2019 has started with a legislative bang. The central government came up with a double whammy, a sucker punch of legislations in the form of the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), fiercely opposed by a majority of North-Eastern people, and the 10 percent ‘upper-caste’ quota, or the 124th Constitution Amendment Bill. While the CAB has been months in making, the latter took even Savarnas by surprise.
Why The 10 Percent Quota Is Dubious
The new quota’s very generous definition of ‘economically backward’ is estimated to cover around 90 percent of the country’s population. As any discerning citizen can gauge, requirements that include family income of less than Rs 8 lakh per annum, residential house of less than 1000 square feet, and farm land of less than 5 acres are so all-encompassing, even those who are upper middle-class will satisfy these criteria. As stated here, the 8 lakh cut-off is way above the poverty line cut-off for government benefits (Rs 32 and Rs 47 per day for rural and urban areas respectively). That the Bill could just glide through Parliament without much opposition is testament to the continuing political might of upper caste groups.
Since the new quota is based on income, it is applicable to all religions. The history of reservations for non-Hindu communities is complex. The Scheduled Castes Order, 1950 states that “no person who professes a religion different from the Hindu (the Sikh or the Buddhist) religion shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste”. This was later amended to include Dalit Sikhs and Buddhists.
However, Dalit Christians and Muslims (many who converted to escape caste atrocities) do not benefit from such affirmative action even though a few Muslim professional communities do find a place in the 27 percent OBC quota. Hence, there is still an ongoing demand for reservations by these groups. As the Sachar Committee report found, Muslims are one of the, if not the most, backward communities in the country as measured against a range of socio-economic criteria.
However, one group is left out of this new benefaction: those already covered under existing reservations (SCs, STs, and OBCs). One can now segregate the two types of reservations as the historically oppressed and the ‘new’ economically oppressed, turning the logic and purpose of reservations on its head. That the government still hasn’t released the caste census data from the Socio Economic and Caste Census conducted in 2011 gives credence to the suspicion held by many SCs and STs that disclosing it will open a Pandora’s Box whereby their demands for increased representation and reservations will be legitimised.
There is enough reason to conjecture that this is a cynical political stunt by a desperate government in an election year. As many have pointed out, job figures are tepid at best and terrible at worst. Unemployment has been steadily creeping up. And for a party that came into power with a promise of a jobs bonanza (10 million to be exact), pandering to its historical base of upper caste groups can be rightly seen as a drowning man’s last attempt to stay afloat.
There are plenty of government schemes that are caste-agnostic and aimed at lifting people out of poverty and into better living standards.
In the entire history of reservations, what has remained constant in all Supreme Court judgements is the assertion, directly or not, that reservations cannot be on the basis of economic criteria alone. For instance, in the 1963 M. R. Balaji & Ors v. State of Mysore case, the term “socially and educationally backward classes” that appears in Article 15(4) was explained as “not either social or educational but it is both social and educational.” In the 1993 Indra Sawhney v Union of India judgement, the SC again held that reservations cannot be based on economic criteria alone and observed that “in Hindu society, backward class can be identified with reference to castes along with other criteria such as traditional occupation, poverty, place of residence, lack of education etc and in other communities, by the same criteria except caste.”
Interestingly, the P V Narasimha Rao government in 1991 had introduced a 10 percent quota based on income which was duly struck down by the SC stating that “mere poverty cannot be the test of backwardness.”
Ultimately, caste, unlike income, is intergenerational. Through some luck, external support, and hard work, one can still escape poverty. A person’s financial condition is temporal and often, transient. But caste identity is immutable. One can’t simply denounce it and become caste-free, avoiding the stigma and suffering.
Misplaced, Misleading Narratives
A common misconception about reservations is that it is meant to foster economic equality. But caste is, first and foremost, a social issue that has economic consequences. And reservations are primarily designed and intended to address social inequality with the understanding that it will also, inevitably, help in mitigating economic oppression. There are plenty of government schemes that are caste-agnostic and aimed at lifting people out of poverty and into better living standards. But reservations is not one of them. To then harp on about giving reservations on the basis of economic status is to wilfully misinterpret the entire point of reservations, erasing the fact that caste discrimination is normalised across all sections and strata of our society. Class privilege doesn’t protect one from caste discrimination. A rich Adivasi is still an Adivasi.
As B R Ambedkar said, “while the privileges (for Brahmins) have gone, the advantages derived from their continuance over several centuries have remained.” To understand reservations is to recognise the entrenched nature of casteism in Indian societies and the accumulation of Brahminical (and Savarna) privilege through the blood, sweat, tears, and humiliation of marginalised groups over centuries of exploitation. By shifting the focus from social injustice to one of economic inequity, we essentially erase the pernicious effects of everyday casteism. It then becomes a question of economics (whether neo-liberal or old school state socialism) rather than an interrogation of our deep-seated casteist mindsets and unconscious biases towards those whom we are trained and taught to see as different and, often, lesser than us.
This flawed view about the aim and purpose of reservations has meant that the discourse on this issue has devolved into declamatory arguments of ‘creamy layers’, ‘reservations should be based on income’, and the existence of poor Brahmins. But this kind of egregious thinking elides the fact that being an economically well-off Bahujan doesn’t mean that one gets magically shielded from the effects of one’s caste identity.
Casteism is a centuries-old system of social oppression. It is embedded in the very foundation of Indian society and affects every part of our lives – how and where we eat, live, work, defecate, and even die and whom we are allowed to love, befriend, and marry. It shapes how people see us and how we perceive them. So much of this is a given in our society. Casteism is drilled into our heads right from our childhood and, like gender norms and heteronormativity, becomes one of the standards by which we are judged and judge others.
Blaming reservations for poverty or a dearth of opportunities is a convenient way to deflect from the real reasons why poverty exists and opportunities don’t. Instead of focusing on issues such as growing income inequality, high rates of poverty and malnutrition, lack of decent jobs, privatisation of education, poor infrastructure, the deleterious effects of pollution etc, reservations becomes the convenient scapegoat that is responsible for this country’s many maladies. When government jobs are few and the informal sector employs a majority of the working population, attacking the quota system for the paucity of jobs is futile since it doesn’t even cover the private sector.
Caste Is Causally Related To Poverty
Research has shown that casteism is well and truly alive even in liberal, urban areas. Starting with housing discrimination, high rates of suicide among SC/ ST students, the ubiquitousness and normalisation of endogamy, and the continued dominance of Savarnas in Indian corporate boards, top management posts, and faculty positions, there is no evidence to the claim that ‘modern’ India is post-caste. Upper caste groups still have a hegemony over wealth and white-collars jobs.
Upper caste groups still have a hegemony over wealth and white-collars jobs.
Prevalent discourse on racism and sexism has made many people aware that without actively being conscious of one’s own privileges and constantly working to curb and eliminate existing biases, one will, inadvertently or not, continue to propagate and promote both forms of discrimination. Unfortunately, caste is still a blindspot even for progressives who are cosily ensconced in the belief that it is a problem in rural, ‘backward’ areas which, tellingly, reveals their own elitist mindsets.
The false binary of rich Dalits and poor Brahmins (usually furnished as anecdotal evidence by anti-reservations crusaders) is easily debunked when one looks at data. About 4 percent SC/ST rural households have a member with a government job and overall, have higher unemployment rates. Fewer of their households will have a member earning more than Rs 10,000 or own a motor vehicle or even a phone. Together with OBCs, they are less likely to live in urban areas while also having lower consumption expenditure.
SCs are more likely to be wage labourers – 63 percent compared to 42 for upper castes. A 2010 field experiment study of job applicants by Paul Attewell and Sukhadeo Thorat found that those with a Dalit or Muslim name were less likely to have a positive outcome than those with upper caste Hindu names with the probability of receiving interviews calls for SCs being 67 percent less.
SCs and STs form half of the country’s poor despite constituting far less than half of the total population and their children suffer from higher rates of malnutrition than other groups. They also have less access to education including loans and scholarships. And finally, if you are an Adivasi, you are likely to die at a younger age. SCs are next in line to live poor and die young. What this incontrovertibly proves is that in India, your social location is often an accurate predictor of your economic location and should discredit the notion that caste is somehow separate from one’s material conditions – at birth and in life.
A twisted and illogical narrative has proliferated whereby elimination of reservations or introduction of an income-based quota system is seen as the panacea to poverty in the country and the promotion of ‘merit’. Aside from the critical fact that caste itself is a significant factor that determines one’s income, opportunities, and class, this provides elected representatives and, indeed, current power-holders and power-brokers a convenient excuse to maintain the status quo and not address the causes of the overwhelming immiseration that most of our country’s citizens find themselves in.
Righting The Wrongs
The solution is not to vilify reservations but expiate the historical and current wrongs for which it exists. This includes understanding how casteism works, our own complicity in it, and combating its many everyday manifestations. For casteism to end, Savarnas have to stop practising it. The oppressed cannot and shouldn’t take on the burden of the oppressor.
Equally important is demanding and working towards a system that actually provides opportunities to all its citizens for a chance at a better, dignified life. Instead of blaming the tribal student for taking away a seat from a general, ‘meritorious’ category student, we would be better served in demanding an education system where no student is deprived of opportunities because of a shortage of seats. Every student should be able to pursue their studies and dreams, without systemic or institutional bias. The selling out of our colleges and universities to the discredited neo-liberal solution of privatisation also should stop.
Similarly, the government, corporate India, and our Forbes billionaires should be held accountable for the country’s economic state. The need of the hour is to create more jobs with living wages, not reserve a handful of posts for the so-called upper caste ‘poor’. That’s akin to having a misguided expectation that crumbs from the rich man’s table will feed an entire family of four. If the pie itself is small, complaining about how it is distributed is pointless.
Attacking the solution to a problem is nothing but a sneaky tactic to divert attention from the root cause and perpetrators of the problem. And no one has ever made a problem irrelevant by ignoring it. Reservations are here to stay; if we really want to abolish it, we need to eliminate the reasons for its very existence.
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