A Framework for Evaluating Reservation

Social scientists are obsessed with formulating theories, all because the primary task of social science is to explain social phenomena, and theories are its tools. Whether to explain the Congress’ victory in the 2009 elections, the reasons behind the Maoist upsurge in central India, or whether Shah Rukh Khan’s movie, My Name is Khan, benefited from the aggressive stance of Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirmal Samiti in the days leading up to its release, social scientists are involved in a perennial quest to find patterns behind events and develop theories to explain them.

But much to their chagrin, unlike natural sciences like physics and chemistry, which offer explanations using precise laws (Einstein’s e=mc2 and Newton’s laws of motion being amongst the most famous ones), social science is at best an approximate science and rarely, if ever, offers precise explanations. After all, it hinges on that most unpredictable and erratic of things: human behaviour.

In this sense, the very idea of reservation is peculiarly paradoxical. On the one hand, we consider equality the nonnegotiable underpinning of a just society; on the other, there are often demands for special provisions for, and by, certain sections of society. This dilemma surfaces intermittently in debates on social justice, the most recent on account of the women’s reservation bill recently passed in the Rajya Sabha.

How does one reconcile seemingly contrary goals? Is there a theory that explains the rationale of reservations? Can we develop a theoretical framework for evaluating the necessity of reservation for a certain section of society?

As for a theory on reservation, one finds some answers in political philosophy, in what is called the ‘politics of difference,’ where it is argued that where differences between social and economic positions of various groups are so significant, common equal treatment may not provide enough opportunities to improve social standing.

Reservation, or affirmative action, as its lukewarm counterpart is known in the West, seeks to make special provisions for those historically marginalised sections that suffer from inherent structural inequalities, and provide them with special privileges for an equal playing field.

Reservation here is seen as analogical to giving a headstart to a physically-challenged person competing in a race in which no other competitor suffers from a disadvantage. It would surely be far from just if the former was asked to start from the same line as the latter.

Those against reservation would probably not change their stance on the basis of just one set of arguments. Nonetheless, we need to explore whether we can arrive at a theoretical framework for evaluating whether a a particular social group merits reservation and weigh its demands with respect to other competing claims. Would backward castes merit reservation more than Muslims? Or is there a stronger case for gender-based reservation?

To even consider reservation for a certain social group, it must be evident that people of that community suffer from disadvantages because of the mere fact they are born into it. But it is also equally important that an overwhelmingly large majority in that group suffer from marginalisation in one form or another due to prevailing social inequalities.

When reservation was first proposed for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, nearly entire communities were harshly discriminated against.

Can we make a similar argument for women as a whole? Don’t women born in middle and higher-income families, which lay considerable stress on education, have a relatively privileged upbringing? Might not gender-based reservation serve to benefit these privileged women more than those who really need it? A similar argument can be made with other social groups too, but in the case of backward castes, such an overwhelming majority suffers from marginalisation that benefits are bound to trickle down to those most in need.

Furthermore, reservation is meaningful if it is used to usher a sense of pride into a social group that has historically been so thoroughly suppressed that it suffers from a deepseated psychological lack of confidence. Since reservation allows access to positions of power and privilege to a select few from suppressed groups, it is believed there is a spillover effect that gives voice and pride to the group at large, if only because one of them is now matching status with those who have been in power so far, and have, in many cases, been their oppressors, too. This percolation often happens when the marginalised group lives under a system of ghettoisation or collective seclusion that contributes to a sense of shared suffering.

One of the characteristics of the caste system is its segregation, not just in the traditional sense, but in the sense that people of the same caste, living in the same neighbourhood and under similar circumstances, were either able to access benefits or were debarred from them because of an institutionalised and socially-embedded distributional injustice. Can we argue that gender-based social groups live under ghettoisation similar to what we see in social groups built on ethnic or religious identities? Is there any evidence of a shared sense of collective identity among people of the same gender, cutting across economic classes, as one would find among the backward castes, or even among some religious minorities?

These are just some questions that could point towards a theoretical framework for evaluating the case of reservation between competing demands. Social science can only offer imprecise pointers to and approximate parameters of such a theory. Nevertheless, in our quest for social justice through reservation, we must not defeat its overall purpose by according benefits to a certain community while ignoring the more pressing needs of other, more marginalised groups that might be suffering from deeper structural inequalities.



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