Professor Niall Ferguson’s article (Opinion page, Khaleej Times, 18 Oct 2011; Click here to go to article) highlights a very important aspect of public life, which is also a factor in the Great Indian Debate on Reservations.
HOW THE CASTE SYSTEM AFFECTED PUBLIC LIFE IN INDIA
Centuries of dominance of some castes over the others led to great social inequities in Indian society. Money, land, and power were in the hands of the few who were privileged in the past. This created deep divisions in society which created huge sections – once grouped as “untouchables” – who were downtrodden.
Around the time India gained independence from British rule, uplift of these sections was seriously attempted. Mahatma Gandhi called them “Harijans”, a term of endearment which was an effort to make affluent sections treat them fairly. BR Ambedkar was instrumental in framing the rules of Constitution in a way that allowed Government department to look upon these sections favorably, a process called positive discrimination, reverse discrimination, or Reservation.
RESERVATION FOR ONE OR TWO GENERATIONS ONLY
At the time of framing these rules, it was envisaged that the rules for Reservation for government jobs would be applicable for the first few decades; by this time, it was hoped, these sections would be uplifted sufficiently so that the social inequities that existed then would disappear.
Unfortunately, this did not happen; the poor remained poor, the rich got richer, and the under-privileged and under-represented sections remained as they used to be. Reservations were continued due to this failure, the thinking being that many centuries of backwardness cannot be reversed in such a short time, and more time would be required. Reservations were extended to include education, starting from colleges and universities, and progressively extended downwards to schools when it was realized that the lack of opportunities at that level were ultimately responsible for the lack of benefit from reservations at the higher levels.
DO RESERVATIONS REALLY HELP ACHIEVE OUR GOALS?
One aspect of reservations has never been seriously considered by pro-reservationists: do reservation of jobs and seats in colleges and schools really help to reverse the existing backwardness? This question should be addressed seriously without prejudgment.
Many people who are against reservations are those who have been born in under-privileged families and have exactly the same problems as those benefiting from reservation.
The current generation benefiting from reservations are backward not because of caste divisions which exist today, but from the effects of those divisions in the past, which are now either defunct or have no significant economic effect. There are still pockets in society where this discrimination exists (in terms of economic suppression), but these have ceased to be active in the general stream.
Backwardness in today’s India is along economic lines rather than along caste; but reservations are still practiced in the terms of the older classification. There has been an effort to exclude the “creamy layer” of privileged BC members from the ambit of reservation, but there is no effort for the backward members of those sections previously classified as “Forward Castes.
WHAT, THEN, IS THE SOLUTION?
Professor Niall Ferguson has clearly said in the article that it is lack of opportunity that is the root cause for many ‘geniuses going unrecognized’. In Indian society, years of practicing a skewed reservation policy has resulted in the development of a huge section of economically backward “Forward caste” members who lack opportunity for intellectual and economic development.
The solution lies not in reserving seats in schools and colleges, or reservation in jobs; rather, as pointed-out by the professor, we need to provide all sections equal opportunity in material terms to enable them to compete at an equal footing with everybody else. This involves much more government engagement in the shape of providing the wherewithal to attend school and college to these sections.
The difficulty all along has been the misuse of existing laws and the leakiness of any government scheme to benefit weaker sections of society due to inherent corruption and greed. These problems have to be tackled along with a change in policy as well.
Without this change in thinking in society, we will continue to create more social inequity, and caste-divisions will only become deeper.
Posted 18th October 2011 by Rajshekher Garikapati