India: Politics of reservations

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Dec 22 13:35:59 UTC 2006

 T Thomas: Politics of reservations

T Thomas / New Delhi December 22, 2006

Perhaps a review of the policy of reservations to gauge its effect on
those protected and those not will be worthwhile.  Political parties
throughout the world, including those in India, face a curious problem.
Unlike previous decades when the world was torn between the economic
philosophies of the Socialist East and Capitalist West, today there is a
near consensus on economic policy which puts greater emphasis on growth as
compared to equity in the distribution of wealth. The underlying principle
is that equity is best ensured with growth preceding it. This is now the
accepted wisdom in all parts of the world.  Furthermore, unlike in past
centuries, very little of the growth today is through colonisation or
exploitation of another country or region, with the possible exception of
some pockets in Sub-Saharan Africa, which are not significant in a global
context. With such a near consensus on economic philosophy, political
parties have to find other issues to differentiate themselves from each
other. That is why factors like religion, caste and language had to become
the platform for various political parties.

But it is possible that even these other factors will become less relevant
over the next few decades. For instance, while caste is still a strong
factor in the rural areas of India, it is of less importance in an urban
society and among the younger generation. Increasing urbanisation will
help to sustain this trend. Language is becoming a less divisive force as
English is increasingly becoming the language of business, commerce and
all international travel. Despite all the attempts to replace English with
Hindi or regional languages, most people in India have quietly and
gradually adopted a two- or three-language formula, viz. the mother
tongue, English and Hindi. One can expect that this tendency will
accelerate and spread in the next few decades as more and more people will
want to enter the sphere of commerce.

The one factor which may survive all other changes in society is that of
religious affiliation. However, there are several moderating influences at
work to counter any extremism. Education, especially if it includes
knowledge about other faiths than one's own, is a potent influence in
understanding and appreciating other religions and then respecting them.
Professionalisation and occupational careers also help to bridge the
religious divide. When you are in a profession like medicine and
engineering, or in business, the nature of the relationship shifts to the
professional level and one begins to identify others in accordance with
their professional standing and ability rather than any caste or religious
criteria. Although in many parts of India, even now, professionals tend to
cluster around their religious caste affiliations, an increasing number of
such people are moving out of such constraints. This is facilitated to
some extent by the fact many professionals go abroad for postgraduate
studies, and when you are in the US or UK, you tend to cluster together
more as Indians rather than as religious groups. That sense of national
(as opposed to religious) identity is carried over even when one returns

With the advancement of business in India, entrepreneurship will play a
role in breaking down caste and religious barriers. No one thinks of Azim
Premji as a Muslim or Narayana Murthy as a Hindu. They are seen as
successful entrepreneurs, and people join their companies without thinking
about their religious affiliation. This is a great change from the old
agrarian attitude of dealing only with people of your own kind.  Another
potential force that will break down such barriers is what may be
generally classified as romance. When young people study or work together,
some amount of mutual attraction is bound to happen. Many such romances
would result in what may be called love marriages. As they become more
educated and mobile, young people are increasingly resisting arranged
marriages and want to have a say in who should be their life partner. Such
unions of people do not necessarily take into account caste affiliations.
A young person does not enquire about the caste of another young person of
the opposite gender before falling in love. Such mutual attraction occurs
also at the workplace when both parties are more mature and more
financially independent. So they can afford to ignore any possible
protestation by their families on the basis of caste. With all these
forces working towards a dilution of caste-related factors, it is
conceivable that after a few decades reservation will hopefully become
irrelevant in India.

In the meantime, the policy of reservations has resulted in some positive
reactions from those who were adversely affected by reservations. In terms
of education, the upper castes, who were at the receiving end of
reservation, set up their own institutions for their communities. This has
added to the pool of elite institutions in our country. The castes which
were discriminated against in selection for employment in government or
the public sector went into business themselves instead of seeking such
employment. The great success and spread of businesses set up by South
Indian Brahmins bears witness to this phenomenon. Reservations, which were
meant to exclude them, actually prompted them to enter areas of activity
which they had traditionally avoided. Their innate ability to concentrate
and to work hard ensured success for them in business.

One should therefore question whether reservations on the basis of caste
should continue indefinitely. Can it lead to complacency on the part of
those who are favoured by reservations, and hence a lowering of their
levels of motivation, as happens in all protected species? Can it result
in further effort by the upper castes to compensate even more for the
discrimination they endure by excelling even more in their chosen areas of
activity? Will the gulf between the two groups widen even further? Perhaps
a review of the whole policy to gauge its effect on both those who are
protected and those who are the intended exclusions will be very
worthwhile. The results could vary from one region of the country to
another. Ascertaining the reasons for such variation will also be a
valuable input into possible amendments to this policy in the longer run.


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