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Reparations – the word evokes the sins of slavery and colonialism, inscrutable debates by post-colonial academics, and an idea that sounds better as an incipient theory than viable practice.

In the United States, the issue of reparations for black Americans has weaved in and out of mainstream discourse but never pushed into oblivion. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ definitive piece, The Case for Reparations, forcefully made the eponymous case, reinvigorating the subject as a serious policy debate and not as some crackpot left fantasy. When it comes to reparations, his essay could be considered as the Rosetta stone.

The ADOS (American Descendants of Slavery) movement is currently leading the online discourse on this issue. Like Medicare for All, the discussions around reparations have become so common that all Democratic Party presidential candidates are now being asked to clarify their stance on this issue, leading to a plenitude of meaningful debates. While some want a clear “yes”, others like ex-The Intercept senior politics editor and now, Bernie Sanders’ press secretary, Briahna Joy Gray, are looking for more clarity on the specifics. The mainstreaming of the case for reparations can be gleaned from the fact that even conservative writers like David Brooks are now advocating for it.

The Two Types of Reparations

In India, the default case for our reparations is assumed to mean reparations from the British for the expropriation and plundering of our resources for 200 years. This kind of discourse was made famous by Shashi Tharoor’s viral video at the Oxford Union debate. While millions of Indians felt a fierce kind of nationalist pride seeing a desi one-up the goras, there was a palpable sense of injustice, of a justified moral outrage, and the widespread consensus that this was, indeed, a genuine case for reparations.

Think-pieces in mainstream media and hot takes on social media were unanimous and united in their verdict and this seemed to be one of those rare times when the left, right, and centre could finally find a meeting ground. Not surprisingly, a google search on reparations throws up results on the same lines.

But what about the other kind of reparations? Descendants of slaves in America are demanding reparations for the intergenerational harm that was done to their people for centuries (and continues to date) and for their rightful share in the wealth that was created off the toiling backs of their ancestors. In India, while there was no slavery in the strict sense of the word, the parallels in terms of exploitation of labour and being denied access to the hard-earned fruits of that labour are striking. After all, we had and still have our own system of social segregation – casteism. This isn’t a tendentious argument that’s designed to be merely provocative. It demands good-faith interrogation but mainstream media’s discourse on this kind of reparations is conspicuous by its absence, save for a few articles like this.

This isn’t a tendentious argument that’s designed to be merely provocative. It demands good-faith interrogation but mainstream media’s discourse on this kind of reparations is conspicuous by its absence.

Quantifying the economic value of the unpaid labour of Dalits since the dawn of casteist Hindu society would, like that of the slaves in America, run into a significant sum of money. Add to this, the systemic denial of resources to DBA groups and the cost of everyday casteism with its accompanying (forced and unsolicited) opportunity costs in terms of lost jobs and income. The payment of that stolen wealth and opportunities is yet to be encashed.

Past Imperfect, Present Tense

The DBA community has been hardest hit by the neo-liberal shibboleths of privatisation, exploitation, resource plundering, and grotesque profiteering. Perhaps no other group has been affected by the so-called economic reforms of liberalisation than Adivasis (or tribals). After all, they are the original caretakers of our forests and areas rich in natural resources.

The common thread running through every annual report of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs is the continued backwardness of Adivasis in all socio-economic parameters. Studies have shown that Adivasis constitute a significant portion of the millions of people who have been displaced and dispossessed by grandiose development and infrastructural projects. While only 8.6 percent of the country’s population, estimates suggest that they make up anywhere from 40 to 55 percent of the total displaced populace. In Andhra Pradesh, since 1999, STs constituted 39 percent of the total persons impacted by development projects. In Odhisa, it is a whopping 65 percent. (These numbers would have changed by now). It is estimated that 90 percent of all coal and around 50 percent of remaining minerals are in their inhabited regions.

It is clear that even after independence, they are still being ripped apart from their lands, livelihoods, and unique ways of living. The steady erosion of agricultural livelihoods has resulted in enormous poverty and displacement. The number of STs who were cultivators declined from over 68 percent to 45 percent in 2001 whereas the number of tribal agricultural labourers increased from about 20 percent to 37 percent, implying increasing landlessness.

This report found that displacement and enforced migration has also led to an increasing number of STs working as contract labourers in the construction industry and as domestic workers in big cities. A study by the Anti-Slavery International pointed out that around 90 percent of bonded labourers are from Dalit, minorities, and indigenous communities. This is corroborated by research from organisations such as the Walk Free Foundation’s Global Slavery Index.

As this 2014 report by a High-Level Committee constituted by the PMO stated, “the appropriation of tribal land and forests began during colonial rule and has continued to the present. Since tribal-inhabited regions are rich in mineral, forest and water resources, large-scale development projects invariably came to be located in tribal areas… Overcoming tribal ‘isolation’ through large-scale mining, industrial and infrastructure projects has clearly not resolved the problem of poor development indicators. Rather, these have led to further impoverishment and vulnerability.” This is a familiar narrative and akin to the land stolen from Native Americans and the theft of black-owned land by state authorities mentioned in Coates’ essay.

In a similar vein, redlining in Chicago (whereby the Federal Housing Administration discriminated against black majority neighbourhoods by refusing to insure their mortgages) echoes the housing segregation faced by Dalits and Muslims across the country. “Black people were viewed as a contagion”– where have we heard similar sentiments?

Also read: The Modern Savarna And The Caste-Is-Dead Narrative

Why Reparations?

The historical case for reparations for erstwhile colonies has been discussed, dissected, and delved into in numerous articles, research papers, serious talks on TV, and pointless college debates. However, within India, the case for reparations is for reasons past and present – the original sin of casteism and the ongoings sins of dispossession and exploitation.

Coates used the example of Michelle and Barack Obama to demonstrate how a black person needs to be twice as good and endure twice as much as a white person to enjoy the privileges that are typically earmarked only for white people. Is India any different? A Dalit or Adivasi needs to be several times better than an average Brahmin to attain some modicum of social privileges. The preponderance of upper caste names in every white-collar, respected, lucrative field is a testament to that.

Social capital, which is accumulated over generations, is rarely accessible to DBAs and Muslims. In this study, researchers found that Brahmins and high caste Hindus have the highest amount of social capital followed by OBCs, Dalits, and tribals. Muslims scored low as well.

Now, many fair-minded people might ask: isn’t reservation in public institutions enough for social equality? Perhaps (although there are several caveats and hurdles towards such a happy denouement) but it won’t necessarily lead to social equity. Reservation, when implemented in letter and in spirit, helps historically oppressed groups in accessing resources and opportunities that were systematically denied to them and the hope is that one day, they will have the same kind and quality of access as privileged groups. However, it doesn’t address the reasons for existing gaps in opportunities, wealth, and even life expectancy, nor does it claim to plug them.

How, then, will reservation ever become redundant?

The rationale is that by reserving a few seats at the table, marginalised people will eventually occupy their fair share of those seats. But why is reservation needed in the first place? Because of the accumulated injustice of centuries of mistreatment, unfair and uncompensated labour, and social atrocities that continue to this day.

If the poverty rates among tribals are much higher than Savarnas, there’s a historical reason for that. When there are distinct communities with such a low share of the country’s capital and resources, the race for success and glory is over before the starting pistol is even fired. Reservation might secure a few spots in the race for marginalised groups but it doesn’t solve for the problem that they are starting way behind the rest. How are we going to level this skewed playing field?

While absolutely necessary, reservation has its limitations. It’s applicable only to the public sector and is constrained by the total universe of opportunities available (seats/ jobs). This means that only a few people from marginalised groups can get a leg-up at any given time, depending on relative levels of income, social capital, location, and other privileges. Reparations, however, is universal. By its very nature and definition, all members of such communities will be able to reap its benefits; no exceptions or extra privileges required (My personal take is that there should be an income cut-off to qualify for reparations).

An Overdue Conversation

Reservation works towards a better future by opening up specific doors in the present, reparations will right the wrongs of the past for a more equitable present and future. Suffice it to say, there’s an argument to be made that along with reservation, redistribution of the nation’s wealth, in the form of reparations, is needed if we truly seek an equal and just society.

A reparations policy will ensure that the odds of success aren’t stacked against marginalised groups. Whatever form it takes, it will radically alter the casteist fabric of our society. Instead of a benevolent State handing out entry-level access to the DBA community, reparations will lead to terms of engagement and continued access for all on equal grounds, leading to a real meritocracy.

Also read: Why Understanding Brahminical Patriarchy Is Of Utmost Importance

Many will vehemently disagree with this take and double-down on their expostulations but as America has shown, the only way to shift a topic from the realm of esoteric, intellectual exercises to lively public discourse is by talking about it. The borders and contours of acceptable ideas are, after all, protean. At the very least, there’s a definite case to study reparations in detail, ideally led by the State (like the H.R. 40 in the US Congress) if it is serious about eradicating casteism and bold enough to embark on a true reckoning with this country’s sordid past by offering truths and reconciliations. The question is: will Indian media and civil society start having these difficult but necessary conversations?


Featured Image Source: Counterview

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