Nitin has an extraordinarily thought-provoking post on the accursed Reservations that continues to hamper our economic progress.
It is widely acknowledged to be a failure not just in some country half-way across the world, but in India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may go down in history as the man who took the Indian economy out of one dark dungeon, allowed it to experience a tantalising breath of freedom, only to plunge it into another, darker dungeon.
The case against reservations goes beyond just economics. It is fundamentally about the principles around which India organises its society. Equality of all citizens is among the most fundamental of these principles.
But then, I was appalled when I read a few comments that favoured reservations in the private sector. They decry the need for merit as the sole criterion for advancement. It is commonsense that you’d hire someone based on his/her expertise in a specific field not because he hails from your community. However, the commenters seem to think exactly the opposite.
I do credit a certain amount of intelligence to the said commenters. Given this, it is baffling that they chose “social justice” to defend their indefensible argument while they should’ve employed reason. This only underscores how deep our perverted political discourse has permeated into the nation’s collective psyche.
The current clamour for private sector reservations has its roots in again, the greedy abyss of our political class. Having failed to rein in the private sector using other means, they’ve again used the Reservation trump card. Gurcharan Das in India Unbound recounts his experience with a former senior minister in the early days of liberalization. The minister puts on a fine show of a fallen hero while in reality he is simmering with anger that people don’t come to him as before seeking favours (read: in exchange for loaded suitcases). The lament of the loss of statist power. Which is exactly what the UPA wants to revert to.
In any argument on reservations, it seems imperative to a sizeable majority to point fingers at Brahmins. A brief historical background is in order to put the issue in context.
Behind the concept of reservations lies an assumption that Brahmins were always rich which is why they had to “vacate” government jobs. It is a historical fact that Brahmins were revered precisely because they shunned worldly pursuits. The establishment of British rule uprooted an entire way of life: Brahmins who depended on other castes for livelihood in exchange for spiritual guidance suddenly found their learning useless in the new order of things. As they say, a man has to live. Which is why they abandoned their traditional knowledge in favour of secular employment. The Brits had no special corner for Brahmins–they were selected on the basis of merit, not birth. There is definitely a point when one argues that it was “easy” for Brahmins to secure employment because they had inherited a tradition of learning a luxury the backward/oppressed/suppressed castes didn’t have. This is one of the moot points of the Reservations concept. One I wholeheartedly support.
Yet when you look at the actual record, you see that just like the poor/deprived lot of other castes, we had Brahmins who lived in dismal poverty. Poverty knows no caste or religion. So what did the government do with them? Several Brahmins were at the forefront in demanding the implementation of Reservations much before the current slew of Dalit and other vocal groups. The Mysore Maharaja was one of the first to implement this during the pre-independence years. One can cite several such examples where the need for affirmative action has stemmed from the upper castes–that was a big risk for an upper caste person to take in an age when the oppressed castes were so steeped in their sorry cesspool that they weren’t aware that they had rights!
It is essential for all of us who desire that the Reservation discourse take meaningful shape instead of resorting to the us vs them rhetoric to always place this historical context in mind. Early caste-system reformers emphasised the spiritual aspect as a social leveller–from Basavanna in Karnataka to Narayana Guru in Kerala–because they invoked the principle that the whole of India identified itself with: God. That worked to varying degrees of success; more, it added immensely to the already-rich repository of Indian thought.
Contrast that to today’s Reservation discourse which has degenerated into a jungle-like warfare. If you can read Kannada, you’ll see war-monging slogans that decorate the walls of various buildings in Bangalore: implement X quota of reservation or get out of your seat. As Nitin observed, today’s Reservation rhetoric focusses on further splintering the society.
Midway we seem to have forgotten the real purpose of affirmative action: to build a society that provides equal opportunities. We have instead substituted it by resorting to grabbing it by force.