Twenty-fIrst century India, whether we like it or not, is a caste-conscious society. Like the nasty and embarrassing business of mortality, it is something that we grudgingly have to accept, even if we find it to be a prime obstacle to India becoming an egalitarian, modern nation. But for the State to actually encourage categorisations along caste lines is another matter. It is retrograde and, as Rajasthan witnessed on Tuesday, dangerous. At least 16 people were killed, with many more injured, when police opened fire on crowds of Gujjars demanding their community be moved from the category of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) to that of Scheduled Tribes. The basis of this demand is that toothpaste that no one wants to put back in the tube: reservations.
Reserving seats for specific communities in work places and educational institutions is social engineering at its laziest and worst. Instead of helping specific socio-economically backward groups to get a leg-up until parity with the rest of society is obtained, reservations end up setting one group based solely on caste against the other. With limited resources (read sops) at stake, it becomes a free-for-all scuffle to obtain an increasingly slimmer slice of a steadily decreasing pie. And this is where vote-bank politics happily makes hay while the caste sun shines. In Rajasthan, the BJP government had reportedly promised in its pre-election campaigns to provide the Gujjar community with ST status. With most of the OBC quotas in government jobs being mopped up by the Jats and the Meenas (comprising about 15 per cent and 10 per cent of Rajasthan’s population respectively), the Gujjars (about 5 per cent of the state’s population) want their share of the goodies through ST-hood. It turns out that the Vasundhara Raje administration ‘forgot’ about any promises that it may have made before the Gujjars cast their votes four years ago.
The Rajasthan government now tells the Gujjar leadership that fulfilling its demand is not in the hands of Jaipur; it’s a call that New Delhi has to make. Which brings us back to the futility of reservations itself. Instead of providing all Indians, cutting across caste lines, a level-playing field in terms of opportunities and endeavouring to subvert caste biases inherent in Indian society, quotas end up ossifying those very divisions. And as we saw in Rajasthan this week, with politics playing a dirty game.