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An inconvenient truth

It is impossible for India to talk about caste with any candour. The humbug of both the quota advocates and the opponents has drowned out all honesty in the debate, writes Barkha Dutt.
None | By Barkha Dutt
UPDATED ON MAR 31, 2007 12:19 AM IST

So, predictably, the politicians will hide behind the pretence of consensus. An all-party meeting will be ordered and the Supreme Court will be unanimously denounced for its decision to put a hold on OBC quotas. The battle will be pitched as one between the judiciary and legislature and there will be much hand wringing over the so-called subversion of Parliament’s authority.

Never mind how stumped the Congress was by the fox-like wiliness of Arjun Singh exactly a year ago — the HRD minister had announced quotas for OBC students without taking his party into confidence. Forget the fact that the BJP is like a trapeze artiste swinging on the reservations ropeway, sometimes falling here, sometimes there — the party voted in favour of the amendment providing 27 per cent reservations for OBC students, but later asked for an expert panel to investigate the impact of quotas. Please overlook the small fact that the Yadav henchmen in Parliament have been able to block reservation for women for more than 10 years; right now they are firmly cast in the role of saviours. And, of course, don’t even mention the fact that there’s a big, big election, lurking right around the corner.

It has become impossible for India to talk about caste with any candour. The shrill humbug of both the quota advocates and the opponents has drowned out all honesty in the debate.

On the one hand, oppressive political correctness can shame you into supporting a reservation policy you have never really been convinced about. On the other hand, the sheer social bigotry of the elite can push you swiftly into the opposite camp. It’s never said out aloud, or in so many words, but for many urban, upper caste Indians, ‘the backwards’ are precisely that — citizens of the hinterland, ungainly and otherworldly — an inconvenient blemish on their shining, gleaming future.

That said, just because you oppose, or at the very least, question the government’s reservation policy does not make you a pedigreed snob. Why must quotas be a synonym for social justice? Why should equality be so inextricably entangled with State-sponsored sops? Why, as the Supreme Court observed, should a people be so competitive about asserting ‘backwardness’? When will we accept the fact that reservations are often an eloquent excuse for the State to abdicate its responsibility?

We have all travelled our own complicated paths to arrive at our own varied conclusions on what place quotas should have in a progressive, egalitarian society. My journey began in the 1990s. I was a wide-eyed college student who marched down the streets of Delhi to protest against the implementation of the Mandal Commission report. The murder of merit was a romantic war cry for an 18-year-old. And when we were first sprayed with water canons and herded into a police station, I really felt like a revolutionary. Subsequently, adult life brought me face to face with the horrific complexities of caste. And I lurched to the other extreme — I was embarrassed at being an ‘elitist’ Delhi girl who had known no better, and I quickly became a supporter of the quota regime. It’s only now, many years later that I have been able to escape the blinding rhetoric of either side to find my own equilibrium.

- Quotas for Dalits should continue but should be bound by a time-frame. Till we remain a country where our temples are like elite caste clubs with bouncers at the gate; till a separate glass is left in a corner of our kitchens for the sweeper to use; till manual scavengers who clean up after our shit continue to be only the Dalits, we cannot ever understand their sense of social and economic marginalisation. But the Constitution had given the Indian State 10 years to break the coincidence between caste and class. Sixty years later, reservations have clearly not done the trick yet. So, let there be someone who sets a goal, a cut-off year, an expiry date — someone who has the courage to say by 2030, India’s Dalits will no longer need quotas.

- Quotas for OBCs cannot and should not be introduced as a uniform rule. There is no historical evidence to suggest that the OBCs suffer from the same social stigma as the Dalits. And the socio-economic conditions of ‘backward’ classes vary from state to state.

In several states, Yadavs and Jats are technically backward, but are in fact, affluent, powerful and politically dominant.

- Every marginal group cannot feel entitled to reservations. Unfortunately, statistics have become a weapon in the hands of different lobbying groups. Yes, only 3 per cent of India’s bureaucracy and police force is Muslim, but does that mean there should be religion-based quotas? Yes, only 8 per cent of Parliament is made up of women, so do we now want seats blocked off on the basis of gender? Yes, 75 per cent of Indian Christians are Dalits, so should a new category of quotas be created for them? In a country with as many inequities as ours, where will the demand for quotas stop?

- Wealth is the only great leveller. Let there be an economic cap on quotas. And instead of thrusting quotas down the throat of Corporate India, why can’t the government persuade big business houses to finance neighbourhood schools in every city? In America, for example, only the snotty super-rich study at private schools. Everyone else, Hispanic or Caucasian, rich or poor, white or black, studies at the same public school. What stops us from replicating that model here?

- And like some erstwhile members of the Prime Minister’s Knowledge Commission have argued, let there be a comprehensive assessment of whether there is any empirical relationship between quotas and social/economic upliftment. Our governments usually form committees with alacrity. Why the hesitation to set up this one? Is it because the truth may be too inconvenient?

But, you and I know that these suggestions are just academic broodings on a Saturday morning. This story’s script has already been written. The political class will find a way to circumvent the Supreme Court order. The quota debate will continue to be personal and vitriolic, and will divide India sharply down the middle.

And instead of watering the roots and sowing the seeds of real development, we will look at the artificial flowers in the windowsill and claim that India is shining.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7

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