I received by e-mail the following 'article' by Prof. V. Sanil (Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT-D). I am reproducing it below with Sanil's permission. He informs me that it was originally written as a long e-mail to his students. It's good to keep this in mind as you read this thoughtful and provocative article -- especially towards the end ;-).
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Before joining the pro and anti camps let us ask a simple question: what is the meaning of reservation? What is it? There are two very popular but wrong answers:
- Caste reservation is the undesirable product of a manipulative alliance between vote seeking politicians and greedy/stupid lower castes.
- Caste reservation is a socio economic policy measure to distribute economic resources among the needy sections of society.
I think both I and 2 are wrong. Instead, in my view, the meaning of reservation is
- Reservation is an ethical act of ensuring social justice.
The first definition sees reservation as a matter of mere electoral politics. The Second takes it as a matter of policy. I do not mean that 1 and 2 are totally incorrect. They have partial truths. But their partial truths can be acknowledged only if we accept the truth of 3 – that is reservation is a response to an ethical claim of justice. Since claims of justice need to be implemented through publicly accessible institutions, reservation takes recourse to socio economic policy. Since our institutions exist within a democracy, reservation is subjected to political calculation and even manipulation. However, despite every political misuse and failures in policy implementation, reservation is, first of all, a measure of social justice. If we do not see this point we wouldn’t know what to do with our data. When you quote data you should be clear if pertains to a political calculation, policy evaluation or an ethical response.
What does it mean to make a claim of justice? It is a complex issue. Nevertheless some simple clarifications are in order. Reservation is not a favor we grant to lower castes. It is something which they have to claim as their right. This is a special right to a special privilege. However, this does not demand any special obligation from them. The only obligations they contract are those ordinary obligations you and me contract as ordinary citizens. They do not owe anyone a special ‘thank you’. The lower caste get this right as a response to a claim of justice and not as response to their need. Some kind hearted people accept that the lower castes have had a bad deal and they must do something to help this pitiable creatures to get out of their misery. That is a noble thought. But reservation does not find its justification in such kind hearts and noble thoughts.
Reservation as a claim of justice should be distinguished from the policy measures aimed at establishing equality. Many mistake the aim of reservation to be one of establishing equality and blame it for failing to achieve this. However, I do not think that any body in his or her sense would have ever thought that reservation in a few jobs or colleges can bring about equality! It can’t and it is not meant to be. Reservation relates to equality only in an indirect way. Yes, we have accepted equality as a normative ideal and hope to implement policies and reforms – not revolution! – to it make it real. Having accepted this course, we notice that this society harbors some gross and structural inequalities. Inequality suffered by women and lower castes are not like the everyday inequalities our policies address. These are gross and we can’t hold the victims responsible for their fate. Moreover, the very structural features which make our equality seeking society possible are paradoxically involved in sustaining these inequalities. Reservation is an ethical response to the sheer intolerable nature of this structural inequality. The society as a whole decides to take responsibility for the actually existing inequality which is beyond its power of immediate elimination. Or, we all decide to share the inequality equally. Reservation is this act of collective responsibility.
In a liberal democratic society this response and responsibility take recourse to public policy aimed at equality. However, this manifestation should not be confused with what it manifests. In another society this response could take the form of an armed rebellion which is aimed at directly destroying the structures of inequality. Many Dalit activists see reservation as political means to attack Brahminism. The recent debate has totally concealed this anti-brahminical edge of reservation and reduced it to a mere policy for equality. Since I am addressing only liberal democratic upper caste “youth for equality” I shall restrict myself to the ethical dimension of this issue.
Let me explain the demands of justice with the help of an example. Seats are reserved for women in buses. Here we find a young pretty and well decked up woman boarding a crowded bus. The bus is crowded with tired men who have been standing for a long time. Still, our lady gets in and claims her reserved seat as her right. This is the logic of reservation. The men standing from the starting point are more in need of seats. But the woman need not bother about that in exercising her right. She does not owe the men a thank you. It is none of our business to find out if this woman is on a joy ride or she is on her way to her lover or she is rushing home to cook for her family. She does not contract any special obligations in return for her right to the seat. Her husband, if he were in the bus and standing, cannot demand that since she has had a comfortable ride she should do all the house work, once she reaches home. (She may still end up doing just that. That is another story.) Reserving seats for women become an act of justice if it meets these conditions.
Lot of poor people are in need of urgent help. Moblising resources for the poorest of the poor is a matter of policy or disaster management and need not involve any concern for justice. Who can say that my need for listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations in full moon nights is any less intense or urgent than the poor man’s need for daal chawal? Given an option, the tribals might identify cheap liquor as more of an urgent need than reservation in IIT. Who knows, majority of women might want to stay at home, slog for their family and spin sentimental stories of sacrifice. However, morality of justice refuses to be pinned down by these so-called needs. On the contrary, justice offers a framework for legitimate need interpretations. We are taught to feel the need for Coke through advertisement. Women are taught to feel the need for independence through the procedures of justice. None has an immediate access to his or her needs. Justice provides a framework for us to identify, cultivate and universalize our needs and expectations.
If needs were the only criteria for justice then one might argue that Muslims or economically poor are more worthy of reservation than land-owning, cattle breeding OBCS. This argument, as I explained earlier, collapses justice to a calculation of needs. Muslims are in a bad shape. But they cannot put across their claim as a claim of justice. How does a demand for resource allocation become a claim of justice? This is a very difficult question. We expect answers from philosophically minded and morally sensitive anthropologists, political scientists and economists. Unfortunately they are a vanishing tribe. Today we hear only lobbyists and consultants. The former are paid by politicians and the latter by policy makers. A morally conscious attempt to answer our question will begin with acknowledging the place of narratives at the heart of claims of justice. Measures of justice addressed to lower castes are permeated by some stories about their historical oppression. Women too have stories of gender oppression. These stories have a universal appeal. They can still perk up your moral fibers. Muslims, despite their misery, do not yet have such a story. Unfortunately they are caught up in the villain’s roles in other stories, and these are stories demanding retributive closures and not distributive justice.
No crash course in creative writing can enable communities to write these stories. The creative genius behind these narratives belongs to revolutionaries, artists, social reformers and spiritual masters. These are stories, though empirical research can sometimes weaken the hold of some stories, if not all. Recent research by revisionist historians and sociologists has seriously questioned the validity of the stories of caste oppression. They argue that Caste was a pretty flexible mechanism and the dealings existed between upper and lower levels cannot be reduced to one of oppression. These findings may or may not weaken the moral sale value of stories of caste oppression. Social scientists should not grow impatient and wonder why communities do not realize the folly behind their legitimizing stories. These social scientists forget that stories do not relate to facts the way theories do. Stories do not inspire moral action in the way science governs technological action. However, communities revise and reject their favorite stories. Who knows, a few more post-Godhra type riots, a couple of inanities from George Bush and a global scarcity of oil might put Muslims back in some story of justice. Perhaps they can learn the art of story telling from Jews who have a global monopoly on justice claims.
Not all needy can be brought under the aegis of reservation. But, some say, we should be able to keep out the undeserving. Many of us have legitimate anger against those rich OBCs cornering the benefits of reservation. Everyone seems to agree that there must be some cut off point. Some argue for an economic criterion to skim the creamy layer. Some suggest a temporal criterion – say two generations. However, the moment we attend to the justice part of reservation the prima facie intelligibility of the cut off issue disappears. Reservation is a right. Once you grant a right on someone you cannot take it back at your whim. The bearer of the right has to be a party to any such moves involving the future of that right. No neutral socio-economic criteria can be imposed on them. It is up to the women and lower castes to decide when to put an end to reservation. Some might say that these greedy people will never agree to put an end to these privileges. That is not true. When the reservation was proposed it came with a time tag. Lower castes were party to that agreement. This was possible because Ambedker could place that time limit as an ethical commitment and not as a political compromise or policy demand. Today, the atmosphere is so totally vitiated that one can’t pose the ethical meaning without embarrassment.
If reservation is not a response to need, then the cut off point also should not be a matter of need satisfaction. The question of cut off point should not be reduced to that of communities achieving a certain level of progress. The commitment to a cut off must be unconditional. Whenever we extend the scope of reservation the gaining community should commit themselves to a debate on the cut off point. This is a formal commitment and not a commitment on any specific time frame or substantive criteria. All such substantive issues will be negotiated in a debate in which the bearers will be participants. This commitment must be enshrined in institutions. I know that this suggestion will be met with loud opposition. Lower castes and women might see an upper caste gender agenda behind my suggestion. The experts are ready with cut off criteria, and they do not want to waste time in interminable social debates and reforms. However, I see many developments within the reserved categories which might just prepare the ground for a debate on ending reservation. The feminist movement has thrown up many groups who are opposed to reservation for women. Many lower caste social reform moments still preserve the sparks of a spiritual energy which has not fully endorsed caste reservation. Recently we saw women and lower castes clashing on the women’s reservation in parliament. So far the anti-reservation platform has been colonized by upper caste arrogance and expert impatience. It is time we allow the genuine in house voices who are critical of reservation to come to the table.
Rights are made of a very sticky stuff. Even the bearer cannot easily shrug them off at will! Handicapped people know this well. Special ramps are reserved for wheel chair users. Suppose a self respecting handicapped person decide not to use the ramp and give a try on the stairs along with us. Then we are justified in demanding that he better stick to the ramp instead of making a spectacle of himself on the stairs. Some IITtians who have benefited from reservation have declared that they will not accept reservation for their kids. Through such private acts of self respect, despite their best intentions, they down grade themselves from the bearers of a right to lucky beneficiaries of a favour. They must reaslie the need to back up these acts with a public commitment to raise the self respect of their caste. In other words giving up one’s right should not be a tactic to conceal the caste origin of one’s kids! They all must join the debate on ending reservation for everyone. They must, instead of concealing, transform their caste identity into a one of universal humanity. This was the message of most 19th century social reform movements.
Moreover, such institutionalized dialogues on justice must give up the liberal fears on collective identities. Such fears are also shared by those who think that reservation divide the society. Unless one is a die heard neo liberal evangelist there is no reason for us to think that individuals alone are the bearers of rights. Thanks to the inner strength of the democratic pursuit of justice, genders, collectives, species and even unborn embryos have become bearers of right. Groups – caste, religion, bearded men, tall girls – whose bond of solidarity is open to autonomy claims should be allowed to be bearers of rights. That will only strengthen democracies.
I promise to end this unending note with few comments on formulations 1 (reservation as politics) and 2 (reservation as policy) with which I began. The most popular view on reservation is that it is a mere political strategy of clever politicians to fool people and get votes. This is true! But it is trivially true. According to the elite critics ordinary people are ignorant and do not care a damn about the future of the society. Politicians make use of this stupidity of the masses. In fact, along with critics, most politicians too think that they are playing a clever strategy by supporting reservation. This is a bit like the self image of Bollywood cinema directors who think that they have figured out the desires and expectations of the masses and they have a formula to generate films which would satisfy the masses. If such formula exists why do most Hindi films crash in the box office? Mandal did not take Janta Dal back to power again. So, only critics, and not people, take these strategic pretensions of politicians seriously.
As a policy measure economic criteria has received mass appeal among the rich supporters of reservation. I do believe that one should not make any apriori arguments on criteria. One day, less than 6 ft height might be a valid criteria for seats in IIT. In the age of cloning, being a human might be valid criteria for reservation in certain jobs. However, economic criteria has some special dangers. First of all, this has the highest possibility of misuse. I come from a very low middle class family. But I never got any of the income based scholarships because my parents were in Govt service and there was enough evidence to show that they were above the poverty line. But many of my filthily rich friends got low income scholarships because their dads were in the business and their recorded income was always below every line drawn anywhere. Of course possibility of misuse is not an argument against validity. Secondly, economic criteria is relevant only when we address economic inequality as a structural feature and make poverty an injustice. A majority of those who argue for economic criteria believes that economic inequality is not structural and is a matter of sound free market economic policy. In fact, unlike the socialists, they are committed to the view that inequality is a necessary evil. Thirdly, Modern economics does not – and cannot – have a well-formed concept of poverty. Pre-Ricardian Economics which was an analysis of wealth did have a concept of poverty. However, modern economics, since 19th century is no longer an analysis of wealth and proceeds as a theory of production. It accounts for value not in terms of wealth but in terms of some abstract notion of time or circulation. Within this scheme poverty disappears the way phlogiston disappeared from chemistry or ether from physics. Even Marx, despite his revolutionary zeal did not make the “have nots” the agents of change. His worker was by no means the poorest of the poor. He expected the worker to revolt not in virtue of the wealth he “did not have” but because “something he had” – labor power abstracted into socially necessary labor time – was the seat of injustice. According to Marx the worker alone is a victim of injustice and not the poor. The right wing economist is never tired of pointing out that the leftists align with the privileged worker and not the poor. The leftist falls for the trap and surreptitiously includes poor in his list of sufferers. Modern economics removes poverty through a theoretical move and not through practical measures! Any economist who makes claims about poverty is a bit like the physicist who takes off from theory of uncertainty and lands up with some loud talk about vedantic Brahman. This is not a logical talk but an ana-logical one. When it comes to poverty alleviation my bet is on astrology. These poor guys are poor because of bad horoscopes. Let them die and be born again. Better luck next time. (My argument here is a bit sketchy. If it interests you we can talk about this later.)
You might be surprised to find that I have not yet said a word about merit. My aim was to clarify the idea of justice. Frankly speaking I do not see why merit should a find mention here. However, since this debate is already polarized between merit and justice, the idea of merit a detailed discussion. I might do that soon! Meanwhile I have a few simple questions for you:
How many SC/ST friends have you got? Will you marry a lower caste woman? Does the idea of merit have place in the formulation of your answer? Discuss, but no grades!