Deepening the Divide

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.

10 comments for “Deepening the Divide

  1. Fruskee
    May 15, 2006 at 1:16 PM

    Good arguments junta! Thought I will pitch in with my side of the argument,

    Sachin,
    U wrote:
    * There is another argument of merit. But why do people have no name for rich kids buying their way into engineering and medical colleges? Will they make good engineers\doctors because their parents money and\or connections has helped set them up in college, and then jobs? Are only Dalits worse doctors\engineers because they can’t afford a good break? People see the Dalit angle of merit, and forget the others, this is another form of that same prejudice that is in the society. This is why I’m in favour of it. It’ll at least lead to a level playing ground in the future.” *

    Before asking others to do their homework, you should first do it yourself. The current OBC reservations are being proposed in IITs, IIMs and other central govt. funded universities. Have you ever heard of payment seats in these universities??? Do you think rich kids can buy their way into these colleges? I am sorry but you are totally mistaken. These are “INSTITUTES OF EXCELLENCE” and they take candidates based only on MERIT (and not based on religion, caste, state, influence or money) and they should continue to do so.

    Instead of the honourable minister increasing the reservation in these universities, he should think of an alternative by which all the OBC candidates are made equally competitive. Why doesn’t he propose setting up primary and secondary schools in all states/cities/towns/villages exclusively for those without the opportunities, provide them with good teaching facilities and develop them into candidates who can get into these institutes of excellence on their own merit. This I would say would be true AFFIRMATIVE ACTION. Provide such solid foundation and there would be no need for any sort of reservations, be it in universities or jobs.

  2. March 28, 2006 at 6:00 PM

    Great one !! Keep it up

  3. March 14, 2006 at 1:14 AM

    i like these kinda of articles…good site..keep it up

  4. January 10, 2006 at 10:15 AM

    The questions have not been answered as they have already been answered at one place or the other in a link where this blog points too.

    Is it vote bank politics? Of course, it is (Repeated one more time from other blog’s posts). Atleast its helping prejudiced people come up, who are citizens of India and not some illegal aliens.

    What makes you think that businesses will so easily go elsewhere just because of having reservations and no other reason? Do you think HR managers will let unworthy people fill their open positions\or not fire them for being stupid (This point again repeated once more)? Read the link from my blog and you might notice that it might even help the over all economy.

    How many companies have not paid bribes to get their water, electricity, etc.. approved (Repeated again…). Do you think they should not get these aminities too for this reason? One more reason to pay bribes? Yes, but atleast its helping prejudiced people come up in life.

    I mention pre-1990s because the statistics are more clear and public. Start with google if you are really serious about a real objective argument. I’d have loved to but may be later for lack of time to give to what’s already out there, if you have open mindedly read any pro-reservation articles and stats. Most of the current net generation have been brought up in 1990s, so not mentioned. 1990s has brought in a lot of money and the gap has infact widened dramatically.

    Its like another income tax. Lots of people will find ways to circumvent it. Why this ‘income tax’? Because people are making a hell of a lot of money, and not contributing back to the society (except may be likes of few biggies, but how many are they?), which has allowed it. The person who is cleaning his aircraft might be making double, but the person running it is definately making atleast 20 times pre-1990 salary.

    There is another argument of merit. But why do people have no name for rich kids buying their way into engineering and medical colleges? Will they make good engineers\doctors because their parents money and\or connections has helped set them up in college,and then jobs? Are only Dalits worse doctors\engineers because they can’t afford a good break? People see the Dalit angle of merit, and forget the others, this is another form of that same prejudice that is in the society. This is why I’m in favour of it. It’ll atleast lead to a level playing ground in the future.

    Caste prejudices have not gone away even with years of reservations, but it has helped bring up a lot of people from the prejudiced castes (This point Repeated too..). The prejudices have not gone even after such a long time speaks volumes about what our ‘educated’ countrymen are capable of. It suits the higher castes, so they will never let it go away. That’s why the need for special treatment (in the form of reservations).

    A lot of arguments have been discussed, I hope you’ll find an original argument to discuss, rather than singing the same song in another tune. Please do a research and I can reconsider any argument if the facts point otherwise.

    If you’re OK with India becoming another latin America or South Africa, then its your choice. I’m not.

  5. Niketan
    January 9, 2006 at 11:28 AM

    Sachin
    You have missed my point altogether. In addition you have not answered the question I have asked.
    You have said
    ‘But then how do you explain the presence of ‘certain’ castes as the owners in many of the pre-1990s origin companies. All castes have good and bad people, the idea of reservation is to negate the discrimination against the good people from the under-prejudiced castes.’
    Why are you asking about pre-1990′s. Do you have statistics to prove that post-1990′s all other castes became owners of businesses. In that case, this negates your argument – why do we need reservation at all?
    The answer is simple. The Indian entrepreneur has always succeeded against all odds. It was difficult before 1990′s and all that businesses had to do was to pay their way thru the neta-babu nexus. After liberalisation a lot of this has reduced though we have many years to go and a lot to be done.
    Let me give an example. You have Air India and Jet Airways. Let me not go into details of how they are managed- we all know that. But tomorrow should the govt pressurize Mr Goyal of Jet to reserve positions and not worry about running his airline? If he refuses to do so, will they jail him and shut down his airline?
    Caste prejudices have not gone with all the years of reservations.
    After a caste has taken the benefits of reservations, should they not be excluded? e.g.: Should Lalu Prasad ?yadav’s grandchildren be allowed to avail of reservations?
    Ultimately it is simple vote bank politics. As long as a caste/Community has vote bank clout there will be reservations for them irrespective of whether they need them or not.

  6. January 8, 2006 at 12:57 AM

    Sandeep,

    Reservation is a side effect of prejuduces. Is it an ideal answer? No. Ideal answer would probably be elimination of discrimination by people in higher positions based on birth, or physical disability. The divide already existed, as you pointed out. Will it deepen? From the higher castes point of view, Yes, because they’ll feel the pinch of keeping this practise alive.

    Niketan,

    “All the worthy commentators forget that businesses need to make a profit and if a person hires somebody simply because of his caste(even though it may be his own caste)he risks losing money”

    Sure enough. But then how do you explain the presence of ‘certain’ castes as the owners in many of the pre-1990s origin companies. All castes have good and bad people, the idea of reservation is to negate the discrimination against the good people from the under-prejudiced castes.

    Is it a perfect system? No, but it works for a good number of people. Its almost entirely because of this that we today wee so many people from lower castes in positions of prominence in our society.

  7. Sandeep
    January 5, 2006 at 4:48 PM

    Right Niketan. This issue is another new low in Indian politics. Time isn’t far away when we’ll see the society tear itself apart physically, I mean. We already have criminals in Parliament so we’re quite close to the scenario I mentioned.

  8. Niketan
    January 5, 2006 at 11:00 AM

    In all this clamour, our so-called experts including one from rediff (I respected this columnist until he wrote a bizarre column where he challenged that it was impossible not to have reservations in the Private sector because how could businesses relocate from one state when all states have implemented this rule. Apparently he did not see the scenario of businesses shifting overseas to China or shutting down altogether) have not yet even mentioned how this will ever take place. Are they going to send inspectors to every business. As if harassment from the current babus is not enough. IF the business in question does not do so, will they throw the CEO into jail or shut down his business altogether? I have argued that the only way to lift people out of poverty is for govts to become enablers – helping create neww businesses in Agriculture, Manufacturing so that there is more investment and growth. All the worthy commentators forget that businesses need to make a profit and if a person hires somebody simply because of his caste(even though it may be his own caste)he risks losing money.

    Regards
    Niketan

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