Reservation row: Should caste be the only criterion?

Last Updated: Fri, May 27, 2016 12:34 hrs
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Something is clearly wrong with a policy when the privileged are gaining from it.

In India, where caste pride remains so prevalent, something is clearly wrong with a policy when it spurs frenzied attempts by people to lower the perceived status of their own castes.

The idea of caste-based reservation was introduced with the intention that it should be revisited regularly and phased out once we had achieved the ideal of caste equality across the country.

Yet, caste-based reservation has increased steadily over the decades since its inception. We have found new loopholes and created fresh clauses to accommodate castes that are traditionally land-owning, economically advantaged, and well-educated.

The Marathas have won reservation in Maharashtra, the Jats are on the brink of claiming reservation in Haryana, and the Patels in Gujarat are in the middle of an agitation to demand reservation. Members of these castes have been traditionally viewed as privileged.

Of course, this does mean that every member of a particular caste has shared in the social and economic privilege that is typified by the caste itself.

This is why we need to take stock of the actual situation of a candidate for a course or job before we decide whether he or she deserves, or needs, to be given a helping hand.

When reservation was introduced, it was done with a socioeconomic perspective. The term used to demarcate the groups with access to reservation was ‘Class’, not ‘Caste’; it continues to be the term used, but not the chief criterion.

The main reason for this shift is likely this: Politicians do not stand to gain from catering to the economically disadvantaged in the educational sector. It is easier to carve out caste-based vote banks, and the easiest way to win over a caste is to accord it an edge over others in securing college seats and jobs.

So, several states have increased the quota for ‘Backward Classes’, creating new divisions to enable them to do so – ‘Other Backward’, ‘Most Backward’, you-name-it – and have in some cases even crossed the Constitutional limit of 50 percent. However, the percentage of reservation for the SC/ST category has not gone up by much.

A case in point is Tamil Nadu, where the current reservation for various Backward Classes is 50 percent, and for Scheduled Castes and Tribes 19 percent. In 1951, the corresponding figures were 25 percent and 16 percent.

Can anyone logically claim that in a state where four inter-caste marriages have culminated in the suspicious death or murder of the Dalit partner, the Backward Classes are more socially and politically disadvantaged than Dalits?

The other problem with caste-based reservation is caste-based discrimination within the institute, by colleagues and teachers. There are numerous cases of students committing suicide after securing a seat through the reservation quota. Some make it to the front pages of national dailies. Some don’t.

Perhaps we have reached a point where we have to stand back and ask ourselves whether caste should remain a criterion for reservation.

The only people who have uniformly benefited from this process of reservation are politicians, who have been able to capitalise on their vote banks by dangling the reservation carrot.

The protests across the country against the Creamy Layer clause is evidence of the fact that people are openly trying to leverage reservation to their advantage.

Under such circumstances, does it not make sense to examine the educational background of a candidate’s family, his or her economic status, and whether he or she faces social discrimination? These are no longer tied exclusively to the caste into which one is born, and we need to acknowledge that.

Since the dawn of independence, we have been harping about the need to create a caste free society. But we have only reinforced caste in new ways.

We have been dreaming of a country where reservation will no longer be necessary, but we have agitations from various groups clamouring to be seen as disadvantaged.

At a time when colleges have bizarre cut-offs, going up to 100 percent, we are in danger of irreparably damaging our systems of advanced education unless our politicians undertake to reassess the criteria on which reservation is based.

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. 

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