By Rahul Panda
Rohinton Mistry’s novel A Fine Balance mentions an incident, imaginary though it is, where a Dalit in Uttar Pradesh has molten lead poured into his ears for merely listening to a discourse or a prayer in a temple. In distant Kerela, the Nadar women led an ‘upper cloth revolt’ against strictures that prohibited them from covering their torsos with clothing of any kind. More recently, a Dalit man in Madhya Pradesh had to pay with grievous injuries for the audacity of riding a motorbike in a ‘caste’ locality. In India stories and gruesome incidents of gross ill-treatment of those considered to be of a ‘lower caste’ at the hands of those who claim to be born ‘superior’ abound, across states, even today. The correction of these monumental injustices needs a two-pronged approach: social and political or institutional.
The political solution
In order to even out the skew in levels, in socio-economic terms, between those historically downtrodden and those claiming entitlement to knowledge – and hence power – solely by virtue of their birth, affirmative action was written into the Constitution: Article 15(4)). It states:
All citizens shall have equal opportunities of receiving education. Nothing herein contained shall preclude the State from providing special facilities for educationally backward sections of the population.
The Mandal Commission, in its report in 1980, observed that the measures undertaken up until then were inadequate and recommended to raise the entry-level quotas for SC, ST and OBCs from the prevalent 27% to 49.5% in jobs in the public sector organisations. ‘Reservation,’ a judgement of the Supreme Court of India (Ashoka Kumar Thakur vs Union Of India & Ors on 10 April, 2008) noted, ‘ is one of the many tools that are used to preserve and promote the essence of equality, so that disadvantaged groups can be brought to the forefront of civil life.’
It would be imprudent to believe that the wrongs done to generations of people through centuries can be undone in a hurry by an adolescent democracy. Laws can be formulated to uplift those mired in socio-economic and educational backwardness but to give them the dignity they deserve and ensure their treatment as equals in society will take a gradual erosion of inherent prejudices in the society. Arguably, the most erudite critic of the caste system, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, wrote in The Annihilation of Caste: ‘The path of social reform, like the path to heaven (at any rate, in India), is strewn with many difficulties. Social reform in India has few friends and many critics.’
Compounding the problem
The country took a while to come around to accepting reservations as something that was here to stay − at least in the medium term − and perhaps for the better. There were initial convulsions (strikes and hartals) and the hysteria that followed claimed lives (including Rajiv Goswami’s, who self-immolated in protest at Delhi University in 1990). But, better sense has prevailed since and the ‘upper castes’ have come to accept, reluctantly, the order of the day. However, the government’s decision to table the 117thConstitutional Amendment Bill that, if passed, will make provision for quotas in promotions on the basis of caste gives the impression that political expediency has overridden moral imperatives.
In the time that has elapsed since the recommendations of the Mandal Commission were put into force, little effort has been made to collect empirical evidence of its emancipatory effects. Besides, surprisingly, little groundwork has been done to answer the critics who oppose reservations on the grounds that it lowers the efficiency of the system and browbeat in the name of meritocracy. It is necessary that data to either support or refute the desired outcome that the proposed change in Article 16(4) will entail be made public for a more dispassionate discussion. The bill, if passed in its present form, into a law will only fuel the animosity towards the intended beneficiaries.
A rather crude, yet pertinent, aside
Imagine that the erstwhile ‘untouchables’ are allowed, by law, to not just enter temples but also don the priests’ robes and conduct the puja. That certainly is a start, assuming that the ‘untouchable’ would consider the dreary, unimaginative task a particular privilege. Now, he may have gotten himself the job but is he going to win the respect of the people unless he equips himself with the requisite amount of scriptural knowledge, at least enough to befuddle the unsuspecting and gullible devotee?
(The author is presently a Teach for India Fellow)
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