The nation’s ‘backward march of progress’ is getting increasingly troublesome. The Vasundhara Raje government in Rajasthan is the latest to find its hair standing on end following the Justice Jasraj Chopra Committee’s report rejecting the granting of Scheduled Tribe (ST) status for the state’s Gujjar community. Yet, at the same time, the state government’s approach to the problems being faced by the Gujjars is representative of the very mistakes committed in the name of affirmative action in this country. For one, the latter is focused almost exclusively on reservations in jobs and educational institutions. And two, the increasing politicisation of the issue — no surprise that the BJP’s campaign promises during the last assembly elections in Rajasthan included ST status to the Gujjars — has seen our leaders shrinking away from the commitment to gradually ease out sections that now share space with mainstream society.
Thus, with backwardness ironically having become a socially ‘privileged’ position to be in, it is no wonder that the quota raj has become entrenched in the country’s various policies. This is further illustrated by the fact that, in the space of less than a month, we have additionally been faced both with the issue of minority status for Sikhs in Punjab and the demand for ST notification of adivasi tea workers in Assam. In this context, there are two aspects of the Chopra Committee report that need to be examined. The first is its highlighting of the outmoded parameters of denoting a ‘tribe’, which has gone against both the Gujjars and the Assam tea workers. The criteria to judge backwardness have been a specific problem even in the case of Scheduled Castes. Vote-bank politics has ensured that economic and social backwardness are not always reasons to include a particular community in the scheduled list.
More importantly, the panel has firmly suggested an ‘area-specific’ approach to the socio-economic development of the community. This, rather than any skewed notion of backwardness, should become the basis for all affirmative action in the country. It would ensure relief to both the under-privileged Gujjars and the tea workers, without them having to fight to first have a label attached to their names to be granted their fundamental rights. Conversely, it would also then be easier to decide the limits of such affirmative action. After all, it was with this is mind that the Allahabad High Court had, earlier this year, recommended that Muslims be not seen as a minority community in Uttar Pradesh, or a similar HC judgment against the Sikhs in Punjab.