CASTE IS RELEVANT
The strong anti-reservation sentiment that has come to pervade our society, particularly the privileged sections, has brought forth strange arguments against the scheme of caste-based reservations contemplated under the Constitution. One argument is that economic backwardness rather than caste should be the basis of reservation. More recently, a view has been expressed that a backwardness index rather than caste should be used to provide reservation.
Behind all such pleas lies a surreptitious attempt to deny caste the pivotal role that it has played historically in rendering certain sections of society back ward, and instead equating social backwardness with economic standing. No one can deny that backwardness very substantially arises from lack of access to economic resources and facilities like quality education and employment opportunities. However, two aspects are conveniently overlooked in this economic argument.
First, caste has been a significant determinant of life chances. If members of certain castes are educationally backward or concentrated at the bottom of the occupational hierarchy, it is because the rules of the caste system barred members of these sections from access to education. Moreover, because these sections were crucial to the generation of economic surplus which those occupying the higher rungs of the society enjoyed, they were confined to lower, menial occupations. Second, considerable evidence exists to show that even after having achieved some degree of quality education and having moved up in the occupational hierarchy; life cha..l’lCes for them are not necessarily equalized.
The recent incident involving a minister at the Centre illustrates this fact. After performing a ceremony involving his son, the temple precincts were washed and ritually purified. Such discriminatory treatment extends to other spheres of life such as schooling and employment.
Poverty and economic backwardness may be distributed across caste lines, but there remains a significant difference in the manner in which economic backwardness affects life chances of individuals belonging to different castes. A poor Brahmin, Rajput or Bania may be deprived of good education for reasons of poverty, but his or her whole lifestyle radiates a degree of confidence which a low caste person from an economically well-off background is hard put to match.
Reservations were contemplated not merely to offset economic backwardness, but also address orientations responsible for rendering castes backward. In this context, the argument that economic condition is the cause of deprivation or that a cumulative index of backwardness should be devised does not cut much ice. Caste continues to be significant to the determination of life chances. To ignore caste in the scheme of reservations or, dilute it by means of a cumulative backwardness index would be tantamount to perpetuating high caste hegemony.
Quite apart from the practical difficulty of working a cumulative index, there is a need to recognize that the socially privileged are always in a better position to manipulate the system in their favour and those not so privileged are left high and dry.
No doubt, the implementation of the reservation policy raises certain questions. How long an individual or family should be entitled to the benefits of reservation? Should reservation be granted to those who are poor or economically backward even if they belong to higher castes? Should the creamy layer be skimmed off to ensure that benefits percolate down more widely if reservation has to make a real impact over the long run? Is reservation based on caste becoming a source of conflicts among castes vying for comparative advantage?
These questions should be debated, but the debate does not have anything to do with the logic of caste-based reservation. It was inherent in the logic of reservation that those who for some reason failed to draw social benefits will wage struggles against those who are able to pocket them. Such competition is an inherent feature of a democratic order. It is possible that in such struggles groups may overstep the limits of democratic protest, as was the case in Rajasthan. However, to project the Gujjar demonstration of aggressiveness as holding out promise of internecine warfare among castes in the future is misleading.