Countries whose societies are deeply divided on social hierarchies have seldom succeeded in defending themselves against foreign interventions. The ease with which numerous invaders rampaged through India over the centuries, slaughtering hapless people, destroying monuments and plundering her riches, is testimony to this phenomenon. The fact that Mahmud of Ghazni could invade India, all the way from Afghanistan, 17 times, destroy the Somnath temple and take away the jyotirlinga (though some historians dispute this), and barely 100,000 British soldiers and administrators could rule over such a vast and diverse land like India for 200 years speaks volumes about this historic malaise, often denied by Indians. But have we really learnt any lessons?
Sociologically speaking, a nation can’t progress to its full potential if its society excludes a large section of its population from its mainstream, depriving these people of basic human rights and redeeming factors — a clean environment, decent and dignified living, education and capacity building and condemning it to perpetual poverty.
Mindful of this irrefutable logic, most modern nations have consciously introduced certain affirmative action measures to pull up those who were left behind, help them overcome political, social, psychological and emotional ill-effects of long periods of deprivation, include them in the mainstream, making them a productive part of the development process. These affirmative me7asures were not triggered off so much by altruistic instincts and human kindness, but the result of long years of struggle by leaders of the oppressed classes and grudging realisation by the ruling classes of the inescapable needs of the organic development of society.
Despite the fact that many Americans were against slavery and David Henry Thoreau wrote his inspiring essay Civil Disobedience in 1849, it is doubtful whether Barack Obama could have become US President if there was no Civil Rights Movement spearheaded by Dr Marin Luther King Jr.
In India, Shahu Maharaj (1874-1922) tried to eradicate untouchability and reserved 50 per cent of jobs for the lower castes in his kingdom. Social reformers like Jyotiba Phule played a pivotal role in leading the movement against untouchability, caste oppression and social discrimination perpetrated by the higher castes against lower castes, generation after generation. The unthinkable indignities which Dr B.R. Ambedkar had to experience personally on his return from Britain and the United States armed with two doctorates from the University of Colombia and the University of London (even a bullock cart driver wasn’t prepared to carry him as his shadow would pollute him, no one was willing to offer him water to quench his thirst, no Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Parsi was ready to rent him an apartment and even the peon in his office would not hand over files directly to his hand) provoked him to write his famous essay Annihilation of Caste.
While other leaders too played important roles, without Dr Ambedkar’s missionary drive and intellectual weight, the provision of reservation for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes would not have been a part of the Constitution of India. However, the founding fathers of the Constitution erred on two counts — they grossly overestimated the magnanimity of Hindu society to embrace those castes whom they had been exploiting and discriminating against for centuries and overestimated the ability of the lower castes to overcome the most debilitating social, psychological and emotional deprivation of two millennia in 10 years! This wasn’t just possible.
The reservation of seats in Parliament, the Legislative Assemblies, educational institutes and posts in various Central and state services for SCs/STs has undeniably led to some upward social mobility and improvement in living standards. For them, affirmative action wasn’t about economic gains only; it was a means for social empowerment. A teenager who might have seen his parents being abused and ill-treated by the higher castes of his village sees a sea change in the treatment meted out to them if he gets into the IAS or IPS. That doesn’t mean instances of atrocities against dalits and molestation of their women have stopped; a former Chief Justice of India had once quipped dalit girls are routinely raped in rural India. Even during BSP supremo Mayawati’s term as CM, such crimes didn’t disappear. The 40,700 cases of assault against dalits registered by the NCRB in 2016 underlines the staggering task still left to be completed.
Though there were massive protests against the 27 per cent reservation for OBCs, this affirmative action since 1990s has resulted in a surge of OBCs in the services and educational institutes. Notwithstanding the “Bua-Bhatija” alliance for 2019, the harsh reality in Uttar Pradesh is that a lot of the atrocities on dalits are inflicted by OBCs.
The government seems to believe the beneficiaries of quotas for EBCs (Jats, Gujjars, Patidars and Marathas), though not socially discriminated against or oppressed, are likely to vote for the ruling BJP. With deft handling, it has got the constitutional amendment providing 10 per cent reservation for EBCs in the general category passed by both Houses of Parliament and duly notified. Checkmated, the Opposition parties went along, though many feel this provision might be overturned by the courts and wonder how the criterion of a `8 lakh annual income per family will be implemented when 95 per cent Indians might be eligible.
Regrettably, the political parties didn’t enlighten job seekers of how little an impact such reservations might have on their prospects. Don’t such decisions amount to mere tokenism, driven by the prospect of electoral benefits? Out of the roughly 450,000 young men and women who try their luck every year to join the civil services, around 1,100 are finally selected; the rest keep trying; and their number swells each year. The situation in the state civil services isn’t any better. So, even if reservation is totally abolished today, only around 1,100 candidates of all castes will be able to join the civil services. Will it end joblessness? Will millions of youth be gainfully employed? If the share of government jobs is just 3.5 per cent of the total job market, how will 10 per cent reservations solve the problem of the educated unemployed? Politicians seem interested only in telling their constituents they have kept their electoral promises and acted on their demands for reservation, though their actual intake might be minuscule.
Doesn’t the latest quota literally put the oppressor and the oppressed on the same footing? In Haryana, many Jats who still don’t allow dalit bridegrooms to ride a horse at their own wedding will now avail of reservations under the EBC category! What could be more ironical?
Without a massive job creation drive and an exponential expansion of affordable education using new technology tools, vocational education and skill development, the educated youth will remain without jobs. A white paper giving detailed and credible information about the total number of jobs available, the share of government jobs, availability in the organised sector and non-organised sector, jobs created by various initiatives like Make in India, Start-Up India, Skill India, Stand-up India, the impact of the existing reservation policy and how to make it more focused might be a sensible idea.