Three Myths about Reservations

Economic and Political Weekly June 10, 2006

Reasoned argument has taken a backseat in the current imbroglio over reservations for the other backward classes. The acrimonious debate has failed to distinguish between egalitarianism and humanitarianism; it has also confused protective discrimination with affirmative action and has erroneously held that reservations bring about a respect for diversity. Protective discrimination policy is being defended for the wrong reasons.

Indians, suggests Amartya Sen, possess a long tradition of public debate and reasoned argument. But it is precisely this tradition of reasoned public debate that has been hijacked by the current imbroglio about reservations for the other backward classes (OBCs). Today our public debate is marked by acrimony, hateful stereotyping, caste determinism, and pathological anxiety. It becomes difficult to engage with this debate from the perspective of public reason. However, it is necessary to do so, simply because too much is at stake. At stake is our entire future as a society that works through contentious issues in a spirit of deliberation, rather than spiteful confrontation. For this it is essential to sort out three myths that continue to dodge the entire dispute about reservations.

The main frame of the confrontation is set by the allegation that reservations contravene the principle of equality. Basically formal equality is based on the principle of anonymity and substitutability. Every individual has the equal right to access structures of opportunity, as well as participate in the decision-making processes, irrespective of caste, creed, gender, or class. Each, in other words, counts for one. This is best exemplified in the basic precept of democracy – one person one vote. It does not matter whether x is richer than y, when it comes to voting x’s vote is as good or as bad as y’s vote. Y can easily substitute for x.

However, not every individual in a highly unequal society like India can profit from opportunities, or participate in decisionmaking processes equally. A person who lacks the basic necessities of life – nutrition, clothing, shelter, and as assured income – is simply not equal to a rich and often overfed person. This purely empirical fact should be more than visible in India, where poor children are not only non-literate, they are also malnourished and prone to disease, homeless, and who are for these reasons subjected to every indignity that humankind is capable of inflicting on its own. In order to neutralise inequality, the state must provide resources to the underprivileged on non-market principles – free education, assured incomes, nutritious food, and health. This is the minimum that a good society owes to the underprivileged, because every individual has the right to live with dignity. It is not that this argument does not respect what is euphemistically called merit; all it asks for is that every child should be given the chance of translating her or his natural skills into merit, through the provision of basic needs. This will allow him or her to compete with other more privileged children. This version of equality is termed egalitarianism.

Distinguishing Egalitarianism from Humanitarianism

Egalitarianism, it is important to note, is not humanitarianism, which calls for a transfer of resources from the rich to the poor. Humanitarians are concerned with well-being, but egalitarians are concerned with much more. Transfer of resources from the rich to the poor might alleviate harsh deprivation, but it does not make society egalitarian, for the rich will still possess far more resources than the poor. Society will still remain unequal. Egalitarians are concerned with deeper equality. Each individual has an equal prepolitical stake in the collective resources of his or her society. If society is organised unequally, then this right should be met through remedial action: land reform, income generating schemes, equalisation of assets, and provision of resources through collective action. Humanitarians are not concerned with equalising resources; egalitarians are, simply because for them society is a relational entity. No one should command many more resources than his or her share, and no one should command less. This is what distinguishes humanitarianism from egalitarianism. The left in India, which is presumably well versed in the works of the grand old German, Karl Marx, should be more than aware of this.

But there is another kind of inequality in our society: that of caste. Historically the dalits have been unable to access education and professions, because of the sickening and inhuman system of purity and pollution, which remains embedded in religious communities across India. Reservations were meant to assure the former “untouchables”, a place in the educational system, and in the public professions, not only to counter economic deprivation. The scheduled tribes were granted reservations on another ground that of being far removed from the mainstream of Indian society. In the process, India took a step beyond egalitarianism, even as it provided for these two communities. This has been the unique Indian contribution to the equality debate; it progresses from basic tenets of formal equality, to egalitarianism, to protective discrimination.

Of course there is the phenomenon of the triply disprivileged – a landless dalit woman who suffers from caste, class and gender discrimination – and measures should address this phenomenon. The important point is that the founders of the Indian political system grounded their defence of reservations on sound public reason, and on incontrovertible historical facts. Sociologists will have to tell us whether some of the OBCs suffer from the same troubling discrimination on the basis of pollution and purity, if so these castes should be given the benefit of reservations. But castes who suffer only from economic deprivation should be made the recipient of other ameliorative measures, which belong to egalitarianism.

To phrase the point differently, reservations were meant to benefit the doubly disprivileged – those who were disprivileged on grounds of caste and class. Denial of education and access to professions had practically ensured that dalits were denied access to income or to dignity. Reservations were meant to amend this double disprivilege. For others who have been historically denied access to structures of opportunity, egalitarianism should ensure a social minimum. In order to counter social and economic disprivilege we need to grant resources. In order to counter caste disprivilege, which bars certain castes from entering education and professions, we need to fortify reservations.

In recent debate however, reservations are being put forth as counters to poverty, and it is precisely here that we have gone wrong. I am particularly puzzled by the stance of the left in India. Our friends on the left seem to have abandoned class, and fulsomely adopted caste as their political strategy. In the process they have discarded the basic precepts of egalitarianism and adopted humanitarianism, which might be a good stance but perhaps not a politically sound one for reasons enumerated above.

Confusing Protective Discrimination with Affirmative Action

Secondly, we find an unfortunate tendency to confuse protective discrimination with affirmative action. This is plain silly, because affirmative action in the US is neither based upon quotas, nor on lower eligibility criterion. All things being equal, in the sense of equal qualifications of the candidates, firms that cohere to the affirmative action platform give preference to women and to Afro-Americans. It is the combination of quotas and lower eligibility criterion that marks protective discrimination in India, and this is what gives to the measure a particular clout. Let us not confuse concepts and practices, this makes for bad theory and even worse practice.

Finally, reservations are not meant to introduce respect for diversity. This is another theme that pro-reservationists have adopted uncritically from the US and Canada, both of which are immigrant societies and which has only recently discovered that communities of the indigenous
people deserve to be recognised. Caste is about inequality, hierarchy, and powerlessness within a religious community, whether Hindu, Sikh or Muslim, and the only concept that can tackle this is that of egalitarianism, and protective discrimination. Diversity is meant to ensure toleration and respect for the other between communities, egalitarianism is meant to ensure a rough and equal access to structures of opportunity within communities.

Reservations are important, but they should be taken seriously and employed sparingly. The dominant perspective of redressing inequality should be egalitarianism, or the provision of a social minimum to all that require it. But reservations, which should have formed one component
of egalitarianism, have come to substitute for egalitarianism. The victims of history have been compensated in the most minimal of fashion possible. In the process, the realm of egalitarianism has narrowed down rather than expanded. Whereas issues of land reform have been consigned to the dustbin of history, reservations have expanded to rather absurd proportions. For reservations have proved a soft option for political elites, who reluctant to carry out deep-rooted changes in society, would rather opt to enlarge the constituency for reservations in a shrinking state sector and in a declining educational system, than transform ownership of resources in the
country. And unfortunately reservations have limited the political imagination of those who fight for social justice.

Protective discrimination policies are being defended today for the wrong reasons. At best they amount to humanitarian caring and at worst they belong to votegathering devices. Secondly, because the political defences for protective discrimination have become wafer thin, they have aroused hostility. This has exacerbated rather than diminished the problems of caste discrimination that bedevils our society.

(NEERA CHANDHOKE could be contacted on


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