By Arika Roy*
Can social discrimination be combated by outlawing it without affirmative action? Most Indians find the affirmative action facilitated by the Indian caste-based reservations absurd and discriminatory. The irony could not have been more explicit.
Among middle-class urban India, casteism exists in ubiquitous forms. They pride themselves in being indifferent about the other’s caste but try to figure it out through surnames and conversations. In rural India, a person’s caste is more explicitly announced. Rural dwellings have always been segregated spaces based on caste and religion. The sections reflective of a person’s social standing contributes towards the historical disadvantage and the subsequent discrimination. Most villages still have the concept of untouchability practised by the upper caste octogenarians who justify it by calling it the law of society. In fact, according to a survey in 2017, 27% of Indians openly admitted to practising untouchabilityi.
Comparatively, segregation in urban spaces is absent. The majority of upper-caste urban Indians have never witnessed casteism first-hand or, if confronted, have turned a blind eye towards it. The apathy alienates them from the cause of reservation. However, the lack of discrimination and segregation does not translate to a caste indifferent society but an ignorant one.
Another reason to oppose reservation lies at the heart of social malevolence and can be explained through basic human psychology. The perpetrators would always be frustrated by the attempts of upliftment of the subjugated. The reservation allows a level playing field for the historically and economically disadvantaged.
Who benefits from reservation poses a more significant question on the education system and the general attitude towards education? 72 years of independence and 43% of scheduled tribes and 29% of the scheduled castes, 21% of OBCs are below the poverty line, constituting a majority among the economically disadvantagedii. The lack of access to supporting resources and apathy towards higher education can explain the factors despite reservation. Education is a slow process and requires resources that poverty cannot facilitate. Education is the economic ladder that helps transcend decades of poverty. However, not many can afford it.
When it comes to reservation vis a vis lack of merit in competitive exams, the quota-based system does allow competition in the subdivision. It’s the lack of ample candidates in each quota that causes the lower cut-offs. The lower cut-offs will automatically become obsolete once there is enough competition. In 2001, 94% of OBCs were enrolled in higher education compared to 55% of SC/STs belonging to the same age groupiii. General candidates outweigh the number of SC/ST candidates in most competitive exams, thus causing their cut-offs to be disproportionate compared to the SC/ST cut-offs. The lower cut-offs are an indicator of how far we are from reaching equality concerning caste.
The collective narcissism of the upper caste and the lower caste’s marginalization, economic disadvantage, and collective inferiority complex is India’s legacy. Reservation is simply a fraction of the affirmative action taken towards remedying the centuries of discrimination. Much more requires to be done.
*PGP 2020-22, IIM Bangalore