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Show your caste mark

India is up in arms, with a zillion voices clamouring for primacy. Why? Singer Rabbi Shergill examines.

india Updated: May 30, 2006 02:22 IST

India is up in arms, with a zillion voices clamouring for primacy. Why? Because a politician has suddenly decided that a sizeable part of it needs more grace than it already has. Scores of young literates with no broad social perspective are picketing in their backyards, and the beneficiaries of this largesse are also shouting in the streets that they deserve it. And somewhere in the middle of all this, perspective has been lost — the truth that India has become a complex nation that cannot be painted in broad strokes anymore. That poverty, social justice, the nation’s resources etc. have got locked into a twisted algorithm with many variables. That it is not that simple. But perhaps it is.

If Arjun Singh had not once again made us think about all of this, perhaps the great ennui that blankets us like the summer heat all year round would have continued to blanch any collective intellectual stirrings. Which incidentally is the sign of a nation’s good health. To expect any great phenomenon to unravel out of all this is may be foolishly sanguine, but it has awakened the nation out of its stupor and, more importantly, its young.

The young have become aware of politics, about how it affects them directly. So far, for many, the government was distant, a sterile babu signing files in a barricaded building. Now it’s patrolling your city, your streets, like Godzilla. It cannot be ignored.

What have all of these decades of reservations achieved? Is there less social angst, less inequity? That’s a tough one to answer. On the one hand, we’ve had Dalit governments, CMs, paltry increase in the participation of the Dalits/OBCs in public life and some token changes. On the other hand, whenever given the chance, they too have acted like a tribe, a clan, with the same mindset of us vs them. Society never got any closer to harmony. The clash of identities persists. The game of grouping the nation’s human resources by inadequate identities goes on.

The basic trouble with this business of reservation is that it only acknowledges broad, crude, one-dimensional identities. As if a person has just caste as his sole characteristic. His profession, gender, health, spirituality, beliefs, culture, finances etc. are meaningless. Not worthy of state consideration. And what about women? What about the physically challenged? Even if you do reserve seats for some castes, I don’t see social positions of these chunks improving drastically. By this logic, an able-bodied OBC boy deserves preference over a poor, handicapped Brahmin girl or a Muslim girl?

Also, isn’t a state promoting reservations actually declaring its own failure? Failure to provide equal social, educational opportunities? Reservations as an interim measure till it builds infrastructure is fine. But as a permanent fixture? So what is the State’s projection — till when must we have them? And what was the projection when they were first introduced? Surely, the nation has the right to know this. If you put no timeframe to it, you are shirking accountability.

Okay, I’ll bite the bullet. Here, I’ll say this. Reservations tend to benefit primarily the most fortunate among the preferred group (e.g. rich OBCs), often to the detriment of the least fortunate among the non-preferred groups (e.g. poor upper castes).

They reduce the incentives of both the preferred and non-preferred to perform at their best — the former, because doing so is unnecessary and the latter, because it can prove futile — thereby resulting in net losses for society.

They can engender animosity towards preferred groups and vice versa, effectively dividing the nation.

As a society we have to prioritise. If you ask me, education comes first. Give it significantly more than the 3.1 per cent of GDP we are giving it right now.

If the state really wants to be absolutely fair, here’s a plan — it should give ID cards to all citizens, and award them points (renewable after say, four years) for their various 'disadvantages' (caste, religion, culture, gender, health, finances, beliefs, age, human rights curtailment, lack of personal freedom etc). These parameters can be added to or subtracted from. The aggregate of these points could then be used to evaluate their actual disadvantage in a variety of social interactions — education, employment etc — and for compensating them commensurately. Or, if it’s all too much, just give them preference/make reservations against an economic scale.

Put holistic human development and freedom at the core of our development parameters and give preference accordingly. There’s some cost there, I agree. But then we want to blow away the sense of tragedy that hangs above so many 'disadvantaged' groups, remove past baggage of social inequities, give freedom, equality and justice to all. It doesn’t come cheap.

The writer is a singer and composer