Understanding the rationale of affirmative action in India

Sudhanshu K. Singh

sudhanshuThe Jat-Patel agitation and the anti-reservation protests of the 1990s are of the same pattern of angst against the grotesquely wrong conception of injustice that is attributed to Affirmative Action made possible through the Reservation policy. In a modern egalitarian political economy, one of the primary aims of the State should be to level inequalities and elevate the possibilities for the masses to access equal opportunities, required for their social mobility. The objective of the Reservation policy as set by the constitution makers is to elevate the economic, social and educational standards of the depressed classes. Thus, the policy ensures that the political and economic status develops along with the social status which is attached to the other two in the context of Indian society. The problem lies not only in the views that deny the justifiability of affirmative action but the ones which look for solutions without a careful study of the objective of the reservation system itself. 

In a caste ridden Indian society, dominated by the upper castes, the social element attached to the notion of equality cannot be ignored. Society, as the synthesis of the past, reproduces its social structures with varying complexities, and hence, an important analysis must begin with the acceptance of the fact that the goal of the elevation of social standards can be attained only by elimination of the Caste prejudice which regulates the lives of the Indian rural and urban life alike, or by posing a robust challenge to the Caste-State. Statistics show that even after more than 50 years of implementation of the policy, it is the upper caste Hindu who is more represented in various fields such as government employment, professional and non-professional education, in the sphere of law and judiciary, in the apparatuses of the state such as the police and defence, in media, and in political parties ('Diversity deficit across apex bodies of parties', The Hindu, 27.4.2015).

What can be concluded from the various levels of representations in the machinery of the state is that the Indian state and society is essentially a well organized upper caste oligarchy which remains intact even after a system of fair and equitable distribution of justice and opportunity is under work. The monopolized bureaucracy and public life, which is largely prejudiced against the 'depressed classes', makes the chances of inclusive development bleak. In such a social setting, reservations based on Caste ensure that the hitherto marginalized have a secure way of active participation and inclusion not only in political, but also in social life. It guarantees the 'depressed classes', a right to representation at least in a few government offices and institutions, if not in a multitude of private sector entities. Reservation based on caste is a logical demand for protection and security against the imperialism of the upper caste strata and is in line with societal development towards democracy. Any step taken in the direction of diluting the efficiency of the Reservation policy will only lead to perpetuating differences that have long existed, and thus to, denial of justice and opportunities, which will reflect the will of the state and how power relations regulate society.

Reservations: Stymied opportunities?

Few vital questions regarding the Affirmative action policy must be addressed. It is true that caste must be an important factor to consider while framing an affirmative action policy because a multitude of various other deterrents to the social progress are associated with it. One of the major loopholes in the successful implementation of the policy is that more than 50 years after the formulation of the policy, a vast majority of reserved category seats still fall vacant because a greater percentage of children are unable to cross the boundaries of the school or are deterred by various social facts of their public life. The following data shows the percentage of Graduates above the age of 20 years:

graduates caste wise

 Source: NSSO 1990-2000, Cited in: An alternative proposal -YogendraYadav and Satish Deshpande (Outlook India, 24 May 2006)

Inequalities in education across castes and communities clearly show how the SC, ST and OBCs remain much behind the upper castes in their educational standards, and that the "modern" city life in Indian society fails to fill in the gaps of inequality too. A large portion of the reserved bracket lies vacant. So, the argument that reservation leads to "stymieing" opportunities for the poor among the reserved category is an observational blunder. Various other indicators have time and again shown that the upper caste individuals are over represented in the fields of education and employment in the entire state administered machinery. A demand to accommodate the economically disadvantaged of the unreserved category in the framework of reservation to empower them lies in the erroneous understanding of the objective of reservation itself and such a reactionary demand challenges the positive progress of both – Affirmative action and the failing economic policies of the state.

It is a popular sentiment among the misguided that the seats won through reservation are unjustly allocated, and that a fair distribution of justice requires enabling the financially underprivileged of the reserved as well as the non-reserved categories. There is a clear separation between the problem of backwardness associated with caste and the one associated with poor economic status of the unreserved category, and so is the separation in the solutions to it. An attempt to blur the disjoint has led to a massive confusion across the Nation, and hence, the system of awarding reservations to the well off among reserved category has been generally understood as unjust. The reform in the reservation system cited by few intellectuals, of awarding reservation to the economically disadvantaged reflects the will of the intellectual class, i.e., to prevent upheavals by any regulatory methods. The loss of sense about this distinction has far reaching social, political and economic consequences, which is already evident - in the form of agitations by Jats and Patels, both of which are powerful groups demanding reservations!!

Reservations based on caste are meant to redress a problem which is greater in severity than the economic disadvantage of an individual, a fact which can be very well understood after an honest analysis of history. It is a project to build a new nation of shared democratic development, if not of social cohesion, ensuring protection against the tyranny of the upper caste strata.

The life of caste based reservations

When the established objective of the reservation policy is achieved, there should be de-reservation of the reserved, i.e., an individual shall no longer "need" the policy, because one has attained the social, political, and economic equality in the normal routine life. A three dimensional equality, that raises the masses to a particular level which they require for their adequate development in the civic life. It is often said that once an individual benefits from the 'quotas' in jobs, he/she should be able to ensure certain opportunities and securities for their progeny. This naive assumption ignores the study of Indian sociology and history. The general attitude towards the lower castes is that they are "unfit for social association', and it is this attitude that results in atrocities, discriminations at the workplace, impartial promotions and under representation. In a caste-prejudicedsociety, an individual remains vulnerable to exclusion, and thus, there can be a multitude of deterrents to his success at various levels of his professional and educational life. The media has shown instances of suicides and campus discriminations in premier institutions such as IIT, IIM and AIIMS etc., and it is exactly because of this social divide that the policy of reservation is, and must be, based on caste.

What cannot be ignored is the fact that the policy of reservation that aims at empowerment in the true sense has not helped much in tackling the problem of social exclusion. Although Indian central and state governments have spent millions of rupees and have made great efforts to improve the economic and social status of the reserved category, a wide gap still remains between what the law says and successful social reform. The gains of the reserved category are uneven and sparse. Under the scenario of social exclusion and prejudice, the continuity of caste based reservation for a longer period of time ensures participation and inclusion of a group of people who otherwise will not find any representation in the real sense and will remain vulnerable to marginalization. Various policies and state sponsored programs must ensure the elimination of poverty and unemployment faced by the poor of the unreserved category but providing reserved quotas on the basis of economic backwardness will dilute the potential of Affirmative Action, and thus will lead to further under representation of the "least advantaged".

The 3 percent reserved quota for the Disabled in direct recruitment, promotions and deputations which was declared by the Supreme Court of India in 2014 makes it easy to understand the goal of Affirmative Action, which is to distribute opportunities in a manner which is of the "greatest benefit to the least advantaged" in the Rawlsian sense of justice. To end the oligarchy and bring in a structural system of equitable representation that would capture the quintessence of democracy, must be the aim of an intellectually sound and morally just democratic state. It is true that social distinctions take time to fade away, but when the prejudiced upper caste is re-socialized with the depressed classes, in the sense of shared public platforms, there is a great possibility that the distinctions will vanish and Caste would no longer require definite representation through reservations. It is the time to be honest and frank about the history and the social science that we know and admit that we cannot address any irrational demand for reservations. In other words, it is the time to take out the heads buried in the sand like an ostrich.


Sudhanshu has done his masters in political science and is preparing for civil service examinations. He is a Marxist-Ambedkarite and an active citizen.


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