Reservation in India – A Question of Equality and Justice

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In 1946, the Constituent Assembly convened to draft the longest constitution for what would be the largest democracy in the world. This assembly was headed by a Dalit man, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. Perhaps that is why, India follows a system of reservation, whereby a portion of government jobs, and seats in educational institutes are reserved for the communities and castes that faced oppression and ostracism for centuries by those that considered themselves upper caste.

But is a reservation system necessary in India? Is the caste system still prevalent? Does the segregation of seats according to caste lead to more casteism? Are we to continue this reservation system even after 70 years of independence and growth? These are some of the questions you’ll find in a heated debate about reservation. Let us try to break these questions down and understand why-if- reservation is necessary.

Reservation is an affirmative action of differential treatment taken by our country to combat the terrible system of caste Indian society had- and still has. Two terms of this sentence need a closer look; “affirmative action” and “differential treatment”. Most of India’s caste based reservation is defined by these two words of political theory.

 Affirmative action is based on the idea that it is not simply enough to declare formal equality by law. To eradicate deeply rooted inequality in a society, certain actions need to be taken that are affirmative in nature and preferential to the disadvantaged community. It can take the form of special scholarships, more spending to the disadvantaged, etc. In India, affirmative action takes the form of quotas and reservation. The argument is that these communities have struggled disproportionately more than those benefitted by the caste system, for centuries, and therefore they require special protection and help. 

Critics of this affirmative action argue that this is just another form of discrimination and that a society cannot achieve equality and defeat discrimination through positive discrimination. But equality, however, does not mean identical treatment. A fish cannot be asked to climb a tree. It simply does not have the resources to do that like a monkey would. This is where the concept of differential treatment makes an entrance. Sometimes it is necessary to treat people differently in order to ensure everybody has equal rights. Disabled people are provided special ramps to give everyone in the public an equal chance to enter the building. Similarly, social inequalities of casteism are a setback to those of the lower caste and they require special attention by the law to combat these problems. The fact remains that India has done far less in spheres of education and health for the deprived population than what is due. Many students in rural India cannot go to school. Inequalities in education are glaring. Therefore it is only justified to treat them preferentially in order to make the competition fair or level the playing field.

But should this differential treatment be on the basis of caste? “Why not on the basis of income? Poverty is, after all, more prevalent than casteism”, is a sentence you very often might hear in an argument against reservation. More often than not, the people who say this are ignorant of the facts. It is important to remember that in India, reservation based on caste is not a poverty alleviation scheme. It is not a differential treatment for economic inequality, it is a differential treatment for social inequality. The existence of reservation is not just because of the gap in resources available to the backward castes, but because of the discrimination they face on a day-to-day basis.

According to  a study published in The Economic and political weekly, 52% of Brahmins and 24% of Forward Castes practice a seemingly outlawed practice of untouchability. 30% of rural India and 20% of urban India continue to practice untouchability. Aside from outright untouchability, lower caste groups face subtle casteism that denies them position or job in the society. Interviewers might go with selecting a person with an upper caste name than an equally qualified lower caste person. Another study published in The Economic and Political Weekly shows that those with Dalit sounding names are 33% less likely to be hired and with Muslim sounding name are 67% less likely to be hired than someone “upper”-caste sounding name.

Per the data released by Planning Commission in 2012, 25% of the people in rural India, remain below the poverty line. While only 15.5% of upper caste Hindus remain below the poverty line, a staggering 45.3% of Scheduled castes and 31.5% of Scheduled Tribes continue to remain in poverty. Such economic disparity is clearly deep rooted in casteism. More often than not, these communities had to go through centuries of oppression thus setting them back with a generational gap. Meaning, while 3 of a Brahmin generation might have attended college, for a Dalit it might be their first generation attending college even in 2021.

If caste based inequality is really this big, why do we, an upper caste individual living in urban India, not see it? Why is there even a debate about reservation if casteism is actually so obvious? For that we need to look at the media representation by lower caste. According to a  report by Newslaundry and Oxfam India, of the 121 newsroom leadership positions, 106 are occupied by upper castes, five by other backward classes and only six by people from minority communities. (The caste of four individuals could not be identified.). No more than 5% of all articles in English newspapers are written by Dalits and Adivasis. Hindi newspapers fare slightly better at around 10%. And not so surprisingly, on discussion of caste issues, 69% of the panellists belonged to the general category across all the surveyed channels. We do not see casteism because not enough people from lower castes are represented in the media, to raise awareness about it (the very reason of that being, casteism.)

The truth is that the upper caste of India lives in a delusional utopia where untouchability has vanished, casteism is non-existent and discrimination is a thing of past. This is a dangerous thought and often the reason for arguments against reservation. 

As India developed, the higher caste generations progressed. They did not think that their success had anything to do with their caste. Their caste status had been crucial in ensuring that these groups had the necessary economic and educational resources to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by rapid development. However with the second and third generations, they began to believe that they themselves worked hard for it and caste had no role in the privileges they enjoyed. For them caste only existed in religious ceremonies and within their community. 

But for the lower caste, caste became all too visible. They did not have inherent wealth, property or people to educate them well about resources. And to this, the constitution allowed them to use their caste for schools, colleges and jobs. For them, caste became an asset when wealth couldn’t. Their caste revolves around them in important matters as the only resource they have to even stand a chance against the already advantaged upper caste. The juxtaposition of these two groups – a seemingly caste-less upper caste group and an apparently caste-defined lower caste group – is one of the central aspects of the institution of caste in the present.

Some might say that caste-based reservation is a thing of morality. That it is the moral duty of an upper caste individual to step aside and give up a job in government offices for our less fortunate lower caste brothers. But it doesn’t have to be about morality at all. Caste-based reservation is a logical solution to discrimination. To understand how, we must first bury ourselves in a veil of ignorance and listen to the perspectives offered by a political theorist by the name of John Rawls.

Rawls argues that the only way we can arrive at a fair and just rule is if we imagine ourselves to be in a situation in which we have to make decisions about how society should be organised although we do not know which position we would ourselves occupy in that society. That is, we do not know what kind of family we would be born in, whether we would be born into an ‘upper’ caste or ‘lower’ caste family, rich or poor, privileged or disadvantaged. Rawls argues that if we do not know, in this sense, who we will be and what options would be available to us in the future society, we will be likely to support a decision about the rules and organisation of that future society which would be fair for all the members.

(extract from NCERT Political Theory chapter 4: Social Justice)

This thinking, Rawls said, is thinking under a “veil of ignorance”. If we abandon who we are and the privileges we experience in our society, the stories of those not privileged and discriminated become much more resonating, understandable and in some sense, even relatable. We will attempt to provide health and education to all the members of the society whether they’re upper caste or not.

But, is reservation the only way to social equality? Does it have any other alternative? It in fact, does. It’s levelling the playing field— making sure everybody in the entire country has equal access to all kinds of resources to make the competition just and fair. Building schools and colleges and making sure it reaches every nook and corner of our country and that nobody is exempted from receiving resources. This method however, makes us rely on our politicians and legislators to do some work. Whether the execution of these massive plans will ever come to proper fruition is questionable. Therefore, we rely on the law to do the work by making integration into society mandatory, using reservation.

To those saying it’s been 70 years of our independence and reservations need to see the exit door, a humble reminder that despite 70 years of independence, India has not achieved giving every citizen access to drinking water. We have not achieved wide access to electricity. Even today, millions do not have access to a proper toilet system. What makes one think that 70 years of reservation is enough time to undo the damages of caste system and social inequality? Reservation ends when discrimination ends and from the looks of it, that’s a long way ahead.

The privileged members of Indian society have their head above the water. They look around and see the others also with their head above water and declare that nobody is suffering, everything is fine and the policies in place for equality are oppressive. They do not see those under water trying to swim the treacherous path upward. They do not see them drowning. They do not see some of those above water purposefully kicking down those trying to swim through. And in this ignorance, they brand themselves the victims.

Keerthana Satheesh

   FY (B.Sc Economics)

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