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Affirmative Action to Help the Dalit in India1

Posted on 1-April-2006

Dalit is a Sanskrit word meaning that which like a grain of peas or lentils has been ground into coarse pieces, or that which has been stamped under foot. For me it best describes the condition of utter degradation, poverty and servitude to which upper caste Hindu society has over centuries reduced an entire community or, better still, a whole conglomeration of jatis2, through an astute use of the notions of pollution and karma. Besides, it is the word preferred by members of these jatis to denote them. To call them untouchables is to suggest that other than the stigma of untouchability these people suffer no other disadvantages. For similar reasons leaders of dalits have never quite liked the name Harijan given to them by Gandhi. Expressions like scheduled castes or depressed classes, being neutral bureaucratic nomenclatures, bespeak a prudishness which is out of place when discussing a social phenomenon which must be faced frontally and removed completely, if Indian society is to become truly democratic and egalitarian..

Discrimination against the lowest castes—in fact castes lying beyond the pale of traditional Hindu varna system—engaged the attention of Hindu social reformers and dalit leaders since around the middle of the 19 th century. To a limited extent the colonial administration, which took a first tentative step in 1850 in the form of the Removal of Caste Disabilities Act, also took interest in helping the lowest castes. The need to help the dalits and scheduled tribes3 pull themselves out of their economic and social backwardness thus came to be recognized by Indian political and intellectual leadership years before the republican constitution of India outlawed all forms of discrimination based on caste. The constitution provided for the reservation of 15 % of the seats in all representative bodies in states and at the federal level for what were called scheduled castes for a period of fifteen years and enabled the adoption of a similar reservation policy for fifteen years in the case of employment by government. A law banishing untouchability was enacted and took its final shape in the Protection of Civil Rights Act of 1976. The reservations policy, both in the matter of representation in the federal parliament and state legislative bodies and of government employment, has been renewed every ten years since 1965.

Parliament appointed a body, the Gokur Committee, to make recommendations about the revision of the list of castes that would benefit from the reservations policy. The Committee’s report submitted in 1965 never received parliamentary approval, a constitutional requirement, and lapsed due to the dissolution of the lower house of parliament in 1967. The 1997 ‘Report of the Expert Committee for Specifying Criteria for the Identification of Socially Advanced Persons Among the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes’ was not acted upon. There have been no other significant moves to consider modifying the extent of reservations for dalits in any manner, with the exception perhaps of a conference organized by the Congress Party led Government of Madhya Pradesh in early 2002 which produced the Bhopal Document. I shall return to it by and by.

Over the years governments in the states and at the federal level have designed a whole range of preferential policies covering many sectors ranging from education, health care,drinking water to housing. Marc Galanter whose 1984 book, ‘Competing Equalities:Law and the Backward Classes’ is probably the most detailed and thorough examination yet of India’s affirmative action programmes, makes a quick listing of a large number, though not all, of such programmes. Since 1984, many other programmes have been added. With the exception of the reservation policy, these diverse measures do not attract much attention beyond the time of their adoption by governments. Also lacking is a systematic evaluation of the quality of implementation and the impact of all these programmes: the annual reports of the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Tribes are little more than compilations of statistics about budgetary allocations and numbers covered by different programmes, but mainly about reservations..

As Marc Galanter says in his book, ‘If only one policy area is to be developed at length, government employment has to be an obvious choice, for in a number of ways, it is the paradigm case of compensatory discrimination. It relies on the reservation device as the core of the programme;it is promoted by both state and central governments; policy in this area is made with due deliberation by informed agencies; the various groups of interested participants are attentive and responsive; the actors have recurrently sought judicial intervention. It is an area that in the eyes of proponents and opponents occupies a central symbolic position in envisioning the compensatory discrimination policy…’As a consequence, more than any other device of compensatory discrimination it is the policy of reserving government jobs for disadvantaged classes—the definition of disadvantaged classes has become wider over the years—which gets discussed the most. The scheme of reserving a proportion of seats in legislative bodies for members of scheduled castes and tribes in contrast attracts attention only at the time of the now decennial renewals and then recedes from public attention. It has also proved to be a more potent device for the empowerment of the scheduled castes and tribes as a body than any other by ensuring the presence of their representatives in legislative bodies and in governments who occasionally speak for the social group they represent. At the minimum, their presence in legislative bodies and governments acts as a brake on excesses against their communities in a society which has yet to fully embrace the need to eradicate discrimination against and oppression of dalits and tribal groups.

Even though in the beginning there was resistence to the policy of reservations for the scheduled castes and tribes—and there was resistence, for it required constant prodding from the concerned departments of Government of India and from the law courts to ensure the minimum required reservation of places in government departments—over time it came to be accepted by liberal opinion and at least acquiesced in by others in Indian society at large. Indian society had also by and large come to accept that even though meant initially to be a temporary measure, job reservation for dalits was going to continue indefinitely. The debate over the reservation of government jobs reopened when Government of India decided in 1990 to implement the 1980 recommendations of the Mandal Commision concerning ‘other backward classes’(OBC’s, in the jargon used in the discourse on this subject). There were bloody clashes in 1990 in different parts of the country as there had been earlier in some states when the Mandal recommendations were sought to be implemented.

The Mandal dispensation was not only contested but never acquired the same legitimacy in the eyes of liberal Indian intelligentsia as compensatory discrimination for dalits had, for three reasons. The first was the not unfounded belief that the decision to implement the Mandal recommendations was born out of political expediency rather than conviction. Secondly, there was the perception that most of the intended beneficiaries were not the economically most deprived groups but prosperous intermediate caste farmers and traders, sometimes more prosperous than the poorer among the higher castes. Thirdly, the Commission's own rationale for recommending reservations for other backward castes looked ersatz. It said: 'It is not our contention that by offering a few thousand jobs to OBC candidates we shall be able to make 52 per cent of India's population as forward.But we must recognise that an essential part of the battle against social backwardness is to be fought in the minds of the people.In India government service has always been looked upon as a symbol of prestige and power. By increasing the representation of OBC's in government services, we give them an immediate feeling of participation in governance(sic) of this country.When backward caste(sic) candidate becomes a collector or superintendent of police, the material benefits accruing from his position are limited to the members of his family only. But the psychological spin off of this phenomenon is tremendous, the entire community of that backward class candidate feels socially elevated.Even when no tangible benefits flow to the community at large, the feeling that it has its 'own man' in the corridors of power acts as a morale booster.'The additional reservations brought in by the Mandal recommendations were seen as an attempt by politicians at creating a base of electoral support among intermediate castes. Even those political parties which had initially been lukewarm towards the Mandal recommendations or opposed to them came in course of time to accept and support them. Since the implementation of the Mandal recommendations politicians and political parties have periodically made ever more bizarre, opportunistic, even risible suggestions for reservations for members of upper castes, Muslims or Dalit Christians, forgetting the original rationale for reservations for dalits and tribal groups. There is no evidence to suggest that anyone in the political class is tormented by the thought that for as many as 49.5 % of the population—this proportion would have been higher if the Supreme Court of India had not placed a ceiling of 50% on all reservations—there should be a departure from the fundamental democratic principle of equality of opportunity for all.

Since, as has been pointed out above, there has been no systematic evaluation of the impact of the various affirmative action programmes including the reservations policy, it is not known whether fortyfive years of job reservations for dalits have created a significant dalit middle class capable of and interested in speaking for and helping other dalits or whether on the contrary those dalits who have benefited from reservations have been content to integrate themselves into the rest of the middle class, happy to be able to enjoy and preserve what must be privileged existence in the eyes of other poorer dalits, happy also to ensure that their children also enjoy the advantages of reservation and other affirmative action programmes. To take the former or the latter to be the case is most often a matter of one’s parti pris.

Criticism of the reservations policy, never entirely absent, has become generally sharper since the adoption of the Mandal recommendations. Most of the criticism has come from intellectuals arguing from theoretical perspectives or from members of upper castes. It is difficult to deny the force of all of the critics’ arguments Some have argued that the indefinite continuation of reservations, accentuating existing divisions in society, have had a largely deleterious effect. Others say that the benefits of reservations have tended to be appropriated by a relatively advaced but small section among the dalits. Yet others have commented on the inadequacy of reservations of government jobs as an instrument of affirmative action. André Beteille in a 1991 essay4 says:’I take it for granted that policies for the redress of severe social and economic disadvantages are in themselves desirable. Such policies have to aim at different sectors of society and at the widest possible base. An obvious field for the application of preferential policies is that of education where the maximum attention should be devoted to primary and secondary education which develop the base on which the success of higher education depends. Other fields for which preferential policies may be designed include those of child care, health and housing.’ The attention that the policy of reservations in government employment receives has led to the relative neglect of these other areas in which effective action, preferential or otherwise, is likely to produce greater, wider and more substantial welfare.

In the Bhopal Document it is said that the reservation policy in government and government corporations can at best benefit six or seven million, leaving some 175 million dalit individuals untouched by it.The authors of the document call for more effective action for the upliftment of the dalit and propose a five point programme for the country to consider and adopt:

“(1) Diversity or SC/ST’s due representation in all public institutions of India, whether universities or academic or autonomous or registered bodies.Those institutions which do not abide by the principle of Affirmative Action, must lose recognition and state funding.

(2) All private industry/corporate houses must accept Diversity in workforce immediately.

(3)Every government and private organization must implement Supplier Diversity from socially disadvantaged businesses and Dealership Diversity in all goods and services.

(4)Every SC/ST child must be given quality[and] free education at State’s expense.And every English medium school must implement Diversity in Admissions.

(5) In cases of atrocities against SC/ST’s, a system of collective punishment has to be evolved as oppressors enjoy community support and protection and escape the law.”

Without attempting to engage in an examination of this agenda, I shall note in passing that not only some of the vocabulary but also some of the ideas(points 2&3) from the discourse about affirmative action programmes in the USA have been included without due examination of their practicability, particularly if the authors have legislation in mind. Another novel idea(point 5) amounts to the derogation of a basic principle of law that only the person committing a crime must be punished, in all cases where upper caste groups are suspected of having committed atrocities against dalits so that another group may enjoy to the full its right to equality. Other than recent talk about compelling private businesses to reserve jobs for dalits, nothing has so far been done to adopt the recommendations contained in the Bhopal document.

But the Bhopal document is remarkable in the sense that it is an indirect pointer to the very considerable disadvantages and oppression still faced by dalits, half a century after the adoption of an official affirmative action agenda to help them. Numerous episodic or impressionistic accounts suggest that affirmative action programmes for dalits have been no more than partial successes in alleviating the dalit’s condition. The limited success may be due to apathy or even resistence among upper caste bureaucrats who administer thse programmes or it may be due to the general inefficiency and incompetence of the machinery of the state, but it certainly explains why the dalit has by and large remained where he has always been.

Conclusion: noble objectives, practical reality

There are very few instances in history when ruling establishments have moved towards greater freedom and equality for everyone except under pressure from those to whom freedom and equality have been denied. The strongest impetus for India’s affirmative action programmes for the benefit of the dalits came from B.R.Ambedkar, himself their most important twentieth century leader. His demands for a separate electorate for dalits, to which the British colonial administration was sympathetic, led to the Poona Pact between him and Gandhi, winning the latter’s support for reservations for dalits in legislative bodies and in government employment—priciples which were later written into the constitution of the Republic of India. Gandhi’s own agenda had been limited to the removal of untouchability which was later translated into the abolition by law of the practice of untouchability, true to the established Indian belief that evil social practices can simply be legislated away. Present day dalit leadership in India lacks the singlemindedness and vision of Ambedkar.As the editorialist in the November 1998 issue of the monthly magazine Seminar says: ‘Extant dalit politics continues to dismay the liberal outsider—the fractious wrangling, the intemperate speech, the unprincipled alliances, the persistence of a narrow dalit elite which seems to have cornered all benefits, in the process distancing itself from its moorings and thus unrepresentative.’There does not seem to be much evidence of the dalit leadership having a blueprint for the emancipation of the community other than the idea of Kanshiram, the founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party(BSP), that the only sure way in which dalits can pull themselves out of poverty and degradation is by capturing political power. The three attempts so far by the BSP to run the government of Uttar Pradesh—once in alliance with the political party considered to be representative of the much larger community of other backward castes, and twice in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party which is believed to represent the very manuvadi5 forces the BSP is in theory opposed to—do not indicate that the capture of political power by the BSP by itself in Uttar Pradesh, where it is the strongest, let alone the rest of the country,is happening any time soon. Nor does the experience of BSP in government in Uttar Pradesh inspire confidence that a government led by it will work for the benefit of the dalit community at large any more than other political parties. The failure of the post-Ambedkar leadership to energize action for the amelioration of the dalit’s condition is no smaller than the failure of upper caste Hindus.

Presenting the final draft of the Indian constitution on November 26, 1949, Ambedkar said that India was wanting in its ‘recognition of the principle of fraternity. What does fraternity mean? Fraternity means a sense of common brotherhood of all Indians—of India being one people.’He foresaw reservations for dalits in legislative bodies and in government employment as temporary measures. His dream was the eradication of the caste system itself which he saw as the wellspring of the idea of untouchability and the principal cause of the economic backwardness of dalits. Upper caste Hindu reformers likewise wished to purge Hinduism of many social evils, including the evil of untouchability—some would like to think of the equality of individuals before the law and move away from the categories of caste and religious community. These ideas impelled India’s constitution makers.

Measured against such objectives India’s affirmative action programmes have all but failed. Demolition of the edifice of caste, which in many senses is the very essence of Hindu social organization, is unlikely to be achieved in one or two life times. It may take several. Much more achievable is the removal of social and economic disparity among caste groups. On similar grounds the assertion that the policy of caste-based reservations has reinforced caste-based identity is untenable, for the phenomenon of caste as a mark of identity never disappeared. Some of the reasons why more progress towards the removal of disparities has not been made may have to do with the lack of social and economic development of the entire community. It is a major failure of India that proper primary and secondary education, health care, safe drinking water, housing and means of reasonable livelihood are not yet available to something like one third of the population. A society which cannot ensure these for all its citizens is hardly in a position to make additional efforts for the benefit of the more disadvantaged of its members. Seen thus there is hardly any call for facilely denigrating the little that has been achieved.

Some of the other reasons why more has not been achieved may have to do with persitent though latent prejudices among upper caste Hindus against dalits. ‘There is’, as Marc Galanter says,’no open public defence of the ancien regime. Everyone is against untouchability and against caste. Public debate takes the form of argument among competing views of what is really good for the lowest castes and for the country.These views involve a host of assertions about the effects—beneficial and deleterious—of compensatory discrimination policies.’ Yet, the zeal of the nineteenth and early twentieth century Hindu reformers no longer enlivens the vision of upper caste Hindus who are getting mired more and more in small issues raised by those who swear by Hindutva and by those who oppose them. If political leaders think of affirmative action at all they think of extending the reservation policy to cover ever newer groups. On the other hand, because it is mainly the government which has been running and managing compensatory discrimination programmes, upper caste Hindu society has come to look upon the upliftment of the dalit as government’s business. There is hardly any private voluntary effort by upper caste Hindus to help the dalit. No Indian private company or corporation has come forward with any programme for helping the dalit communities either through preferences in recruitment or through financing welfare schemes or other philanthropic action. It is to be hoped that this indifference does not portend yet another failure of Hindu society to fully embrace equality and fraternity as its guiding principles at the price of violence, bloodshed and social dysfunctionality.


1In 2003 I wrote a piece on this subject and put it aside. At that time the political party in power in Delhi had declared itself in favour of reserving a proportion of government jobs and places in educational institutions for the economically backward among members of the upper castes in Hindu society. Other political parties, mindful of the need to gain or preserve electoral advantage among these caste groups, also backed the proposal. Nothing was done to fulfill those promises. In recent months there have been attempts to make similar reservations for the Muslim community and demands for reservations for ‘dalit’ Christians. For the past one year, the air has been thick with talk about legislation to force private business houses and institutions to make reservations to favour different caste groups. The subject of job reservations for different caste groups, more than that of the upliftment of the downtrodden, is ever part of the political discourse in India. It is not out of place to revive, in an extensively rewritten form, my 2003 essay.

2The word jati, derived from a root meaning ‘to be born’ cannot adequately be translated as caste.

3Though a number of tribal groups have suffered oppression and discrimination no less serious than those suffered by dalits and are as deserving as dalits of help, their condition also differs in many ways from those of dalits. For that reason, their case has to be discussed separately.

4Distributive Justice and Institutional Well Being, Economic and Political Weekly, Annual Number 1991.

5Literally, follower(s) of Manu, the Hindu lawgiver whose book Manusmriti is the source of many Hindu laws and practices. The word manuvadi in this context denotes upper castes.

 

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