Anand’s pithy post prompted me to complete this post, which has been incomplete for a while now.
Many people ask “Why can’t we have a caste free meritocracy? Why should we support affirmative action/reservations when we don’t believe in it?” Well, that is a hard question to answer, but in order to create a level playing field, empowerment of ALL is necessary, and affirmative action (when implemented properly) will result in that. It will take time, cannot happen overnight, and a painless transition is difficult. If you want to take a karmic view about it, we need to pay for the sins of our forefathers (or our past lives). There is no way around it.
But here are three specific, separate instances, where reservations have lead to markedly different outcomes. Think about them.
Take 1: This was about 10 years ago. In school, I had tons of friends, and I didn’t know what caste most of them belonged to. Even if I did, it was just a bit of trivia, and the four varanas themselves were something we came across in the history books. We took our 12th standard exams, and suddenly, we had to apply to colleges across the country, and take different entrance exams. The application forms confounded us with lists of a few thousand sub-castes, listed under OC, BC, MBC, SC, ST and whatever else. Our results came out, and we were discussing our likely futures. A very good friend of mine didn’t seem bothered by his not-so-stellar performance. ”I’m MBC, I’ll get into REC Suratkal computer science without any problem,” he declared. Now, his family was extremely affluent, and his garden was bigger than my apartment. His family employed one cook, one housekeeper, one driver, one gardener and one watchman. He came to school in his own Kinetic Honda, at a time when my cycle was my most prized possession. How was he “most backward”?, I wondered. Social empowerment through reservations?
Take 2: I’ve been involved with some projects working with dalit/SC communities in a certain district in a state in India. The region this is based in has primarily two dalit sub-castes (yes, there are dalit sub-castes), let us call them A and B. Sub-caste A actually did not traditionally do the most menial of tasks. They were predominantly landless daily-wage workers. In the 1992 census, the community was largely illiterate, poor, and had little social empowerment. Mandal happened, and much else. The community, though poor, was quite assertive and aggressive. They also became politically very active. Due to this, they made full use of every available opportunity due to reservations, starting from educational institutions, to village governing bodies, local government, legislature and assembly, and posts in government bodies. Their economic status improved slowly, but their social status improved rapidly. They soon moved into the main village (leaving the dalit houses that usually are OUTSIDE the main village). Today, their literacy rate is on par with the state average, and is even more promising when one looks at children in primary schools. Social empowerment through reservations?
Take 3: In this same district, there is also dalit sub-caste B. These dalits are amongst the lowest of the low castes, with their traditional occupations being leather working or manual scavenging. They are extremely poor, and the 1992 census revealed a literacy rate of 11% for men, and 0% for women (things are better now, with the community rate being around 20%). They were socially and economically at the absolute bottom of the heap. In addition, they are a rather timid community, terrified to raise their voices (unlike A). They have (till date) not been able to use ANY of the reservations available in education, local government, or government institutions. They are politically leaderless. All the reservations available to dalits in the district are used up by sub-caste A. Today, B continue to live in dalit hamlets outside the main village. What is far worse is that they are considered untouchables by sub-caste A, who will actually not allow sub-caste B to use their (A’s) water hand pumps. Invariably, through some perverse fate, B’s graveyards are always on the other side of the main village, but they are not allowed to take their dead through the village. Instead, they have to take detours (in some villages, up to 10 km), to reach their burial grounds (they bury their dead). Social empowerment through reservations?
Here you have it. Take 1,2 and 3. Think about it. Also think of political will to enforce change (and the need for new classifications of sub-castes), and present day reinforcing of caste barriers. And how we ourselves contribute to it.