How the Savarna construction of reservation vs merit binary has stalled progress of Dalits across sectors
Creating economic resources and social unification for the oppressed sections of society will help in flattening the brahmanical hegemonic theory of caste and merit.
The Constitution of India provides equal rights to all its citizens, but the oppressed sections of society, despite constitutional safeguards and rights, have minimal representation in political and governmental bodies. In other words, their intellect is not considered worthy enough in decision-making. Whatever the matter may be, the upper caste conscience many a times ends the debate on the binary of reservation vs merit, completely discarding the prevailing existence of caste; they do not seem to see the Dalit world beyond this binary. The position of Dalits is structured through ‘graded inequality’, which keeps them on the lowest sociopolitical rung.
In a casteist society like India, political parties are also majorly dominated by upper caste elites, which helps them in preserving status quo. Dalits generally do not get promoted to take up important portfolios, with their roles in mainstream political parties staying restricted to being foot soldiers and party workers. They are not just socially subordinated, but politically too.
Similarly, in the government sector where the representation of Dalits can be seen as being largely 'tokenistic', the age-old caste hierarchies work in very subtle ways, buttressed by religion in politics and functioning of the government in India. Over time, the form of Indian democratic model has changed; it has turned away from the idea of a welfare state in a hegemonic manner, embracing feudalistic and capitalistic methods.
On paper, the state maintains its stance on meting out equal treatment to all, but in its everyday functioning, Indian democracy is cemented in Brahmanism and capitalism — the two enemies that are the biggest hindrances to the progress of the oppressed in society, according to Dr BR Ambedkar.
Below, we cite some examples from West Bengal, which may have the same analogical reflections on other regions of India as well.
Sandip Mondal gives an account of how education acts as a catalyst for social mobility, and also for securing employment in government sectors. In an analysis (2001), Mondal says that in West Bengal, distribution of government employees across social groups reflects how a sizeable portion of government jobs is held by upper caste individuals, constituting 72.90 percent of the total population of government employees. His analysis of socio-economic parameters among caste groups showcased that in Group A of government jobs, which have more emoluments and need higher education, 81.39 percent employees are from upper castes, as compared to only 13 percent from Scheduled Castes.
Even in jobs under Groups C and D, Scheduled Caste individuals are unfairly distributed. The fact that representation of Scheduled Castes is less than the officially stipulated 15 percent in Group A jobs indicates insufficient implementation of reservation policy.
Sukhadeo Thorat and Paul Attewell mention in their study how “multiple identities (caste, religion, migrant status and gender) together affect patterns of employment and exclusion in Indian cities”. Moreover, because of prejudiced upper caste attitudes and a lack of implementation of social justice policies and redistribution of resources, the progress of the oppressed sections of India has slowed down after the 1990s. This seems to have been the consequence of the government accepting new economic policies, resulting in a widening gap between public and private sectors.
These processes have strengthened capitalistic and brahmanical values indirectly. The government backed by the capitalist class favours private sector growth. For example, at present there are many emerging private educational institutes that exercise ‘autonomy’, and as a result 'social favouritism' is strengthened. Consequently, there is no transparency or diversity among the staff, faculties and other major posts. To be able to suitably represent all sections of society, universities should implement constitutional remedies.
At the political level, the Constitution of India made an attempt to break the dominant hegemonic consolidation of caste communities, but socially, the reality of caste has not changed much, as it further started to function through newly formed hierarchies. However, in order to promote and position Dalit leadership in political parties and governments, one needs to go beyond the ‘political democracy’, and work to establish what Ambedkar says in his famous text Annihilation of Caste: “[D]emocracy is not merely a form of government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellowmen.” Respect and dignity towards fellow human beings such as Dalits and Adivasis need to be developed, in order to integrate them into the mainstream. In other words, a form of “social democracy” will have to be exercised.
After liberalisation and privatisation, political parties and governments deviated from their social concerns. Moreover at present, it seems that they are heavily influenced by private sector players. The private sector is primarily established and monitored by the upper caste-class, who seem to not be affected by caste, thereby resulting in a lack of reservation policies for the oppressed castes in the private sector.
On the other hand, we see that reservation in electoral politics has not been beneficial to Dalits because a candidate who gets elected from a reserved seat remains under the influence of their political party's ideology. As a result, they cannot work on an Ambedkarite agenda of emancipation. The elected Dalit candidate is placed only in the ministry of social justice, and not trusted with portfolios such as finance, external affairs or any other ministry of significance. These ministries are always occupied by the Savarna classes, that is the ones who have been historically 'superior' to other caste groups. Therefore, in order to equalise the unequal, annihilation of a casteist social order is the need of the hour.
Secondly, in relation to Dalits, reservation in the private section is a must. It is interesting to see that the Haryana government recently passed a bill “to provide 75 percent reservation to local candidates applying to private-sector jobs in the state that pay less than Rs 50,000 per month,” but it seems that they do not have the will to implement reservations for the oppressed as per constitutional norms. Similarly, the Madhya Pradesh government has also proposed job reservation for domicile candidates, but has been criticised on breaching the fundamental right of equality by questioning reservations not being granted on the grounds of caste.
Thorat and Attewell say that “people who hold privileged positions within large organisations develop a sense that a certain kind of person is especially effective in their role, leading many managers to favour potential recruits who are socially similar to themselves, a process that [Rosabeth Moss] Kanter (1977) has termed as ‘homosocial reproduction’”.
Mainstream Savarna media has often perpetuated the argument of reservation harming the progress of India, leading to the debate on meritocracy vs reservation. As a result, questions on Dalit intellect have been posed, owing to which we do not see Dalit representation in higher positions in not only private and public sectors, but political parties and governments as well.
Sagar, a reporter with The Caravan, says that Haldhar Shethy, a Dalit lawyer who has been associated with the Congress since 1985, told him that "he never got a high position in the party or a ticket to contest the assembly or parliamentary elections." “Padhe likhe SC jo hotey hain party mein unko samman nahi milta. (The educated from among Scheduled Caste communities are not respected in the party)." Further, he also said that Dalit leaders from other parties that he spoke to expressed that they had faced similar issues as well. In the context of Dalits, reservation and education are examined through a unanimous lens, therefore in political parties they neither get promoted, nor do they get equal treatment.
Ashwini Deshpande in her book The Grammar of Caste: Economic Discrimination in Contemporary India (2011) mentions that we see discriminatory practices in private sectors, where “pre-market” and “in-market” differences exist on multiple grounds like wages, and promotion in various posts.
In addition, Sagar also draws attention to the undertones of ‘complete monopoly’ of the Brahmin-Bania nexus in government institutions and industries, which leads to the ‘complete exclusion’ of Dalit-Bahujan masses. Sukhadeo Thorat and Paul Attewell investigate in their paper how “social exclusion is not just a residue of the past clinging to the margins of the Indian economy, nor is it limited to people of little education. On the contrary, it appears that caste favouritism and the social exclusion of Dalits and Muslims have infused private enterprises even in the most dynamic modern sector of the Indian economy”.
Gail Omvedt shows that “statistic (and even village level experience) fail to show a real increase in differentiation; the growing numbers of agricultural labourers represented not a true proletariat but an ‘immiserated’ section, a large proportion of which was ‘landless’ thrown back on agriculture due to lack of employment opportunities elsewhere. The real growing differentiation appeared to be between agriculture and industry/services, and unorganised and organised sector”.
There is a close link between “caste favouritism”, “social exclusion” and unemployment and un-positioning of Dalits. If non-Brahmin communities such as Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims have to create an impact to promote their leadership in government bodies and political parties, a common plan for their upliftment is needed. In addition, only the common plan will not solve the problem — their social unification is also needed on multiple grounds. In order to dismantle upper caste hegemony, Dalits will have to contend with internal conflicts and mobilise on socio-economic grounds, rather than political. Once resources are generated, it will also have its impact on oppressed castes acquiring political positions.
To bring SC, ST and OBC communities to a level playing field, Ambedkar’s approach of “state socialism” proposed in his book State and Minorities (1947) is arguably the only way in the long run. In short, creating economic resources and social unification for the oppressed sections of society will help in flattening the brahmanical hegemonic theory of caste and merit. At another level, Dalits will also have to resist in order to secure reservations in private sectors.
This two-fold process may create some kind of impact on the upper caste-dominated political parties and governments, urging them to concede and accept the leadership of the oppressed.
Prashant Ingole and Camellia Biswas are doctoral candidates in Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar.