There was a time when I argued with college students that reservation further divided an already divided nation. It was 1990, and they were disturbed and angry due to the atmoshpere around educational institutes as ‘activists’ were rioting outside, closing down all the schools in the name of anti-reservation. Young doctors were setting themselves on fire in protest against the reservation of Dalits and other marginalised OBCs in the medical sciences. It was the year Prime Minister VP Singh decided to implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, which suggested that a fixed quota of all jobs in the public sector be reserved for members of the historically disadvantaged ‘so-called’ Other Backward Classes (OBCs).
In 2016, the reservation debate still rages on, although my position on the matter is far more nuanced. We do need reservation in a country that is filled with social inequality and marginalisation on every social stratum—however, the sad truth is that reserved category is hardly ever filled by those who are truly in need. It is a bit like the strapping youth who captures and refuses to vacate the seats reserved for senior citizens and pregnant women on the metro.
Whether it is the husbands in rural India who get their wives to utilise the 33 per cent woman’s quota by standing for election as their proxies, or the already land-rich Jats who want to be included in the minority category, those who really need the reserved quota are hardly ever in the position to exercise their franchise. There is further discrimination even within minority OBC groups, since the section of Dalits and OBCs, who have access to affluence and education, are often the ones using the quota to gain entry into college or government jobs.
In that kind of scenario where everyone is jostling for a fixed amount of seats, all it takes are a few corrupt powerful individuals to put weapons in the hands of the unemployed and raise a few slogans. It is usually the lumpen elements, wanting to become overnight leaders, who incite this kind of violence. Before you know it, a shop is on fire, men are hunted down and axed to death, cars and tractors are torched, and India’s delicate fabric is torn to bits. It is as easy as throwing a match into a container of inflammable gas.
In the recent spate of arson and bloodshed in Haryana, at least 20 people have died and over 200 injured. Enough to convince that reservation is one of the most well-meaning schemes that have been misused and misinterpreted by India’s vast population, who are struggling for a foothold in society. In the past 10 days, buildings and vehicles were set ablaze, and railway routes and highways blockaded around Haryana, particularly in Jhajjar and Rohtak. Estimates have put the loss to the state at `20,000 crore. All this in the name of government jobs—clearly the violence was not spontaneous but planned and designed to disrupt life and arm-twist the government to give in to the demands of a power-hungry coterie.
True that the current scenario is such that thousands of graduates are sitting unemployed and job opportunities are not increasing at the same rate. One may, however, note that the Jat agitation was not for any old job, but the coveted public sector government jobs that award the employee with the status of being permanent, whether or not s/he performs well at their job.
One does not have to look far to know that the most pertinent issue in today’s divide and rule scenario is caste, and the most burning issue is reservation. Divisive politics is not the answer to the education and job crunch, it is certainly not the way forward for any political party nor is it for the people of the nation. Reservation needs to be redefined, made more effective and not only on the basis of caste. It would take an intersection of marginalities like, gender, class, caste and ability to determine who is truly deserving of the reserved seat on the metro, the seat in the class room or in the employment market.
Dalmia is chairperson of Grievance Cell, All India Congress Committee