Why SC/ST promotions quota puts India on the road to disaster

If the Idea of India as envisaged at the time of Independence was premised on the erosion of caste identities, two developments today validate the shameful fact that not only does caste-based discrimination persist, it continues to be perpetuated, including as an instrument of state policy.

The first of these reports relates to the experience of a Dalit cook in a school in a Tamil Nadu village, who faces social ostracism from caste Hindu Vanniyar parents who are refusing to send their children for the nutritious noon meal scheme on the grounds that it is a “sin” to eat food cooked by a Dalit.

That such regressive caste-based notions of ‘untouchability’ continue to be perpetuated even 65 years after independence may seem shocking enough, but the response of the district administration was even more astounding. According to The Hindu, rather than sensitise the Vanniyars in the village and caution them on the folly of what was at its core a criminal act of discrimination, officials transferred the cook to another school on deputation. But even in her new posting, she faces a social boycott, as do six other Dalit cooks in the village.

 Why SC/ST promotions quota puts India on the road to disaster


Meanwhile, over in Delhi, the Union Cabinet put its stamp of approval on a Constitutional Amendment provision to clear the residual legal hurdles in formalising reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in promotions in government jobs. Although it is packaged as an affirmative action proposal intended to uplift the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes who, as the Tamil Nadu experience illustrates, continue to face discrimination, the measure will end up accentuating and reinforcing caste identities in a regressive way.

If passed - and it surely will, given the near-unanimity across political parties to be seen to be advancing the interests of Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes – it will be the 98th amendment to the Constitution - in only the 66th year of independence. It’s a sign of how far we’ve come from the sterling document that our founding fathers, in their infinite wisdom, had drawn up.

Like artless monkeys shredding a garland, our leaders and political parties have over the decades hacked and plucked away at the Constitution that had been drawn up by minds that were far more visionary than anything we’ve seen since. In the name of improving upon that document, they have effectively ripped it to pieces.

The supreme irony of the upcoming Constitutional amendment provision to strike down all the legal challenges in implementing and institutionalising the quotas-in-promotion enterprise is that it violates the spirit – and letter – of what everybody from BR Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru downward wanted to see: the erosion of divisions along caste lines, and the winding down, over time, of all reservations.

The evolution of the reservation policy in these 65 years and the manner in which the abuse of the original intent has played out over the decades portends ill for the country. From being a mere enabling provision to confer a discretionary power on the State as a temporary expedient to uplift a small section of the socially oppressed, it has become an instrument that advances competitive casteism and institutionalises caste-based divisions, with vast numbers clamouring to claim reservations as their birthright.

What started off as a temporary provision for just Scheduled Castes has over time extended to cover Other Backward Classes, and is being sought to be extended to religions minorities as well. And successive governments have over the years been pushing to extend the provision to promotions as well. The proposed Constitutional amendment will do it for Schedule Castes and Scheduled Tribes, but you can be sure – given the precedent – that the facility will be extended to OBCs as well.

Every time the provision for quotas in promotions was struck down by the Supreme Court or other courts, successive governments have responded with alacrity to amend the Constitution - and dilute and expand the provisions of the law to drag it to the lowest common denominator. In that enterprise, virtually every political party has been complicit.

The most striking warning of what lies in store came long ago, from Nehru. Addressing the Constitutent Assembly, Nehru had said that he and the others were opposed to reservations, particularly on caste and religions considerations, but had “reluctantly” agreed to “carry on with some measure of reservation” for the Scheduled Castes, given the history of discrimination that they faced and the expectation that the reservation would be limited to just 10 years.

It was a theme he would return to over the years, with a sense of growing alarm and despondency. In June 1961, in a letter to Chief Ministers, Nehru wrote: “It is true that we are tied up with certain rules and conventions about helping the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. They deserve help, but even so I dislike any kind of reservation… I react strongly against anything which leads to inefficiency and second-rate standards.”

The notion that reservations were being extended even to promotions caused Nehru immense anguish. “It has amazed me to learn that even promotions are based on communal or caste considerations. This way lies not only folly, but disaster,” he warned, with amazing prescience.

With today’s approval for the Constitutional amendment that will overcome the repeated legal challenges that the proposal faced, India may be well on the road to "folly" and "disaster".

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Updated Date: Sep 06, 2012 11:03:43 IST