Recently, I got interested in the Women’s Reservation Bill and the arguments surrounding it. Some point to problems with the Bill itself (eg- the rotation system, the need for “quotas within quotas”). Many many others in the non-political sphere (ie- people like you and me) take the anti-Reservation stand. Not so much that women don’t need reservations (which is one argument that could be made) but against Reservations themselves.
I admit I used to be one of these people. Until I went to an institution where Reservations actually worked. That is, where students in the reserved category didn’t just drop off the radar unnoticed and unmissed but were nurtured and supported and managed to make their presence felt. I have no doubt that they went on to be reasonably successful thanks basically to the opportunity afforded to them by Reservations (and of course, the very supportive faculty that refused to give up on them simply because they didn’t have all the social and cultural capital that the rest of us did). It was an enlightening experience.
Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t all huggy huggy joy joy. These students came from backgrounds very different to the ones you and I come from and they weren’t quite ready to forgive and be friends with the likes of you and me. Maybe they felt that being friends with us would blunt the edge off their rage and prevent them from fighting the fight that was ahead of them. They completely bristled at attempts (such as the one I’m going to make) to speak on their behalf. Despite this, I am glad they were in the same classroom as me.
And despite their “don’t speak for us” dictates, I’m going to try (and it’s only an attempt) because one thing I realised from all I’ve been reading is that the lines between us and them are so invisible and yet so strong that most of us will never see their viewpoint, partly because they have stopped talking to us.
So, the anti-Reservation brigade. Below is a list of some of the common objections to Reservations and hopefully a different perspective to one’s you generally get in the mainstream media (I used to work for the mainstream media and in the English press, I can safely say, there are very few Dalits, if any, which is a very very dangerous thing):
1. The Constitution enshrines equality. So reservations go against the spirit of the Constitution because if people are equal, how come some get special treatment.
The Constitution itself makes space for reservations under Article 15.
The key here is that the Constitution forbids discrimination “against” but not discrimination “in favour of”. If that was not clear enough, the Constitution spells it out in the First Amendment.
Why? Because the Constitution recognizes that much as we would love it to be so, people are not equal. Some people are still treated like shit. So much so that they have no hope of climbing out of it, unless given a massive boost by someone to level the playing field. Legislation doesn’t always work, but it’s the basis. For example, there are many ways people find to evade anti-dowry legislation (such as claiming to be giving gifts), but because the legislation is there, at least women have a route in case they find it in themselves to complain. Similarly, reservations are not a panacea but at least they provide that space in the door.
Also, this “equality” line is too similar to the brain-dead things men say when seats are reserved for women on buses. Eg. “You want to be equal? Then why do you require reserved seats?” Because, asshole, if we didn’t have reserved seats, you’d be pinching our ass or masturbating down our back (as has happened to TWO people I know, the cum-on-back I mean, not the ass-being-pinched which happens to everyone). Until you get your hormones and twisted mind together, the government in all its wisdom has decided to forcibly keep you away from us by giving us a space that we don’t have to fight for with our elbows. Similarly with reservation. Until society is ready to give the lowest castes the chance they deserve, the government has to forcibly create space for them.
2. Which brings me to point 2. “There is no inequality or discrimination.”
Oh really? If the fact that there are very few Dalit people in senior positions (except in politics maybe where they have either muscled their way through against the odds or got there through Reservations) isn’t enough, just Google.
The fact is that most Dalit people still live in villages, where they are kept on the fringes. It’s still common for Dalit kids to be separated from other kids during the mid-day meal at school and they’re the only ones made to clean toilers. This is what we know. Who knows what else goes on. You’re not going to hear about it in the media because the media is not that interested in reporting about what happens to poor people unless it’s really horrible like a woman being stripped, fed shit, gangraped etc. Standard beating and intimidation is run of the mill.
Dalits constitute 16% of the population but you’re more like to have a Christian (2%) or a Parsi friend than a Dalit. Why? Because most of the time, Dalits don’t make it far enough up the ladder to even be registered by us. They aren’t even let in the door of our privileged circle, those in the Reservation category are the rare ones that managed to slip through the cracks of the system.
When I was at university, one of the profs explained to us why Dalit students generally had more than the allowed number of people in their hostel rooms. It’s because, unlike most of us who move to a new city and can find through our social network some contacts to put us up, a Dalit student is probably the only contact for anyone in his village.
Saying there is no inequality or discrimination is like white people saying there’s no racism. Dude, of course, there’s no discrimination if you’re white. The world is a beautiful place is if you’re white. Similarly, there’s no discrimination if you’re upper caste (and if you actually meet someone who isn’t, they will inform you that everyone who is not in the absolute bottom rung is upper caste. That is, it’s not just Brahmins and Kshtriyas who are upper caste to them but everyone except them. Why? Because only they get treated like shit and denied the opportunity to even go to school. Yes, even today). Now go and ask your friends and colleagues what caste they are. You’ll be hardpressed to find one person who actually belongs to the Dalit caste.
I was once asked to name the Dalit people I knew. I could come up with only 1 name before I joined that university. The one name was a girl from my brief tenure at law school. We met outside the principal’s office. I was trying to get a seat in the college (a completely novel experience, having to be waitlisted for a seat but in retrospect good for the soul) and had been told that when some of the Reserved seats dropped out, I’d get in no problem. She was trying to get a Reserved seat. We hung out a lot after that even though we had practically nothing in common. By the way, guess who dropped out of law college among the two of us? It wasn’t my friend with the Reserved seat. Last I heard she was apprenticing with a lawyer (yay for her!).
The point is, all the Dalit people I know are through Reservations. I realised if it weren’t for Reservations, I wouldn’t know any.
3. OK fine, it sucks to be from the lower castes but Reservations don’t work because look, the problems still persist and they haven’t done anyone any good.
Reservations haven’t been that successful because of a failure of the system. You can’t just reserve seats but not put in place an enabling environment. When there is an enabling environment they do work. As was the case with the kids at my MA programme. Even when there isn’t an enabling environment, sometimes they get through. Like my friend above. By the way, my friend above is probably from what is known as the creamy layer of Dalits. For one, she lives in a city. She had a telephone in her house. However, I once called her and not a single person spoke English. Her English also wasn’t great and kudos to her for passing the law exams in English.
Where Reservations don’t work is when there’s nothing put in place to give these students that extra boost. They’re just given up as a lost cause. My sister tried to help out a girl who was from the Reserved category when she was in engineering college. But in the end, she felt it was too big a task. Finally, the girl dropped out. That’s the common story and preventable if there was some infrastructure to help them cope.
Anyway, Reservation may not have rid society of all its evils, but some progress has been made. It’s better than nothing, right?
4. If people really want to make it, they will.
Yes, this is true. There will be the odd outstanding person who will risk whatever in the pursuit of their dreams. Look at Dr. Ambedkar. He was beaten and bruised but he made it. Now let’s condemn all his fellow-caste-members to be beaten and bruised before they make it too.
5. Why can’t people succeed on merit?
This concept of merit is misguided, just like IQ tests are misguided. If someone has had no opportunities but at least manages to secure a pass mark is he or she better than someone who’s had plenty and secures a first?
6. If one gets a post on a reserved seat, everyone will sneer at you.
So what? People who come from these communities never had any shortage of sneering. A little sneering is good for the soul. It doesn’t change the truth which is that the world is a shitty place to require reservation. So sneer at the world instead, why don’t you? Or better… do something to change it.
7. Shouldn’t we focus on uplifting these people from the grassroots itself?
Yes, we should. And some efforts are being made. And there are some success stories. Just as there are some success stories with Reservation. Because even if you manage to take a Dalit kid through school in the village, it’s still going to be very hard for him to get into and survive university in the city “on his merit”. To even get to stage where he can apply for university he has to be exceptionally strong. Reservation just gives him that breathing space.
8. Why can’t Reservations be based on economic status and not caste?
Because the discrimination on the basis of caste is two-fold. It is economic because the lower castes are (surprise!) largely the lowest economic class too. And because the two are related. A poor Dalit faces an even more uphill battle than a poor person of any other caste. Because the poor person of the other caste has social capital. If nothing else, the poor person of the other caste can move to a city because he won’t be shut out of housing because of his caste. Yes, it happens. One’s caste is so apparent by one’s last name.
There have been suggestions that the “creamy layer” be excluded from Reservations. However, this is really hard to do. And it has been pointed out that even in the so-called Merit category, it’s the “creamy layer” (ie- the reasonably well-to-do ones often with social connections) that has an advantage. Nevertheless, there have been some success stories in the Reserved categories. One could argue that almost all the now “creamy layer” Dalits came up through this category.
So the question is really this – is the success of this minority enough to keep the system going? It depends who you’re asking I guess.
Finally, tell me, how different has your life been because of Reservation? Maybe you lost out on a seat in college. But so what? You’re still doing ok right? Now ask the kid who got in on the reserved seat and actually made it through college. Yeah, there are only a few of them but that’s not their fault. Or even the kid that didn’t make it– “hey, you kid, that dropped out of your reserved seat because the system was just too hard, were you there just out of laziness? Would your life have been better if you never had the change”. Then close your eyes and imagine what that kid would say.
Now my questions:
1. How come a lot is said about reservations for SC/STs but none about NRI quota and the so-called management quota in educational institutions? These are also people who get in without the so-called “merit”. But it’s ok because they look like the rest of us and can pay.
2. There are also reservations for people with disabilities. So how come no objections to that from the people who cite the “equality” argument. Is it because it’s clear that disabled people need to be given some leeway because of their disability? Why is it so hard to make the same jump for people who face social disabilities? Or is it just that we don’t believe that such social disabilities exist.
A clue: Stop thinking in terms of people in cities. The problem is that we only see people like us, that is people who live in cities. By the way, there’s discrimination in cities too. Just that you don’t see because it’s not targeted at you. And you could go through your whole life without even meeting one Dalit person (except for Reservations where you’re forced to). That is how bad the discrimination is.
Write to me:
1. If you’re Dalit and you believe I’m wrong. Tell me that things have really changed, that more than half of you can get to university and can find white collar jobs. Tell me it isn’t a bitch of a fight. I would love to be proved wrong like that.
2. If you’re not Dalit and have at least one Dalit friend. Heck, even a colleague (in a white collar job) will do. I would love to hear that too.
PS: I know I haven’t really said anything specifically about the Women’s Reservations Bill. Frankly, I don’t know if I support the Bill or not. But I won’t condemn it just because it involves Reservations.