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Caste, Capital, And Contention: Unraveling The Layers Of Reservation In India – IMPRI Impact And Policy Research Institute

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Caste, Capital, and Contention: Unraveling the Layers of Reservation in India

Aditi Narayan Paswan

Reservation is a tool that enables access to those for whom it has been long denied. Until caste discrimination persists, there is no question of withdrawing caste-based affirmative action.

In the article, ‘Time to end reservations’ (IE, December 11), Tavleen Singh begins by saying that her stance on reservation will invite controversy. But in the service of speaking plainly, she throws down the gauntlet and declares that all reservation should “go”. The writer’s rather glib categorisation of the discussion that she believes would follow her statement as “controversy” is symptomatic of the crude reductiveness that most mentions of reservation are subject to.

Dismissing the discourse that affirmative action generates as controversy belittles the journeys of resilience and struggle made possible for most by the reservation policy. A friend in JNU, who hailed from Bodoland, told me how for most of her community, it took generations to be able to board a train and make a three-day journey from Kokrajhar to New Delhi to study.

For most of us who are from reserved categories, acquiring the capabilities to access reservation requires us to break through generations of trauma and institutional handicaps that mark our place and that of our communities in society. Reservations guaranteed by the Indian Constitution allow institutional spaces to acknowledge and accommodate the fact that we as a people are chronically disadvantaged — they aren’t “freebies”.

The sentiments put forth in the article echo the mindset of a large segment of society who counter the need for reservation with claims that it is devoid of merit and is perpetuating mediocrity in our educational, economic, and administrative realms. This is how caste is viewed in these segments — as a mere conduit for accessing affirmative action or as an organising principle for vote banks. If only our relationship with caste was that simple or transactional.

Our caste certificates should not be looked at as the ticket to enter prestigious colleges and land perky government jobs. They also make up part of the same culture and social ecosystem in which Singh sits and harps on the concept of merit, mediocrity and reservation. It is trite to say enough has been spoken against reservation because it’s not a convenient gesture for atonement by dominant castes but rather a solemn conviction of the founding fathers and the Constitution to bring about a cohesive society devoid of marginalisation and discrimination.

For scheduled castes and tribes and OBCs, once they step out of their communities, whether they managed to avail of the constitutional provision of reservation or not, their ascriptive identities bring along the tyranny of social and cultural isolation. Singled out as “quota kids”, we are subject to casual jabs about whether we are worthy of the spaces we are fighting to occupy, or if we are interlopers, unworthily occupying a “meritorious” space. This is the constant dehumanising chatter that follows us. For millions of Indians like me, reservation is the oxygen which enables us to undertake our uphill journey from the peripheries of society towards the epicentre.

Caste consciousness for those who aren’t oppressed by it is awakened only when it’s either about admissions, recruitment and promotions or when the purity of lineage needs to be maintained in marriage. Remove these two situations and we find ourselves in a utopian society which is classless and casteless, where all the marginalised yearn to live.

Before we argue for an end to all reservation, whether for SC/STs, OBCs, or the EWS category in jobs and admissions, or more recently, women’s reservation in politics — a most pivotal affirmative action policy — we need to sit and ponder. How often do we talk about the tribal communities, Dalits, OBCs and women in our everyday conversations? We make posts expressing pity and outrage on social media when we see news of gruesome incidents of caste-based violence.

We do it when a Dalit woman is gang-raped and stripped of her dignity, for example, in order to humiliate her community. Or when young Dalit men are shot for riding horses, when tribal men are being urinated upon. Who gives the perpetrators the authority to indulge in such inhumane acts?

Reservation can end when we ensure that the dignity and respect of every single marginalised person in this country are maintained and restored. As Dattatreya Hosabale empathically pointed out, “reservation is a tool for affirmative action and is a historical necessity for India … it should continue as long as there is inequality being experienced by a particular section of society”.

Taking a leaf from Singh’s rule book, I, too, would like to speak plainly. Reservation is a tool to simply access resources (“I am a ‘quota kid’”, IE, April 15). For example, let’s take the case of the cut-off list for SRCC (2020-21). The difference in the cut-off is approximately 2 per cent between the so-called meritorious and quota kids. No doubt, the 2 per cent difference is huge. But is it comparable to 2000 years of untouchability, injustices, oppression and marginalisation? Consequently, if we are quick to define meritocracy and mediocrity, we must also define the contours of capital which is social, cultural and gendered.

Oftentimes, persons from dominant castes ask a question: How long should we pay for the injustices our grandparents and ancestors have done? The answer to that is straightforward — until we start sharing the same social, cultural, and economic capital that is currently being enjoyed by these caste categories. When the starting point is not the same for all of us and the finish line remains the same, injustice perpetuates.

We must realise how caste is embedded in our lives and how deeply entrenched it is in our consciousness. We must seek answers to why all the ragpickers and sanitation workers invariably belong to one caste and why the judiciary belongs to descendants of a few castes or families before we start to question reservation — the only line of defence for the marginalised sections of our society. It is because of reservation that we find Dalits, STs and OBCs’ names on the houses along Lutyens. Unfortunately, you would rarely find surnames belonging to lower castes when walking the lanes of posh societies in New Delhi.

We must also not underpin access to reservation with the economic status of the beneficiary, because reservations are not poverty alleviation programmes. Perhaps societies would have been much simpler had reservation only been based on economic status, with a level playing field for each of us to make a living based on equal opportunity. Sadly, that is not the case.

The contemporary discussion on caste encompasses a diverse spectrum of perspectives, ranging from caste being viewed as a prominent cultural and political marker to its perceived absence from the public sphere in contemporary Indian society. The nature of caste dynamics has undergone changes and sociologists have marked the evolutionary nature of caste distinctions and functioning in the everyday lives of individuals. Although not overtly apparent in the public domain, caste nevertheless exerts a crucial influence in Indian society, as matters of the private sphere are regulated by its understanding. The interconnectedness of private and public involvement eliminates any possibility for caste to operate independently.

Whether reservation needs reform is something all of us need to think about. But in the same measure, there needs to be engagement with the inequality and discrimination that is a central theme of the lives of the historically oppressed. When the genesis of one community starts with the fight to have the right to drinking water because the other deems them as polluting, how does one expect the oppressed community to evolve in a few decades? As long as social discrimination continues, reparations need to continue too. As RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat says, reservations should continue as long as there is discrimination in society. It is about giving respect, not just about ensuring financial or political equality.

Aditi Narayan Paswan is assistant professor, Department of Sociology, Lakshmibai College, University of Delhi.

The article was first published in The Indian Express as What Tavleen Singh doesn’t get: Reservation is the oxygen for my uphill journey on December 15, 2023.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgement: This article was posted by Aasthaba Jadeja , a research intern at IMPRI.

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