India is a deeply unequal society, where the imbalance of Hinduism’s ancient caste system has left millions struggling for the opportunities they need to raise themselves up. But is the answer caste- or tribe-based quotas in colleges and government jobs? This week, the debate is back in the headlines, as the Jat community takes to the streets again in a violent protest that has left more than 15 dead, most shot by police.
On the one hand, creating job and college entry quotas reinforces caste identity and rivalry, and flies in the face of equal opportunities for all in a secular democracy. On the other, affirmative action seems to be the only useful tool to end discrimination and give those at the bottom of the pile a leg up.
But relying solely on quotas as a substitute for real policies to address discrimination and inequality has resulted only in a race to the bottom.
Take the case of the Patidars or the Patel community, who erupted in rioting and arson last year, leaving many dead.
A largely wealthy business community that has been a driving force in India’s economy, they dominate trades such as diamonds and textiles. The Patels wield wide political power in Gujarat. But over the years, high inflation and unhelpful government policy have taken the edge off their enterprise. According to Reserve Bank of India figures, a fifth of some 260,000 micro, small and medium enterprises in Gujarat, employing about two million people, have gone sick. But at the same time the Patels say caste-based reservations for other communities deprived them of government jobs, education quotas and benefits.
So, they want to be reclassified down the caste system to Other Backward Castes (OBCs), guaranteeing them a share of government jobs and school places.
Similarly, the Gujjars in Rajasthan want to be reclassified further down the status system from OBCs to Scheduled Tribe (ST) status so they qualify for more government jobs and college seats. This was because the Jat community had also been given OBC status, leaving the Gujjars to feel they didn’t have enough of the reserved pie.
But this upset the Meenas of the ST status, sparking a backlash.
Willy-nilly, social uplift efforts in India has been mired in a layered caste appeasement policy.
The politics of quota also often makes for judicial ping pong.
Governments have often promised reservation in college seats and jobs beyond the permissible 50%, only to have such decisions reversed in court. This time, the Haryana government has said it will bring a bill to declare Jats and four other castes as OBCs.
This, despite knowing well such a decision may not stand judicial scrutiny as my colleague, Satya Prakash, reports here .
But at a more fundamental level, the specific debate over reserved jobs underscores the shortcomings of the country’s education system: Disadvantaged groups have enough education to deserve more opportunity but not enough education to compete for jobs.
So, what the Jat and Patidar protests seem to show is this: Using quotas as a sticking plaster over the wound of inequality is no substitute for real policy to end discrimination, including the will to invest in education for all of India’s 1.2 billion people.
Otherwise, religious and social issues of inclusiveness will hobble India’s progress.
(View expressed by the author are his own. He tweets @krittivasm)