Saturday, August 13, 2011

Why the issue of Reservations remains a contentious issue?

Times of India, in its editorial column, asks, ‘Why is reservation still such a contentious issue?’  The column is discussing the current debate arising out of Prakash Jha’ film Aarakshan, which was banned by three state governments – Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh.   Instead of just laying out an opinion on the legality of the ban, the column goes onto discuss the issue of reservation.  It writes:

Have we failed to break out of the mindset favoring a divisive caste-based quota system?  Rather than forging unity, quotas today are a tool of vote-bank politics and a potential trigger of a social conflict.

The column expresses the same opinion which the most upper-caste and the elites hold in this country.  The topic of reservations remains a contentious issue, not because it is divisive or because it is a potential trigger of social conflict, but only because this topic is never discussed or taught in the right way in this country.  The debates that arise on TV shows are devoid of rationality, and instead it is full of bias and prejudice. 

Even the liberals amongst the upper caste and even the elite amongst the lower castes are squeamish when it comes to the topic of reservations. They continue to look at it as a tool that provides social crutch rather than social justice.  Reservation is seen as a system that introduces division rather than a system devised to bring equal opportunity.  Nobody bothers to ask why unity involves domination of one group of people over others? Reservation is seen as a trick employed by the politicians to secure vote-banks instead of being seen as the greatest and the most successful social experiment in the history of mankind that has emancipated hundreds of millions of lower classes out of subjugation in less than hundred years, overturning domination and discrimination that lasted nearly two thousand years. Most of the urban elite see reservations as anti-merit and anti-excellence system, while nobody bothers to point out that a society cannot strive for excellence without being inclusive.

The issue of reservations remains contentious because most people who debate the issue are ignorant of the reasons why reservations came into being and why they continue to exist, or because the people remain solidly casteist in their outlook and continue to be prejudiced towards people of lower castes and lower ranks. 

Though caste is never discussed in a rational debate, nor it is taught in schools, it is all pervasive phenomenon that seems to grapple entire subcontinent, a strong identity that remains with you, more than that of region, religion or language.   One can change the identity of a religion within a generation, region within a generation or two, and language with two to three generations, but one cannot escape caste even after five hundred generations.  The topic of caste is never broached at a social gathering, even between two liberal and rational people.  Though it is shunned in debate, it is not shunned in practice.  

The marriages continue to be within one’s caste which is the only reason why castes continue to exist.  And even the most liberal of the Indians tend to marry within the caste.  Many businesses which try to portray themselves as all-inclusive tend to be founded by people of the same caste and employ mostly the upper-caste.   Most friendships in local colleges in India are still based on caste, clearly reflecting the local biases that are primarily based in caste.  In some of the colleges in Coastal Andhra, the students are divided so much along the caste lines that even the school canteens are designated for various castes.  Division in such colleges is not just along upper castes and lower castes as two groups, but the caste division throws many groups, some within the upper castes, and some within the lower castes. 

The caste-based-reservations is a topic that India never dealt with maturity.  By shunning the topic forever, we have not taken care to educate ourselves.  We are ill-informed because the topic of reservations is not introduced as a chapter in the text books in our schools. 

Unlike in USA or Germany where the contentious topics like treatment of slaves or treatment of Jews is discussed in school curriculum, in an effort to educate the future generations not to indulge in the same in future, the schools of India act as if caste doesn’t exist.   Such an attitude doesn’t serve well.  The first time the school going kid from upper caste gets to know about reservations is in 12th class when he finds out that some of the seats in the college he is trying to get in are ‘reserved’ for people who are going to score much less than him. 

That is when he forms strong opinions against caste-based-reservations.   Since nobody has provided the rationale for existence of reservations, and since no history is taught which highlights subjugation of millions of Indians based on caste for thousands of years, the young kid gets angry because of loss of his opportunity.  He turns to few people around him for answers.  And unfortunately, the parents only add fuel to the fire by passing some casteist remarks.  The society around him, his friends circle, his relatives are of no use either.   Some of his extremely valid questions are unanswered, or answered in the most irrational way, like, ‘these politicians introduce reservations for winning votes’, ‘the government is only interested in dividing the people along caste lines’, ‘that’s why you should go to USA, my son’, ‘that’s why this country has gone to dogs, look at the streets and roads filled with garbage, what do you get when you allow a less deserved person to make decisions?’ and so on.

Such answers do not help understand why there are caste-based-reservations in  education and employment  They only help in growing antipathy towards the government, prejudice against lower castes, and anger against Indian political system.   Those who move to other countries are considered lucky because they escaped the system.  Those who get into private industry consider themselves lucky because there are no reservations there.  Many people who are casteist do not even realize that they have already succumbed to age old prejudices.  When a debate was held at IISc on the topic of reservations, one young girl innocently asked, ‘why do you want to pollute esteemed institutes like IITs and IIMs?’  Little did she realize how racist her comment was.   Most Indians don’t realize they are being casteist in their actions though they continue to believe they hold no prejudice.   The column in Times of India writes:

Yet the essential logic of reservations has grown fragile. 

According to me, the logic of caste-based-reservations has only grown stronger.  We have underestimated our capacity to perpetuate prejudices, to discriminate people of other kind, to look down upon those who are considered socially weak.  We have underestimated our capacity to flout agreements and safeguards, and gentlemen promises – as clearly evident from the Telangana issue.  We are a set of people who will do everything, including stepping on others, to get ahead.   And for thousands of years, we ensured lower castes were treated as subhuman population confining them to menial jobs, denying them capability to read or write, awarding them atrocious punishments for innocuous and petty crimes.  Reservation is the single tool that has reversed much of that. 

According to me, caste-based-reservations is one of the greatest achievement of modern India rivaling its track record in maintaining democracy even after sixty years of Independence.  It may be one of the greatest social experiments of modern history of mankind.  No other social experiment has yielded such successful results in reversing such deep-seated discrimination, which is sanctioned by scriptures, by religion, and which continues to be order of the day.  The fact that India continues on this social experiment yielding great successes year after year, even though most of the upper castes and elite of the lower castes continue to be opposed to this experiment speaks volumes about the vision of the architects of Indian Constitution who recognized caste as the basis for affirmative action through quotas.

Many myths abound.  There is no clause which says that reservations were introduced for a period of ten years.   And most of our initial thoughts on how long a certain safeguard should be employed have gone grossly wrong.   The signatories of Gentlemen’s Agreement between Telangana and Andhra thought only fifteen years was needed to bring Telangana people to the same level of Seemandhra people in their capacity to grab opportunities in education and administration, but now we know that even after sixty years, Telanganas continue to be marginalized and suppressed by Seemandhra domination. 

Lyndon Johnson, President of USA, justifying the affirmative action for Blacks in the United States, said:

You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, "you are free to compete with all the others," and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.

Two thousand years of imposed social handicap cannot be reversed in a matter of sixty years.  It would take much longer than that.  Reservations based on caste are here to stay, primarily because they have been successful in emancipating some of the lower castes through a series of mandatory inclusions in those areas which are considered basic areas of opportunity, the domain of the state to provide a socially and economically decent way of living to all it citizens.

According to Dr. C.T. Kurien, who spoke at IISc in 2006, the reservations based on caste were introduced for the first time in India not to help the lower castes but to ensure that Brahmins of Mysore do not lose out their positions to the Brahmins of Tamil Nadu.    And the states which have introduced caste-based-reservations the earliest, those of the South, continue to be the top states in India on all social indices.  Today, we see reservations help remove the social stigma by a considerable amount, though the experiment has not completely rooted out all of the prejudices against lower castes.  Today, we see many government officers, administrators, and even the Vice President of India coming from lower castes of India.  The social experiment of caste-based-reservations, employing affirmative action through mandatory quotas, has resulted in reversing the social trend on this subcontinent quite considerably, though it has not changed the attitudes of people who continue to live within their social circles, which happen to be caste circles. 

The state cannot correct the prejudices of the people, but it can help create a mature society by including the topics of debate and discussion in the classrooms of India and hope to create a new generation of Indians who look at caste-based-reservations as a great social tool to reform the society for the better, instead of treating it as a divisive tools employed only to win votes.


  1. Sujai,

    This topic opens lot of thoughts in me as I felt same when I was 12 years old. It would have made me think better if they had course curriculum about reservations. The biggest divide is coming from marriage system. While reservation system is creating socio-economic balance but the problem is much deeper. I have a questions and would you please comment?

    There are really poor people in all caste systems. Would it be any better to take reservation out for people ( let us say income > 6 lakhs per annum in second or third generation) and add some percentage to economic backward people? Unfortunately the corruption is so much I don't know if real poor people will get benefits. This gets really tricky with women's reservation as women in all castes have some sort of reservation.

    Is it possible to have a method adjust reservation status based on the social or economic status?

    Best Regards

  2. This is such a vast topic that I don't feel upto commenting on the whole yet! And, I need to ponder over substance of the blog too for a bit. But, something that I want to mention right away is that I don't think it is the marriage system that creates the divide - the divide is still in the minds of the people. I personally know a few couples, who have had inter-caste marriage yet, ultimately, they and their children follow the guy's caste and do not get out of the caste system or even try to follow something common between the two. So, this is a big issue that is rooted deep down into our minds that it going to take more than just a few generations to root it out.

  3. Now, everybody needs to know his or her caste. Caste has become perhaps the single-most important factor at election time.Parties that were based almost entirely on caste coalitions (the Samajwadi Party, the BSP, Laloo’s mob, etc.) hijacked politics in the cow belt. Because these parties won elections only on the basis of caste coalitions, they did not worry about providing good governance when in office. They knew that, whatever happened, they could count on vote banks based on caste.

  4. Schools are not only medium to educate people.
    Indian education system is not 'atheist'. In fact many curriculum have lessons from mythology at early stages.
    Yet there is huge on-going debate in Indian society about existence of god.
    From the time known media, in various forms always tried to expose, god-men.
    But why is that same media does not conduct debates and discussions on reservations?
    Why only state is responsible for every matter?
    The double standards of NGOs and Social activists can be see here too. They work against oppression of women but do not touch 'particular' community. They work against caste system but do not help spread awareness about need for reservations.
    The explanation is simple. We know fighting well than negotiating. Any 'cause' today has one or more human villains and we fight them. We want to win against somebody. We are not interested in taking everybody into confidence.

  5. the arguements made by supporters of reservations remind me of amitabh bachan films like deewar and agneepath where he uses some bad experiences in childhood to justify supressing others.
    caste based reservations, in my opinion are the WORST FORM of discrimination.
    to digress a bit, unfortunately, these days even telangana agitation is using suicide of 600 youth as a pretext for vandalism

  6. I am complete supporter of reservation system, though I do feel that I lost my medical seat, one of the reasons being the reservation system. But I would like to implement the system a little differently now after 60 years. The reservation system can only be used for one generation in a family and not by all generations. Once a person has become a civil servant or has managed to place himself well in the society his children should not have access to the reservation system. I do not see a logic in president of a country still allowing his children have access to the reservation system. Counter arguments are most welcome

  7. If people were wronged by being segregated, then stop the segregation with strong laws, but what a dumb idea it is to start another kind of segregation by asking people to identify hemselves as "low" caste to qualify for monetay and educational concessions?

    The whole reservation idea is flawed to the root, nowhere in the world will you find such crap, the affirmative action of US is hardly a comparison.....

    Reservation is not going to get rid of the wrongs done to any caste.It is only creating more and more wrongs...

  8. vidhya:

    Dalits(Aboriginal of India) DO NOT need reservation,its the gift of Ghandi and Hindu fundamentalists in pre independence congress to Aboriginals.

    Aboriginals WANTED a seperate country
    when India gained Independence this was the demand of DR B R Ambedkar to British government.

    If you lost your medical seat only then that is good, loosing piece of a country is always better than medical seat.

    You must stop deluding yourself into thinking that reservation to sons of President is bad, its actually good it keeps India together.

    The day you stop reservations aboriginals will demand a seperate country in UN.

    Raja, Madhu koda are in Jail what about Abonis and TATA who slept with radia. Where is justice to Aboriginals in India?

  9. Sujai,

    we dont need to wait till the 12th standard to know the caste realities.

    Just look around you

    1. Most of the slums in Cities consist of the dalits or shudras.

    2. Most of the domesticated servants are shudras or dalits.

    3. Most of the street cleaners, scavengers, gutter cleaners are dalits.

    I dont want to even go into the state of rural areas because they are beyond description.

    Yes most of India marries along the caste lines but is marriage an important issue to ponder for?.

    For me the issue to worry is for the vast majority of Dalits (about 25 crores) and the Shudras (about 40 crores) have no hope in climbing the economic, social or dignity ladder and are condemned to humiliation and destitute due to their birth.

    Caste system and the Hindu religion will keep this nation barbaric till it exists.

    Saurav Bhasin


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