What is this immensity of this real estate we call India? Is it one nation, one monolithic entity or a conglomeration of tribes? While growing up, my perception of India was a country divided into three major groups: the rich; the poor; and people like me who belonged to neither, who possessed perhaps the trappings of gentility and good taste without the wealth that should accompany it. The “poor” were easily identifiable, of course: they cleaned your house, delivered the milk and sold you fish and vegetables. And that was it. It appeared to be a fairly contented equilibrium. Everyone knew his place and there was no revolutionary desire to trespass on the territory of another class.
When I traveled to London to study, I discovered that this broad grouping was to be found in developed countries too; although their “poor” appeared to be better dressed, but that could be due to the necessities of climate. Ironically, it was on the Air India flight to London that I had my first encounter with a member of the “scheduled caste”. She was a perfectly amiable creature but, with her dark complexion she stood out among the other air-hostesses. My companion whispered to me that she was the result of the new government policy of reservations for these under-privileged folk.
Even to an unabashed admirer of the aristocracy like me, this seemed to be a fair and reasonable move. I vaguely remembered my history lessons about the four main castes in Hinduism and about Gandhiji’s efforts to uplift the “untouchables”. Noble intentions indeed. Later on, during the Mandal era, I discovered the existence of another bloc known as Other Backward Castes (OBC).
So, in the new India, apart from the traditional class divisions based on comparative wealth, we had SC/STs, OBCs and everyone else. A little complicated, but well within the bounds of normal comprehension. Or so I thought. Now it transpires that the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (SC/STs) themselves number a few hundred and the OBCs are subdivided into a staggering TWO THOUSAND AND THREE HUNDRED sub-castes. Most of the world’s countries have their minorities and ethnic groups, of course, but this was reaching ridiculous proportions. Do the math. There is currently a hue and cry about proposed 27 percent reservation for OBCs in institutes of higher learning. If each sub-caste started demanding its share of the pie, it would end up with 0.025 percent, or a fraction of a seat.
Look at it from another perspective. The Mandal Commission set out 11 criteria, based on social, educational and economic conditions, for identifying OBCs. On the face of it this seems reasonable, but when one considers the infinite number of permutations and combinations possible under these guidelines, the figures can reach astronomical proportions – with ridiculous results. For example, two of the listed criteria are (a) participation by women in work and (b) more consumption loans. These conditions would apply to many individuals of relative affluence and good social standing. So are they now eligible for OBC status? Where does it end?
Our politicians, as is their wont, want to eat their cake and have it too. They are shamelessly and expectedly pandering to their vote bank by professing support for the “downtrodden”. At the same time, they are vehemently opposed to any suggestion of excluding the economic “creamy” layer from the purview of reservations. Since they belong to the creamiest layer of them all and many have obtained their present positions by furnishing a caste certificate, such exclusion would not suit them at all.
While on the reservation issue, the entire attention of the media and the persons affected seems to be focused on its impact on students. However, there is a more insidious and sinister form of reservation being practiced almost unnoticed. In Gujarat, conscious efforts are being made to “reserve” the entire state for the majority community. Subtle and sometimes blatant attempts are going on to “convince” the minority community to leave the state. Bias against the minority community in settlement of court cases relating to the post-Godhra riots has been well documented. The Indian Express recently ran a series of reports on how Muslims are being almost totally excluded from the recently launched employment guarantee scheme. The chief minister touts himself as a “champion” of economic development, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that the fruits of this do not extend to those who do not share his religion.
Historically, of course, India has never been one nation, but a collection of hundreds of major and minor kingdoms, usually at war with each other. Ironically, the only periods when this country was somewhat united was under foreign occupation; first by the Mughal emperors and subsequently by the British. They were the ones who introduced the first semblance of a central government. Indeed, our erstwhile rulers would have done this country a great service had they used their dictatorial powers to stamp out caste and religious divisions. We would have been a race of slaves, perhaps, but we would have been one race. However, it suited their purpose to let the Maharajas retain nominal hold over their fiefdoms, secure in the knowledge that these petty rulers would be too busy bickering among themselves to cause any major problems for the occupiers. Right up to the dawn of independence, much of India comprised a collection of princely states: these were subsequently coerced or bribed into abdicating in favour of the central government with the lure of privy purses – later withdrawn, unconstitutionally, by Indira Gandhi.
Independent India started out with a reasonable number of states, with the boundaries of each state logically set out on geographical location and ethnic population densities. These boundaries were accepted with equanimity by the general population, partly because they had been decided by leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel, who were held in awe and reverence and infused with a sense of infallibility. As per a tradition spanning previous millennia, the “upper” castes laid down the rules and the “lower” castes followed them. This was the reality of the much touted “socialism” of Nehru – later carried on by his daughter. It was only after the demise of Indira Gandhi that the people of India started to recognize subsequent weak leaders for the paper tigers they really were. Moreover, freed from the dominance of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, petty “tribal chieftains” and self-proclaimed “champions” of the “lower” castes began to realize that they too could grab a piece of the political pie; with all it’s trappings of privileges and undreamed of wealth. Not only that, by inducing their “followers” to propagate sufficient mayhem, they could even carve out new states for themselves (eg: Jharkand and Chattisgarh); suddenly, even a Chief Ministership was not beyond their grasp.
The era of “vote banks” had finally dawned. These simple folk – hitherto ignored or, at best, tolerated and who could be bought fairly cheaply by false promises and paltry handouts – suddenly became a source of immense power; a passport to the good life for the leaders who manipulated them. The “lower” castes were cultivated and exploited. Communal tensions – not only on religious divides, but among castes and sub-sects – were engineered and turned into political grenades. The so-called backward castes were led to believe that they could trust no one save their own kind; that everyone else was out to get them; that their only salvation lay with the “leaders” who were “one of them”. Elements of the “upper” castes, like the Ranbir Sena, strengthened the cause of these sons-of-the-soil by carrying out brutal reprisals. This was the first phase in the well thought out strategy.
After having manipulated their constituents into believing that they were the “only” alternative, the OBC leaders set about consolidating their fiefdoms. Regional parties like the Telegu Desam and the RJD discovered they could not only take part in national elections, but win sufficient seats to dictate terms to the all-India parties like the Congress and the BJP. The leaders of these parties found themselves in a position of immense power – and the wealth and privileges that come with it – their forefathers never dreamed of. Of course, this meant keeping their constituents happy so that they would continue to vote for them election after election. Giving them back door entry into public sector undertakings (PSU) seemed a relatively painless way to achieve this – and if the relative lack of merit of these individuals resulted in huge losses for these PSUs – well, that had become a tradition since independence. Besides, the money was not hemoerrhaging out of their own pockets. Growing fearful of the growing power of these regional satraps, the national parties decided not only to play the same game, but to raise the odds. Ergo, free electric power to farmers and reserved seats in educational institutions. It is a spiraling vicious circle that threatens to get out of hand. In recent assembly elections, one party promised free colour television sets to its voters. It is a policy that has the potential to bankrupt states; but you can be sure it will not affect the income or lifestyle of the policy makers.
It would do well to reflect for a few moments on this whole issue of “backwardness”. Much is being made of the fact that even six decades after achieving independence this country’s backward people remain backward. There are two reasons for this. The most obvious one is political. The votes of forward thinking and informed citizens cannot be bought with politically-motivated sops and false promises. They demand results; and they demand accountability. It suits the purpose of our political masters to keep the overwhelming majority of the population too busy struggling with mere survival to have the time or inclination for luxuries like political conscience or standing up for their constitutional rights.
The second reason is historical. Almost from the beginning of civilization itself, human society has been broadly divided into haves and have-nots. The ancient Egyptians and Romans had their patricians and freedmen and slaves; even the “enlightened” and powerful British had a rigid class system till barely a hundred years ago. It almost seems to be the natural order. Karl Marx notwithstanding, that great experiment known as Communism never achieved its much touted equality. The Politburo members enjoyed a lifestyle the rest of their “comrades” could never dream of. India, in particular, had a centuries old tradition of paying obeisance to the “sahibs”. It was why the British could rule over 400 million people with a few hundred thousand soldiers and civil servants. Indeed, millions of Indians in those days referred as “ma-baap” to the very people who occupied their country.
Yes, the barriers are slowly crumbling, especially in the developed and affluent countries where there is enough national wealth and opportunity to spread around. But even these advanced nations do not forget that a level playing field can be achieved – and is desirable – only to a limited extent. Any attempt at universal equality would be self-defeating and snuff out competitiveness and the drive to excel. It is why, for example, these countries have free and compulsory education, but only up to secondary school level. After that, if a citizen wants to get ahead, he must do it on his own steam and initiative. If this retrograde step of imposing caste quotas in colleges and universities goes through, India will have the dubious distinction of being the first country in the world to implement it.
How have we come to this state of affairs? In the time honoured tradition of Indian politicians, they conceived and broadcast a proposal without thinking it through to its logical conclusion. The fact that it was engineered by an old warhorse eager to settle political scores is a side issue. After the burgeoning nation-wide protests, the ruling party has now realized that it has boxed itself into a corner; that it is in a no-win situation. Hence, being a past master at the quick fix solution, the government “clarified” that there was no reason for anyone to get agitated because, despite the quota for OBCs, the number of seats in the “general” category would not be reduced. The sheer impracticality of this statement could perhaps be partially excused if it was made out of ignorance. But the government was well aware that this was one commitment they could not possibly meet. Proof, if any is needed, can be found in newspaper reports about the announcement last year for plans to set up two premier institutes of science education in Pune and Kolkotta. Eight months after the announcement, forget implementation, the projects are yet to be cleared by the Finance Ministry. And this same government expects us to believe that within the next year it is going to more than double the number of seats in Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and medical colleges? One does not know whether to laugh or cry.