I was a rookie journalist at a time when India was literally burning—students setting themselves on fire—over the Mandal Commission recommendations for reservations to Other Backward Classes (OBCs). I had argued against them furiously with the man who implemented those recommendations—former PM Vishwanath Pratap Singh.
At an impressionable age during my university years, I found an old Brahmin ringing doorbells of apartments and asking residents for money— any amount they could part with for his son’s education. He was a priest and was too poor to afford to put his son through medical college.
“I do not want him to follow me into my profession,” he bemoaned. “I want him to get a better education but unfortunately he cannot get admission unless I pay the capitation fees. Unlike some of his friends, he does not have access to reservations though he has better marks.”
That is when I thought there was a case in this country for reservations purely on the basis of economic backwardness. But when I told the former PM this story to bolster my argument, he instantly shot it down with a counter argument.
“A poor Brahmin is still better off than even a rich Dalit, socially. He can demand money from you and you will pay up happily, feeling you are doing some punya (good deed). Are you willing to similarly finance the medical education of a Dalit’s child with the same feeling of doing good?”
I realised he was right. Because the same neighbours who had willingly coughed up the money for the poor priest, even inviting him in eagerly to partake of refreshments in their home, did not have the time of the day—or even one naya paisa—for their gardener when he begged them for a loan to similarly finance his son’s ordinary college education. He promised to pay back every rupee whereas the priest took their money as non-refundable donation. Yet the residents were wary of their gardener’s intentions and never suspected the Brahmin’s demands may not have been genuine (years later he was caught out as a fraud).
Decades later, I find nothing has changed on the scale of the economic backwardness of people or the social prejudices of the better off. Very recently, as the daughter of my local community priest was getting married, I found people were coming forward to generously donate for the wedding; almost the entire celebrations were financed by those donations. At the same time, a maid, working as a domestic help in several of those homes that were so generous to the priest’s daughter, found it extremely difficult to borrow money from her employers to put together her own daughter’s trousseau—the concern was the same, that she may not return the loan while the priest who earned more than the maid was not even expected to pay them back, in cash or kind, for their largesse.
I have thus disabused myself of the romantic notion of economic backwardness among upper castes in India. Singh was right—that even a rich Dalit can be more socially backward than a poor Brahmin—the latter will be invited generously into people’s homes, the former will find very few upper castes dining at his ample table simply because he is socially backward.
So I agree with many critics of the current dispensation that the recent Bill to reserve 10 per cent of the jobs in government for economically backward people even among the upper castes is a mere electoral and political gambit and is unlikely to have any material effect on the ground. In the first instance, given the current state of the Indian economy wherein the latest data by CMIE showed that we lost 11 million jobs this year, there are simply not enough jobs to go around.
Secondly, the Constitution had provided reservation to socially backward people to uplift them and correct a historical wrong and injustice toward the lower castes. All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen president Asaduddin Owaisi is thus right when he says poverty needs to be alleviated through government schemes—and there have been plenty of those in the past which have been taken advantage of by both the deserving and undeserving— but reservations are only for the socially deprived, which upper castes are not. There is a direct correlation between poverty and social backwardness as I saw for myself from the examples of the priest, the maid and the gardener.
The latter two, as OBCs, were successful in getting their children an education with the help of reservations—up to a point. But that was not enough to lift them out of poverty. The gardener’s son had to give up his dream of a commerce degree and take to driving taxis. The maid’s daughter had a lesser wedding than she had hoped for, even though she was as much a graduate as the priest’s daughter (they both studied humanities), who ended up with a grander wedding than most.
My cynicism about the move also arises out of a precedent—the Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra had brought an ordinance for reservations to Marathas and Muslims just ahead of the 2014 Assembly elections. They got votes of neither Marathas nor Muslims, both of who saw through the political skulduggery. There was a Dalit-OBC consolidation too against them. The move to give 16 per cent reservations to the Marathas was struck down by the Bombay High Court. What’s to guarantee that the recent quota Bill will not be struck down by the Supreme Court?
Senior journalist and political commentator