institutionalised affirmative policy. It’s a sad state of affairs where the meritorious think that quota of some form is the ticket to a better life and not their knowledge.

Secondly, as a nation we seem to be okay with compromising on merit in the name of affirmative action. We need to acknowledge the talent and success stories from SC/ST/OBC communities but also look at the other side of the coin where the best have been left out. Our public universities do not attract the best of students, our elite government services are still dream career options for the best minds but many of them fail to make it, thanks to the policy of reservation.

Thirdly, the growing clamor for quota among the powerful and land owning communities like Jats, Patels and Marathas is just the beginning. These communities have seen dramatic diminish in their political and economic fortunes with the reservation policy. The privileges and power have eroded over the years and the agitations speak of the victimhood and injustices these communities are suffering.

Political reasoning has led to doling out of reservation status to even the economically well doing communities like Jats and Gujjars. Thanks to Supreme Court the 50% cap holds good or else it’s hard to imagine what havoc the political class would have created to strengthen their vote banks.

Fourthly, the affirmative action of seven decades has passed on intergenerational benefits among a privileged few and a new class division has emerged in these communities which cannot be overlooked. The horror stories we hear in Una or any other interior parts of India is a reflection of the ingrained biases that we as a community still nurture and the failure of the constitutional mechanism to address India’s apartheid.

So we have contradicting opinions from the ground. Millions of the marginalized have not seen a significant change in their socio-economic status but there are also millions of others who have benefitted from the affirmative action. On the other hand, the agitations of the economically dominant communities challenge the very notion of caste based-reservation and throw up political challenges which may disturb our polity and State. Given these contradictory realities, there is a need to look at economy-based reservation.

That is the most interesting take of these popular agitations. The time has now come to rethink the reservation policy, without a political colour given to it. Unfortunately, no one, neither the beneficiaries of reservation nor the politicians are willing to initiate a debate on reservation being withdrawn for the creamy layer.

A mature democracy must ensure that it debates and deliberates, and as we celebrate 70 years of independence we need to relook at affirmative action in the form of quotas without being emotional about it. We as a nation may not reap the demographic dividend but may face a demographic disaster if the social, economic and moral injustice in the name of reservation is not debated and addressed. There will be many more Hardik Patels, Swati Nakhates out there and the fast urbanizing young India may not have the patience to wait for the politicians and courts to address their demands!

Dr. Suma Singh is an Associate Professor at the Department of Economics, Mount Carmel College, Bengaluru