Affirmative action and Merit are two concepts on which every Indian has an opinion, especially, the former. Affirmative action policy is always seen in a negative light because of the ambiguity regarding the rationale for such a policy and its effect on social relations. And the term merit in the Indian context should be judged as to how one achieves success given the role of rigid social institutions like caste and religion.
Affirmative action policy is an umbrella term loosely defined to include all the policies targeted towards the discriminated groups for uplifting them socially, educationally and economically. The aim of Affirmative Action (AA) is mainly to provide preferential treatment to the groups which have been subjected to discrimination in the past due to the social norms which prevailed in the society. In India, Affirmative Action (AA) has been enshrined in the Constitution; it has mainly and solely taken the form of fixed quotas known as 'Reservation policy' (RP). But around the world for instance, Brazil, China, South Africa, Malaysia and USA which are commonly referred to in literature, have gone much beyond quotas where the Affirmative Action policy is very diverse in nature. For instance, target groups were given preferential access to loans, stocks in public companies, preference in government contracts, setting up a police station specialising in crimes related to racism, free distribution of land, among others. Hence, in India, it would be wrong to use the term Affirmative action policy because only an aspect of it has been introduced, which is "quota".
All these economies while introducing full-fledged Affirmative Action policy gave primary focus to private sector simply due to the fact that majority of people are employed in the private sector and only a minuscule in the public sector. Interestingly, in India, the private sector has remained untouched by the Reservation policy. This has been avoided in the name of merit and by arguing that private sector does not discriminate on the basis of caste.
While the beneficiaries consider Reservation Policy (RP) as their right, the non-beneficiaries term it as unjust policy. Instead of seeing RP as a tool of equal opportunity, nation building and of creating a society where each individual would live with dignity, the part of society which is not included in the RP considers it as a tool which is doing grave injustice to them and their children, as a mechanism which kills merit and as a rule which is unjust in nature. While making such arguments they forget the privilege they enjoyed in the past and the strong social capital which they enjoy in the present which helps them to corner resources.
It has been consistently argued that the reservation system is further perpetuating inequality and instead of annihilating caste it has helped in maintaining the notion of caste in an individual's mind. There are two counter arguments for such statements. Firstly, how to expect from a social community which fooled the gullible masses by using religion as the tool to wholeheartedly accept those they consider as slaves, as their own fellow citizens without any state intervention.
And secondly, the community which gets prestige and power due to its caste identity cannot be expected to forego all the privilege associated with one's caste whether reservation system continues or not. Hence, as argued before, the reservation system is acting as a platform of representation and not perpetuating inequality and the notion of caste is being carried forward and maintained by upper castes because the prestige attached to it and not by lower caste who have nothing to gain from this caste identity apart from the notion of pollution and the prejudices attached with it.
Hence, in India, the concept of AA has been limited to only quotas, contrary to the international experience. And instead of being seen as a tool of social justice it is being targeted for being unjust by the so called "non-beneficiaries".
The concept of Merit
Social surroundings, opportunities and equality in access shape an individual's career. For Locke, at birth human mind is a "blank slate." In a degraded hierarchical society such as India, where birth decides social surrounding, opportunities and equality in access to resources the concept of Merit needs further investigation.
Each individual aspires for a quality life. Along with their caste, the notion which harasses reserved candidates especially Dalits, throughout their life, is the newly invented term in India called "Merit". The term got more currency after the Mandal implementation. The social group which enjoys high societal status imbibes this notion of Merit into their caste/class group in order to distinguish themselves from those who get preferential treatment in the matter of education and employment. This notion is imbibed into one's mind in order to prove one's superiority to others in general and for maintaining the hierarchical relations with respect to the preferential group in particular.
Our society, in general, equates merit with marks he or his/her child obtains in any examination and even intelligence for them is how one performs in examinations. We do not equate intelligence with reasoning and critical thinking. By equating merit or intelligence with marks they forget the privilege their children have when compared to his/her counterpart who lacks such inherited privileges. In the context where a social group which has been subject to discrimination, such an idea of merit narrowly defined in terms of marks looks illogical. So how should we define the term merit in such a context?
The Social capital of higher castes is much higher than those of the lower castes then how come those who enjoy all the privileges term their efforts as merit and the effort of those who do not enjoy any of the privileges is simply termed as wickedness. And most importantly the privileged group forgets that the possession of higher intellectual capacity which they talk today has not evolved in the competitive environment but in the non-competitive environment of rigid casteist framework.
So, merit in Indian context should be judged as to how one achieves success given the role of rigid social institutions like caste and religion. Equating merit with marks one achieves in an examination is a grave injustice to the individual who has been deprived of an intellectual environment because of his birth in a lower caste community. The tool called Affirmative Action then provides them with an opportunity for acquiring knowledge which was denied to these masses for millennia.
Raju Chalwadi is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Humanities and Social Sciences Department, IIT-Madras. He also holds a Master's degree in Development Studies from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.