Reservations- By Merit or birth?

By Vimlaksh Gautam

23 July, 2005

While the issue of reservation in the private sector has kicked up a storm and expectedly so, what is amusing , how it always takes the shape of a similar argument, job on basis of merit or birth?

Before this question is addressed what is more important is addressing the term 'reservation' itself. As will be shown no discussion on the above argument can be initiated without going into the need for
reservation in the first place, this is all the more important because many critics point out the flaws of reservation without acknowledging the socio-economic causes of the reservation policy.

So first let us analyse the causes which led DR.Ambedkar to fight for reservations for the millions of depressed classes in public institutions.

The common reason given is 'reservations were brought because the dalits were ill treated'. 'ill-treated', all right but by whom, in what degree and for how long. The Dalits which were outside the chaturvarna system were subjected to the most inhuman living conditions, their means of livelihood severely restricted and confined to meanial and humiliating tasks with no right to move up the social ladder or live in a more dignified manner even if he had the ability and resources or should I say the requsite 'merit' to do so.

He had no right to education until the recent past and in many villages still does not have, and was also forbidden from owning any land. Thus he was reduced to a mere tenant or labourer working at the whims of his upper caste landlord. He was denied the right to enter temples, in fact so much for racial purity that his mere shadow could defile a caste hindu so he had to keep a particular distance from the upper caste Hindus.In this way his social and economic rights were completely curtailed, indeed in most cases he was treated worse than an animal. Such was the scenario where he was subjected to constant humiliation and life of indignity.

Now the next question is for what part of our history did such conditions persist. five years, fifty years? No, in fact for the most part of our history right from the vedic times until the recent past
the caste rules were enforced in their most rigid form. In such conditions of perpetual ignorance and helplessness it is not surprising when generations of Dalits forgot their sense of 'self' and led lives just for the sake of living. So when we finally did get independence in 1947 and declared ourselves an Democratic, Secular Republic which cherished the ideals of 'equality' and 'liberty' for all its citizens, the question that popped up was are all of India's children really on equal footing. Particularly so, when certain sections have got a headstart thousands of years ago, indeed reservation from competition, while others are still tied to the starting line how do we ensure an equal race for all the competitiors?

That's why the framers of our constitution supported by Jawaharlal Nehru decided that dalits and other backward classes needed some time to catch up with the rest of India and so introduced the policy of reservation. These reservations were created for a time period required to fill the void between the upper and lower caste hindus. But from the last decade and particularly during the NDA regime many public sector companies were sold off and with it went the livelihoods of many SC/ST's. Fine, but what are the alternative sources of income which the government has thought of for the SC/ST's. Reservation in private sector is one of them, but the 'Captains' of Industry came out all guns firing against this proposal. Rahul Bajaj got so petrified, he even threatened to move out his factory from Maharashtra if the state government went ahead with its plans.

Relax Mr.Bajaj,it was just a proposal, nobody is implementing anything without a discussion. The government initiated this proposal simply because of complete absence of any plans for the upliftment of the socially backward section from your (read industry) side. While we hear suggestions of Affirmative Action like in the US nobody has any concrete plans towards its implementation.There does not seem to be any initiative from industry associations like CII or FICCI towards improving the lot of the depressed classes. Infact it took nearly sixty years for the industry to acknowledge that "merit was shaped by social circumstances" ,which we have already discussed. So much for
affirmative action.

Affirmative action in US is an acknowledgement of the wrongs done to the Blacks through centuries of forced slavery, likewise affirmative action in India should be sympathetic towards the Dalits who have
endured thousands of years of humiliation and social boycott.

The caste Hindus have to realise that reservation is a direct result of our unkind past and it will take some adjustment and understanding on their behalf when the SC/ST's feel confident enough to pursue their progress without any state help.

As Mahatma Gandhi said, "I want a revolution in the mentality of the caste Hindus". The country is awaiting such a revolution.


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