A perfidious piece of legislation, the Quota Bill, that has long been in the making is about to arrive. Its arrival will not give proper shape to affirmative action; instead, it will, in its wake, signal the passing of a moment when discussion gives way to conflict, reason becomes subservient to identity, cynicism replaces whatever little vestiges of idealism that remain, and an open future of possibilities is replaced by a close suffocating horizon.
Perhaps it will not matter at all; after all we have weathered worse storms. The costs will not appear catastrophic. It will not be a civil war; it may not even be widespread protest. It will rather be a slow and insidious death of many values we cherish, and it might be so insidious that we will not even notice what we have lost.
The combined weight of political interests, unimaginative and entrenched ideas and the burden of the past, make it unlikely that the Bill can be critiqued in any radical form. Yes, the government might assert its reasonableness by staggering its implementation. Yes, it might still exclude the creamy layer, but these will not be symptoms of moderation. They will be, rather, the small mercies that are often extended after a great travesty has taken place.
The arrival of this Bill is, in some ways, an occasion for mourning and an occasion for reflection.
Who is it that should mourn? And why?
All Those Who Care About Social Justice Should Mourn for injustice has not only taken its place but is carrying its name. The cause of justice has been setback in more ways than one can list.
OBCs have appropriated the language of deprivation and the instruments to remedy them, that at best belong only to the SC/STs, the most deprived. By treating unequals equally, we are violating justice. By misidentifying target groups, by using blunt instruments, we are violating the very essence of justice.
Justice is premised on an ability to make fine distinctions, by a determination to match ends to means. Our ends are unclear: Is reservation about caste headcounts and representation? Is it about equal opportunity? Is it about compensating for disadvantages that prevent promise and ability from being translated into performance and marks? It is about anti-discrimination? Is it about equal outcomes? Is it about creating a middle class? Is it simply about displacing upper castes? Each objective is different, each requires different beneficiaries, each has different normative underpinnings and each requires different instruments. But we have lumped them all together and reduced everything to the logic of numbers. No wonder we cannot get clarity and consistency over tricky questions like: Should, if at all, the creamy layer be defined? Should minority institutions, some of which structure access to power as much as any others, be excluded?
By reducing the deprivation to be targeted to a single dimension, caste, we have obscured the true causes of lack of access. By suggesting that caste matters more than income, we are giving a false sense of the causal underpinnings of justice. By suggesting that quotas are an important and effective instrument of promoting justice, over and above all other instruments, we are ensuring that real deprivation will continue to persist. In the process, we will render invisible other forms of deprivation. We will not genuinely empower the poor, but confine them to a status where they remain fodder for a self destructive, symbolic politics.
Parliament will give its imprimatur, not to justice, but to an impostor.
All Those Who Care About the Nation Should Mourn for we have fallen into the narcissism of small identities.
We inherited one of the most iniquitous, enduring and appalling social structures that any society has known. It would be moral blindness not to acknowledge the reality and persistence of caste, the daily violence and humiliations it can still bring. But not all beneficiaries of reservation experience these realities in the same way. Acknowledging caste should be a stepping stone to transcending it, not perpetuating it in professional, educational and civic life. Instead of the language of citizenship, we will have the language of caste; instead of reciprocity, competitive group competition; instead of a slow withering away of caste, an enhanced consciousness of its salience.
In a society that very effectively mutilated the dignity of its members, that denied them the minimal bases for self respect, politics will be about a politics of esteem rather than effectively securing the public good. What was supposed to be an interim and exceptional measure for a group like SC/STs, whose treatment was appalling beyond all measure, will become an entitlement for which any group with the numbers can clamor. It will come to define the very essence of justice, the very essence of politics and the very meaning of citizenship.
Yes, South India may not have had a civil war, it has made its peace with reservation, but has it transcended caste? An anti- upper caste policy (however justified) is not the same thing as an anti-caste policy. The Brahmins may have long fled the South, their power in public life attenuated, but the stranglehold of caste and community persists. Just examine the Dalit OBC fault lines in South India or any other state.
The truth about caste should also acknowledge the truth about caste politics. The canard that caste has always existed, that it continues to exist, should not be used as an argument to persist with it in public, professional and civic life.
The only way of overcoming caste is to actually overcome it.
All Those Who Care About Alternative Futures Should Mourn for government has foreclosed the possibility of experimenting with other and more effective instruments of social justice.
The government has decided that social policy can have only one mould, that all institutions should look alike, that other schemes - deprivation indexes - for instance, will not so much as even merit consideration. The old paradigm that imprisoned us should continue. This is not a polity that can brook a diversity of experiments; it is not a polity that can provide room for alternative imaginings of justice. Justice will be as the government defines it: all others, you have no space. The government does not want a conversation on justice or equality,
On the other hand all the words we use in this argument - merit, excellence, inclusion, diversity, justice - have become unmeaning rhetorical tropes each side uses to beat the other down. But we will not be allowed the space to think through the conditions under which the tradeoffs that seem to so insistently divide society will not longer be that stark? For instance, those who claim that, by definition, excellence and inclusion are incompatible are wrong. But equally, those who think that they can be made compatible simply by saying so are also perpetuating an illusion. For excellence and inclusion can be made compatible under certain conditions. Out current institutional rigidities do not fully allow for these to be made compatible.
Instead of asking: "How do we create an education system, where no student of promise is deprived of the education they deserve, because of their social or financial background?" we have committed ourselves to a non-answer to this question.
All Those Who Care about Marginalized Groups Should Mourn for their leadership has profoundly betrayed them. Instead of charting an imaginative economic agenda that can liberate them from poverty, instead of ensuring that the state delivers the essential goods that are the minimum bases of social self respect, instead of creating genuine opportunities for them, instead of giving them the same choices and freedoms that the privileged have, their leadership wants to keep them trapped in a politics of dependent tutelage.
Instead of saying to the state: "Don’t give us crutches we cannot outgrow, use the vast wealth of the state to create genuine opportunities" their leaders have taken the least effective path to social justice. And in the process they have ensured that all the achievements of all those who achieve so much in the face of untold hardship will be diminished. In the process, they have ensured that they themselves cannot aspire to anything beyond their own narrow constituencies that do not wish to represent the nation as whole.
The politics of reservation represents an unconscionable diminution of social aspiration, a will not to be liberated.
All Those Who Care About Higher Education Should Mourn for whether staggered over three years or implemented in one go, we will push an already deteriorating system to the brink.
Any expansion would be credible, not just if it were a statistical exercise in counting heads or rupees, but came with a credible plan to infuse new life and vitality into Higher Education.
What does it mean to expand existing universities, some of which already have over one hundred and fifty thousand students? What does it mean to attract more talent, when flagship institutions are already at forty percent faculty shortage? What does it mean to expand by thirty percent a system already tottering on the brink? Where are the new regulatory systems in place? Why continue with the irrational affiliated college system? Where are the new mechanisms to reform universities? What is the strategy for overcoming the immense shortage of talent?
The expansion plan is not a pedagogic exercise, it is a numbers game, designed as a palliative so that the number of general seats remains the same.
The ardor for reservations is not accompanied by a zeal for reform.
All Those Who Care About Setting Priorities Right Should Mourn this inordinate rush for a divisive measure of dubious value.
The Right to Education Bill continues to languish for years, while the constitution is amended without batting an eyelid. Thousands of crores will be poured into a Higher Education System that is not delivering, that could mobilize resources from elsewhere, while primary education will continue to be neglected. It took us more than fifty years to recognize the right to education as a fundamental right and we still don’t want to give it full effect.
Why has the education debate been reduced to reservations? Think of the tens of thousands of crores the government can easily make available for creating opportunity for all if it wanted, if it were determined not to run things like hotels and airlines, not to give subsidies to the rich, not to create insidious tax exemptions through SEZs.
This social policy is not about empowerment or justice or education or about creating access, it is about tokenism.
All Those Who Care About Democracy Should Mourn for the sequence and timing of Bills make no sense.
The Constitution was amended ostensibly to provide for reservation in private institutions. Yet the amendment was used as a pretext by the government to insist that its hands were tied with respect to Central institutions.
The government appoints an Oversight Committee, but Bill is introduced before its final report is in.
The Bill is introduced in the last days of a parliamentary session. To what end? To ensure minimum debate?
But these minor lapses hide the larger fact: that our democracy is no longer about public deliberation or an exercise in public reason, it is no longer one where representatives can say what they believe, it is about performing a simulacra of social justice, not achieving true justice, it is about privileging an imagined logic of numbers over demands of freedom.
All Those Who Care about Idealism Should Mourn for we have become a nation where there is no space for thinking of any interests that are other than your own.
Academics will not protest because they have long absolved themselves of the responsibility of governing their professions; teachers will not protest because at last retirement ages might be increased; administrators will not protest because at last a few buildings might come their way.
Students might protest, but they will be seen not as standing for a principle, but preserving their own general category seats: not rising above interest but simply matching it.
The few odd commentators who voice concern will be dismissed as upper caste, and those who defend the bill will be equally dismissed as opportunistically positioning themselves in the current of political correctness.
In short, the country is reduced to nothing but a clash of interests that will become all the more insidious by a being called identity. Don’t dream of transcending your identity, because nobody believes you can; don’t rise above your own interest because not body believes you will, don’t overcome caste because no body believes it can be done.
The only garb idealism will wear is the false political consensus that will be on display in Parliament.
Overcoming the Moment
It is difficult not to fear that the arguments in the coming months will be profoundly distempered. Anyone opposing the quota bill ought to take extra care that in their very opposition to these insidious uses of caste, they do not, intentionally or by oversight, reproduce offensive symbolism in their actions. Opposing identity politics is easier than transcending identity, fighting for a principle is always easier than living up to it.
What will be the new repertoire of representation, of argument and rhetoric that will truly help us overcome our encrusted paradigm?
It would also be a great travesty, if the only grounds for agitation were preserving the number of general category seats. That would not be a principled movement, simply a self interested lobbying effort. But, most importantly, the opposition to the Bill will have to clearly define the ground it stands on.
At the very least, it will have to make it clear that this is not a battle for extra seats, but a fight for justice. And the fight for justice is not simply on behalf of students who might lose out but the nation as a whole.
As a nation we have to acknowledge that we have miserably failed our poor and marginalized: oppression still goes unchecked, promises remain unfulfilled, basic freedoms are denied and opportunities remain a distant gleam. Any movement that does not take seriously this reality, is not credible or serious and ought not to carry any authority.
If politically complacent young men and women have been moved to political action, let them also make this a transformative moment in the process of social reform and justice. The campaign should not be about the number of seats, it should be about saying emphatically:
"We all want to build an inclusive society, where no one will be denied opportunities because of social and financial circumstances. But we will no longer accept chimerical solutions to this aspiration, we will cut through the cant and diversion that the politics of quotas represent, and we will put pressure on government to take all those instruments that build an inclusive society seriously: making the right to education effective, creating new institutional architectures, setting the priorities of the state right, creating new ways of making it more accountable and thinking of more sensible forms of affirmative action."
If the opposition to quotas does not occupy the ground of justice in an enlarged sense, it will simply be reproducing the narrow mindedness it is objecting to. The dark clouds will dissipate only when this crisis becomes an occasion for genuine soul searching, for focusing attention on the meaning of citizenship and justice.
The transformation of caste politics will not be possible without the transformation of India.
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