The Union government recently announced 27 percent reservation for OBC and 10 percent reservation for the economically weaker societies in medical courses. As expected, the decision gave rise to extreme reactions supporting and condemning the move from various quarters. Caste is an eternal curse of India, and like any other bane, we cannot just wish it away.
For thousands of years, caste discrimination had kept away most members of our society from positions of power. Contrary to popular perception, the quota system didn’t begin after Independence. The idea of the affirmative programme that started in the 1950s was the culmination of at least 70 years of effort. During the British era, some communities like Brahmins dominated government service despite being less than three percent of the population.
In Travancore, on January 1, 1891, a plea known as Malayali memorial was submitted for fair representation of other communities in the princely state’s government jobs that Brahmins dominated. Though no immediate government action followed, it paved the way for the idea of social justice and representation by the quota system. In 1882 and 1891, the princely state of Kolhapur introduced reservations in favour of non-Brahmins in the government.
In 1921, the provincial government of Madras Presidency under the Justice Party passed a government order that entailed a power-sharing agreement between six communities—Brahmins, non-Brahmin Hindus, Mohammedans, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians and Europeans. The quota system as we know now started in 1954 with the Ministry of Education reserving 20 percent of seats in educational institutions for SCs and STs, with a provision to relax qualifying marks by five percent. In 1982, the allocation was split between SC and ST as 15 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively.
The most significant and most controversial change was when the Mandal Commission was implemented in the 1990s. The commission constituted in 1979 had no contemporary data regarding the population of each community or their social status and used the 1931 pre-Partition, pre-Independence Census to arbitrarily decide the communities to be included in the OBC and allot a 27 percent quota. The Mandal Commission implementation was a purely political decision, and the most powerful and numerical castes forced their way into this quota system with their vote banks.
In 1992, the Supreme Court put a cap on the quota system at 50 percent, but this hasn’t stopped many states from adding more and more communities into the OBC categories and even SC and ST. For example, in Tamil Nadu, there is 69 percent reservation that applies to 89 percent of the population, defeating its entire purpose.
As expected, the vast majority of those who criticise the quota system are from the upper castes. The most vociferous argument is about the erosion of merit due to reservations. They argue for economic status-based reservation. The pro-quota proponents counter this by saying reservation is not a poverty alleviation programme but is meant for social justice and representation. Both these arguments are tenuous at best and absurd at worst. How do we measure merit? Is performance in a competitive test taken in one’s 20s a measure of a person’s worth for the rest of his life? Does any test measure compassion, competency, creativity, etc, that is needed to perform a job? How is someone who has the privilege of money, caste and means for specialised coaching to crack competitive exams more meritorious than someone having none of these and yet manages to score slightly lesser marks in a test?
If we take reservation as just a means of representation, what is the purpose of the examination itself? The communities should elect or nominate their representatives for each job and profession rather than asking them to compete. How is a community as a whole benefitted if a few members of it get some privilege?
The caste system in India is more layered, hierarchical and complex than the racial discrimination practiced in many countries. Solutions like a positive affirmation may work in a society with a well-demarcated split between racial lines like in the US. However, it will not work in a society like ours where every caste is an oppressor and privileged compared to the ones that are one rung lower to them. In many Indian states, castes that hold vast swathes of lands and from whom the scheduled communities face the most oppression are now beneficiaries of other backward community quotas. Where is social justice here? There are countless sub-castes in SC and ST, and the benefit of reservation has gone only to the creamy castes within the Dalits, leaving many sub-castes in the lurch.
There should be no debate about the need for reservations in a highly hierarchical society like ours. The discussion should now move on to how we rationalise the quota. How can we ensure more equality? Perhaps, a social backwardness index could be the answer. Each individual can be ranked based on criteria like their caste, economic status, the caste’s relative status to other communities, family status like how many members have already enjoyed or are enjoying the quota, etc. The total marks obtained in a test could be multiplied with such an individual index to arrive at the actual merit. This method is not failproof, but it would stop the clamour for every community vying for backward status and a creamy layer hogging all benefits.
Anand Neelakantan, Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy (email@example.com)