Reservations – Creation of a New Oppressor Class
Let me at the outset state that some of my best friends are from scheduled castes and scheduled tribes (often called, "SCST"). Most of them came from extremely poor families, took advantage of reservations to get into the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay and have done fabulously well after graduation. Some of them are currently living abroad, while some others live in India in prosperous localities. Their success and rise through social ladder has always convinced me of the need for reservations in Indian context. I have looked at reservations as a sort of safety valve which allowed some of the best minds among poor disadvantaged sections of Indian society to get the best education possible and thereby act as beacons of hope for their entire community. I must at this point clarify that I joined IITB more than four decades ago.
My wife, Anita does voluntarily work at a hostel for poor students of scheduled tribes from villages. The hostel is run by Sewa Bharti (an affiliate of RSS) as a social service activity. It brings poor bright scheduled tribe boys from villages to Bhopal and enables them to get free good education and rise up in life. There poor boys, despite their talents, are truly at a disadvantage and face challenges that seem insurmountable. Our efforts to help them seem so small compared to the handicaps that they have inherited and have lived through. When I interact with these poor boys, I am once again convinced that India does need reservations. Sadly, the reservations in their present form hardly benefit them. And thereby hangs a tale.
In the past seven decades, some members of the SCST community largely from urban centers were proactive in availing the opportunities created by reservations. They got the best education and subsequently moved into the best jobs in government and public sector units. Surely, their economic, social, cultural and educational standard went up considerably. Soon, this bunch of persons and their families from SCST became a community very distinct from the rest of the SCST community. Let us for the sake of simplicity of narration; call this bunch of SCST persons and their families who benefitted from reservations as RB-SCST (Reservation Benefitted SCST) and their poor brethren as NB-SCST (Not Benefitted SCST).
It will not be an exaggeration to say that RB-SCST treat the NB-SCST as untouchables almost the same way as the so-called upper castes are alleged to have done to the entire SCST community for hundreds of years. A RB-SCST boy will not marry a girl from the NB-SCST community, though he will gladly marry a Brahmin girl. A government officer belonging to RB-SCST community will not permit his servant from the NB-SCST community to eat on the dining table with him. The NB-SCST servant must sit on the floor and eat in the backyard just as forefathers of the government officer probably did in royal houses centuries ago. I have also seen prosperous households of RB-SCST where servants (NB-SCST) are not allowed to wear footwear. A rich RB-SCST coming from say sweeper caste will not like to be even seen with a poor sweeper of NB-SCST actually cleaning toilets. The insults, discrimination and denial of human dignity that RB-SCST mete out to NB-SCST is exactly the same type as what they allege to have suffered at the hands of upper castes for centuries.
If SCST account for about twenty five per cent of population of India, it can be estimated that the SCST community in India is about 325 millions strong. There is no official data available about the number of persons who have benefitted from reservations in the past seven decades. Nevertheless, it can be estimated that not more than 1.5% or less than 5 million persons have directly and indirectly benefitted from reservations (whether in education or in jobs or in elections). This < 5 million persons (RB-SCST) live in cities and are a politically vociferous group. The only use that they have for the vast crowds of NB-SCST is either as statistics to justify their claims or as provider of votes.
Four or five decades back, when I joined IITB almost every SCST student had poor parents and was trying to meet ends meet in the most difficult manner despite scholarships and low tuition fees. Presently, the SCST students in IITB and other prestigious institutes across the country are often more prosperous than their counterparts from general category. These so-called lower caste students are children of the RB-SCST who occupy high positions in government or public sector units. These RB-SCST children have studied in the best schools, have taken advantage of expensive coaching, and have enjoyed the best amenities all their life. They also receive significantly large pocket allowances from their parents. It is no longer like it was a few decades back when we used to sympathize with our SCST classmates and used to respect their hardships and struggles. Now the feeling among general candidates towards SCST students is of jealousy, deprivation and anger.
To counter the general ill feelings towards themselves, the SCST students have a convenient narrative of thousands of years of caste discrimination, constitutional rights, justice and stories of oppression. They conveniently forget their own behavior towards poorer NB-SCST persons engaged in traditional occupations. They also forget that their parents did not face any ill feelings when they were studying. The irony is that the hyped-up narrative is constantly built up to support their continued enjoyment of privileges from generation to generation even when their brethren from NB-SCST suffer.
As the SCST narrative is built up by the privileged few of the community, talent and competence are touted as dirty words coined by the upper castes to keep the lower castes down and oppressed. However, ridiculously, when it comes to choosing beneficiaries of the reservation system from the SCST community one must only depend on talent and competence. So, the son of an IAS officer (of sweeper caste) must be allowed to compete freely with the son of a village sweeper to get the coveted job of an IAS officer. Any divisions within the SCST community are shouted down most vociferously by the collective might of well-to-do RB-SCST. So, any demand for even applying creamy layer criterion (excluding persons above a certain annual family income) among SCST beneficiaries is declared as unconstitutional and also probably anti-justice and anti-equity.
The RB-SCST and their proponents often forget that their so-called constitutional right to reservations is based upon the key values of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity propounded in the Preamble to the Constitution of India. Provisions of every part and article of the Constitution are subservient to the above key values. If any portion of the Constitution or of any other law violates any of the key values of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity it is imperative to modify, amend or annul the said portion. Honourable Supreme Court of India has also repeatedly stressed that the Preamble of the Constitution and the key values propounded therein are the basic structure of the Constitution that cannot be changed by either Parliament or any other elected body.
It is high time that the nation rises up take note of the ground reality among people of SCST. While there is no denying that the SCST have suffered oppression and discrimination for long, the present reality is that a small section of the SCST has become distinct from the rest of the community and has become an oppressor for the rest of the community. Cornering of the constitutional and statutory benefits by RB-SCST is a violation of the key Constitutional values of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. It is essential to ensure that the benefits of reservations reach the poorest of the poor among SCST and that reservations do not become means for a handful of the SCST to enjoy a life of luxury generation after generation.
To stop the RB-SCST from monopolizing the benefits of reservations to the exclusion of all NB-SCST, it is essential that the benefits of reservations are restricted strictly to one time. Any person whose parent(s) / grandparent(s) took benefit of reservation either in education or job or elections should be declared to be of general category and his / her caste certificate should be accordingly modified. Similarly, any SCST who takes the benefit of reservation for any government or semi-government position should henceforth lose his status as SCST and his children should be considered on par with upper castes. This will be painful for < 5 million RB-SCST’s but will open up opportunities for the > 320 million truly disadvantaged and oppressed NB-SCSTs. It will be in line with the key constitutional values of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity.
I started this article talking about my SCST friends and classmates. I am proud to say that for most of them denial of reservation benefits to their children and grandchildren will be a non-issue. Even among the ones who are settled in India, many have raised their children to compete with the best in India and abroad. Of course, there are a few who spent their life at government or public sector units. One of them comes to mind immediately. He occupies a very senior position in Government of India and yet, I had to block him on Facebook because of the casteist venom that he was often spewing. But he is surely an exception among my friends. Even among the ones serving in public sector, many have raised their children to be competitive and sure enough their children are mostly working in private sector without the caste labels. I am proud of all of them and am ashamed of the exceptional one whom I had to block. I have never looked at my friends in terms of their castes. I wish that each one of my friends who graduated from the prestigious IITB is officially granted the status of general caste. And this is also true for the exceptional one who abuses the upper castes routinely. He has done nothing for his brethren from NB-SCST except inciting them against the society in general. It will serve the interests of justice, equality and fraternity to recognize his prosperity and social status by removing the label of SCST from his and his family's name.
While I am confident that my SCST friends and classmates will welcome my proposal to make reservations one-time-benefit, I am absolutely sure that the poor scheduled tribes boys and girls from different villages will dance with joy. Boys in the hostel where my wife voluntarily works will be too delighted for words. So far, their hopes have been blocked by the rich RB-SCST. Many of them are extremely talented and competent. If they get good jobs, their families living in far-flung villages will be uplifted out of extreme poverty. That will indeed be serving the wishes of the fathers of our constitution. And that will be in line with the key values of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity for all citizens that our Constitution espouses.
While we can all feel proud of the fact that in the past seventy years, the constitutional provisions have helped lift a significantly large number of SCST (though only an insignificant percentage of their population) out of poverty and social discrimination, it is sad and unfortunate that the ones who have been lifted up have now turned oppressors and are blocking the benefits to reach their less fortunate brethren. It is high time that the people of India raise their voice in favor of the ones that have been denied all benefits for the past seventy years. We cannot allow a small group of < 5 million to distort and subvert the great values and goals of our Constitution. The country should wake up to the more than 320 million SCST who are truly disadvantaged and face challenges on a daily basis. It is time to do some tinkering with the system of reservations to ensure that the benefits of reservations reach the ones who truly deserve them and also to make sure that the reservations do not become an instrument for perpetuating the power of a new class of oppressors, the RB-SCSTs.