AFTER Jawaharlal Nehru assumed power as India’s first prime minister, it was expected that he would build it up as a welfare state. But when it came to writing the constitution, even the word ‘socialism’ did not figure in the 395-article document.
His daughter, Mrs Indira Gandhi, added the word in the preamble of the Constitution, and that too during the emergency of 1975 when fundamental rights had been suspended.
It is strange that Nehru opted for caste, not class, while spelling out benefits for the economically backward. The achut (untouchables), presently called the Dalits, were at the lowest rung and, along with the tribals, were given a quota of 22 per cent in jobs, admission to educational institutions and the legislatures.
Still, nothing was given to the Other Backward Classes (OBC), including Muslims, who were in no better shape than the Dalits except that they did not face unsociability. Some 40 years later, the OBC, too, got the same concessions but without the reservations of seats in state assemblies and the Lok Sabha. Nor did they have any quota in technical and management institutions.
A few days ago, the supreme court upheld the law to extend to the OBC reservations in top institutions of high learning. The court accepted the plea to treat the Dalits and the OBC at par. Total reservations have now come to 49.5 per cent. This has hit merit. The upper castes are angry but are getting reconciled to the situation. No political party has made it an issue. Since this is an election year, no one wants to take the risk of alienating the Dalits, tribals or the Other Backward Classes which include Muslims and Christians. If they are all put together, they command more votes in the country than do upper caste Hindus.
Yet, social reforms which are carried out through law courts have legitimacy, not conviction. Society has become more unequal. This is the biggest challenge that India has faced for centuries. It has banned discrimination but the 3000-year-old caste system still allows the practice, and the press is full of atrocities against the Dalits even today.
Despite the dismal scenario, an optimistic phenomenon is emerging. A Dalit is no more on the defensive when it comes to owning his identity. He has come to assess the value of his vote and has begun to believe that he is in a position to swing the balance in favour of the party which delivers him the goods. For years, Congress had the Dalits as its vote bank. But the party has more or less lost it. Now the Dalit wants the party of his caste to win. He has already returned Mayawati, a Dalit, to power. She is the first Dalit chief minister of UP, the largest state in the country. The Other Backward Classes too have asserted and installed in five states their own men as chief ministers.
This may well be India’s silent revolution, integrating the different castes and creeds into a democratic system. True, the upper caste is unhappy because mediocrity has suppressed merit. But in a society of 1.2 billion, the anger of comparatively a few does not disturb the rhythm of progress, especially when they are the main beneficiaries of development. The problem will arise when the demand for reservations in the private sector takes shape.
In any case, the disparity in economic terms has come to matter, not so much the caste. If only Nehru had the vision to realise this when the constitution was introduced in 1951, he would have known that the pattern of poverty in India has been woven in such a way that caste and class are coterminous. He could have laid the foundation for a real welfare state without the stigma of caste, socially and economically.
Dr B.R. Ambedkar, then law minister, is a Gandhi for the Dalits. He did not want reservations because he considered them crutches. After a lot of persuasion, he had the quota system included in the Constitution with a proviso that all types of reservations would end within a decade. But electoral politics in India took such a shape that reservations became a necessity for the then ruling party, the Congress, to win.
The constitution is amended every 10 years to extend reservations for another 10 years. All political parties have developed their own leaders in different castes. All of them treat reservations like a holy cow. More than four decades have gone by without any serious challenge to the reservations. As of today, the concessions will not go even in the next 50 years. Vested interests have developed to keep the caste and OBC quotas intact.
The supreme court’s judgment has done one thing: It has stopped reservations to the OBC creamy layer in institutions of higher learning. For reasons best known to the supreme court, the creamy layer among the Dalits and tribals has escaped any mention in the judgment.
The larger question which India faces is the duration of reservations. According to the constitution, they should have ended in 1960. How much longer? The youth outside the orbit of reservations is increasingly getting agitated, even desperate. No doubt, prosperity will one day spawn disparities. This means many, many years to come. The quota does not fit into a democratic system. There has to be equality in opportunity.
India should probably adopt what America has: affirmative action in favour of the blacks. The yardstick should be a person’s economic conditions. In any case, the criterion for backwardness should not be assessed on the basis of colour, caste or creed. A poor person is poor, whatever his religion.
In fact, it is time that Pakistan and Bangladesh introduced affirmative action. They have to find space for a person who is extremely poor. He has to be helped to stand on his feet. The poor want to live as equals and no one can deny them their right to do so. n
The writer is a leading journalist based in Delhi.
Courtesy: Daily Dawn, 25/4/2008