A constitutional review?

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The jury is out about how long the caste-based reservation system in India should
continue. Nearly seventy years after the Constitution came into effect, isn’t it time for some deep introspection, asks Venkatachala I. Sreenivas.

IT is time to review to what extent the caste-based reservation policy (CRP) has favoured or hindered the guarantees of justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity enshrined in the Constitution.
The authors of the Constitution had to accommodate diverse voices while preserving an effective centralised government. Such a document, of necessity, will have built in tensions. One such is the CRP to disadvantaged sections which is opposed to the principle of equal opportunity. CRP is a balance between the opposing principles of equality of opportunity and the need for state assistance to the disadvantaged. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, one of the architects of the Constitution, wanted reservation to be confined to a minority of seats for ten years only. Because of political exigencies the ten year limit has been extended repeatedly, creating two groups — a favoured and an unfavoured group; in violation of equality for all.

The basis of CRP
The CRP is based on the mistaken assumption that castes are homogeneous and are rigid. There are disadvantaged people among forward communities and vice versa. Defining caste is problematic. Caste as understood now has four features:
1. Hereditary (parent’s caste)
2. Endogamy (marriage between members of the same caste)
3. Craft exclusiveness (members pursue a particular vocation)
4. Commensality (custom as to from whom one may receive food)

In post-independent India, the caste barriers are fast disappearing. Endogamy, commensality, and craft exclusiveness have doubtful validity. The increased incidence of inter-caste marriage poses problem in determining the caste of children born to such couples.
The CRP has created two groups; the preferred group which reaps benefits which are denied to the non-preferred group. This is discrimination and this should be eliminated. Those subscribing to this view advocate creating equal opportunities for everyone by providing quality education, affordable health care, good nutrition, job opportunities, and elimination of exploitation conforming to the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Another school is that the disadvantaged will not be able to effectively compete to take advantage of the opportunities provided, and need extra assistance in the form of reservation. The goal of this school of thought is to create equality of outcome whereby there will be proportionate representation of the disadvantaged in all societal endeavours.
Equality of opportunities is achievable, but the creation of equality of outcome is impossible, as it has never existed during human history. Predominance of certain groups in certain human endeavours is a rule rather than an exception throughout the world, over the ages. It is claimed that CRP is reparation for the past injustices suffered by the disadvantaged group. However, the present generation, which had nothing to do with past injustices, is made to compensate for crimes they did not commit for those who were themselves not victims of past injustice. This situation is opposed to the principles of justice.
It is important to prove that a compromised policy is beneficial for its implementation. The benefit may be utilitarian or promotion of an ideal or both. Utilitarian argument is fallacious. Preferential treatment is not a zero sum game where loss of one is annulled by the gain of another. Both the favoured and the non-favoured groups could change their behaviour. The favoured group may slacken their effort in achieving excellence since they are assured of a position even with mediocre performance; the non-favoured group may slacken their effort because their effort will earn them neither recognition nor reward. Society as a whole suffers from loss of efficiency which is difficult to quantify.

The Vanniar agitation and changes that ensued
The non-preferred groups resent the benefits conferred on the preferred group and try to be included in the preferred group. In 1987, Vanniars started demanding 20% reservation, which turned violent. The worst clashes were between the Vanniyars and Schedule Caste (SC) members. Vanniyars, who were not favoured with the benefits of reservation policy as were the SC members, directed their full fury against the SC community. Ultimately Vanniars achieved 20% reservation within the backward class reservation, opening doors for every community to claim a share of reservation by agitation, and by inflating their numbers, and touting their backwardness.
The resentment created by the reservation policy among different castes reached a higher level with the Gujjar agitation in Rajasthan. In order to improve the share of their benefits, Gujjars started agitating to gain benefits of CRP. Meenas, who had been enjoy- ing the benefits of CRP fearing dilution of their share by the inclusion of Gujjars, vigorously opposed their inclusion. In the ensuing violent agitation several lives were lost and an estimated ₹7,000 crore worth of property damage occurred in Rajasthan alone. The Gujjar agitation has paved the way for inter-caste resentment and fight. A more sinister fact was that all Meena legislators of the ruling BJP resigned, illustrating that caste loyalty was superseding other loyalties.
Another adverse effect of the CRP policy is to ascribe a caste motive to all problems. Twenty students had been expelled from IIT for poor performance in accordance with the established rules. Of the twenty, eight were from the general category and the remaining eleven were from SC and one from ST. The incident was reported in the media under the heading “IIT shuts door to nine Dalit students”, although the dismissal had nothing to do with caste. Such quixotic reporting diverts attention from real issues.
Another damaging aspect of CRP is the creation of the victimisation syndrome. Reservation policy implies that the preferred group can gain more by emphasising their past suffering, than by discipline and hard work in the present. As backward looking entities they have to keep on finding new enemies or new reasons to hate the old ones to continue to derive the benefits of reservation— a deterrent for developing self-respect and self-confidence.
Preferential policy under different names is practiced based on race (U.S.A), language (Sri Lanka), ethnicity (Malaysia), etc. All of them suffer from the same ill effects, including:
• The range of beneficiaries keeps on expanding as more and more groups seek benefit.
• The array of benefits keeps on increasing as groups demand more and more.
• Political mobilisation on the basis of caste/ethnicity.
• Emergence of backlash from the non-preferred groups.
• Inclination to resolve conflicts generated by preferential policy by creating redundant positions, adding to inefficiency.
• Compromise of economy, efficiency, and equity generating bitterness and resentment within institutions.
• Inter group infighting.
• Increased group/caste consciousness to the detriment of national integration.
• The benefits intended to be temporary often become permanent, creating a new privileged group.
• It is the relatively affluent of the preferred group who siphon the benefits, to the detriment of the really needy.
A sinister aspect of CRP is that no single caste has been promoted from its backward status to forward status, after more than half a century of implementation. The policy has been uncritically continued regardless of the damage it has caused and is causing to the letter and spirit of the Constitution, and to national integration.


Venkatachala Sreenivas

Venkatachala Sreenivas is a retired surgeon. He was also a faculty member of Yale University in New Haven U.S.A. He enjoys writing on philosophy and current affairs.

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