The suggestion of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat for a “review” of the reservation policy would not have come at a less opportune time for the BJP which is engaged in a tough battle against the Nitish Kumar-led political alliance in the upcoming elections to the Assembly in Bihar. The JD(U)-RJD-Congress alliance in the state is looking formidable against the BJP-led alliance largely owing to the probability of aggregation of votes of lower castes behind it. Bhagwat’s comment has proved like a spark causing a political fire in Bihar, because reservation is a very touchy issue for the non-upper castes that include backward classes (BCs), other backward classes (OBCs), extremely backward classes (EBCs), scheduled castes (SCs), scheduled tribes (STs) and women. To these classes, Bhagwat’s comment sound like an echo of the daily upper caste reviling about quota that they have to go through.
The common view among the upper castes is that reservation is “unjust” as it discriminates against the diligent, studious and meritorious students by admitting less intelligent and mediocre students under the quota system. It discriminates against hard-working, competent and more deserving candidates in jobs. It damages the quality of the workforce by being extremely unfair against people who have worked hard their whole lives, only to have someone else who is less qualified preferred over them. The anti-reservationists also argue: why should someone be given preference today just because people from his or her caste were discriminated against in the past? According to them, the democratic system and the Constitution are guided by the principle of equality and the same principle should be applied to the educational institutions and government departments and undertakings.
However, what needs to be remembered first that the reservation policy does not provide any member of any lower caste any protection against law. Everyone is equal before the law. There is no preferential treatment in the Indian Penal Code or civil laws. Secondly, there is no running away from the reality that the lower castes have been denied basic opportunities for life improvement. India was under caste system whose defining feature was a social division of labour in which the “pure” upper castes held all the “dignified” occupations and the “impure” lower castes all the despicable ones. The lower castes were stuck to their traditional occupation generation after generation. The son of a toddy tapper could not be anything else but a toddy tapper; the son of a tanner but a tanner. There was no room for change of occupation, because the dominant upper castes would not allow it.
The sagacious founders of our democratic polity realized the risks of social rebellion and anarchy involved if continued discrimination and oppression of the lower castes was allowed. That’s how reservations became an integral part of the Constitution. The basic thinking behind reservation was to mitigate the oppression of underrepresented social groups. Quotas based on caste were a kind of compensation to them for past discrimination and oppression. The founding fathers thought that the one-size-fits-all system would not work in admissions in schools and colleges or recruitments in public jobs as the lower castes had a historical chasm to cross. The upper caste students came from a privileged environment as their parents were educated and economically better-off. Lower caste students came from families that had nothing to do with education or books or learning. The lower caste students came from a disabling, rather than enabling environment when they joined a school or college.
It might not be fair to demand a “review” or reversal of the reservation policy yet. First, there is much discrimination and oppression even now in society. The general social deprivation of lower castes has not gone away. In Bihar, the state government had to designate a majority of Dalits (scheduled castes) as Mahadalits, because in spite of reservations, literacy was very low among them. There was hardly a doctor or engineer or officer from among them even six decades after Independence.
It might surprise you if we say reservation contains the seeds of destruction of caste. The basic thing that happens through preferential education and employment through reservation is shift from the traditional, ancestral caste occupation for a member of a lower caste. That is the first blow to the edifice of caste which was built on pillars of occupational destiny. Once the shift takes place the person tries hard to integrate into the middle class – to look like everyone else. They adopt the status symbols of the middle class. They are loath to remember or mention their traditional caste origins. They are fully aware of the stigmatizing of the upper castes that “they got there because of their caste.” A time will come when their younger generations will discard the quota system and say like the famous US black judge Clarence Thomas: “As much as it stung to be told that I’d done well in the seminary DESPITE my race, it was far worse to feel that I was now at Yale BECAUSE of it.”