The hierarchical structure of the caste system was based on the principles that a person’s role was determined by birth. The different castes had their own positions and privileges in the society and these distinctions between the castes were important to maintain a functional society. “The duties of Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, and Vaisyas, and of Sudras, too, O terror of your foes! are distinguished according to the qualities born of nature. (Every) man intent on his own respective duties obtains perfection.” (Bhagavadgita, chapter XVIII, pp. 126-127).Some people fell outside of this classification, and were recognized as Dalits. This group which defines a noticeable percentage of the Indian people has faced a lot of discrimination for reasons they are not in control of and unable to change by themselves.
The introduction of reservations in governmental jobs and educational institutions in India was originally implemented to improve the well-being of backward and under-represented communities. These groups were defined on basis of their caste, and the positive discrimination was foremost designed for the Schedules Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) in the Constitution of India. The caste-based division has roots back from the British reign, when it was first introduced to give equal opportunities in education. It has since then been extended to other sectors. In 1984 a third group was included to the program; Other Backward Classes (OBC). Together these three groups make up around 85 % of the total Indian population. The law sets aside a percentage of vacancies in governmental jobs and educational institutes for these groups. In 1989 the government decided that 28 % of the governmental employments and university seats were to be reserved for OBC. The thought behind was to give everyone equal opportunities and reduce the gap between people caused by having different opportunities and responsibility in the society. This issue has been very much debated in India since it was implemented after Independence and remains a controversial topic even today.
The reason for objections by many has been the criteria for inclusion being based on caste. This reinforces the importance of the caste-system in the society, which is initially the reason for the differences. The law enhances the identity-politics and makes castes and ethnicity more prominent in the Indian society. In a country with such a huge diversity in religions, beliefs and traditions, caste-based reservations seem to be another way of fragmenting the nation instead of bringing people together. This might seem as a paradox for many.
There have been many questions regarding the fact that the caste-based reservations build on the hindu caste system, while the Indian Constitution guarantees equality to all citizens, and thus does not permit discrimination by the state in any manner. Further on, the anti-reservationists claim that the reservations infringe the right to equality, instead of strengthening it. This scheme seem to be dividing India into two groups; the oppressed and the oppressors, which further leads to mistrust and groupism. Some individuals of backward castes too feel unfairly judged, according to their right to reserved seats rather than their capabilities. The disapproval is most visible among those who are not included in the program though, I.e. upper castes, who might lose out on preferred education and jobs, despite being qualified, as some vacancies are reserved. In a situation where there is already though competition for almost every education and later on job, the reservations leads to an increased animosity among the groups, besides being a social stigma. Thus the idea of including the backward classes in the society and empowering them, might lead to even more hostility and oppression.
The welfare of Indian economy and industry growth has also been an issue of interest in this debate. The economy and efficiency of public services will only increase by hiring the most deserving candidates based on their qualifications and merits and not their caste. It might prove more beneficial to provide lower castes with the infrastructure and opportunities to compete for the same jobs, as this would boost the motivation to excel educationally among both groups. With the present system, both groups might not see the need to perform at their best. For the backward classes it is probably not necessary, and for the others it can prove to be useless. People from backward classes who fall under the “creamy layer” term might find it easier to reduce their income to receive the governmental benefits, rather than struggling to maintain their income. In both circumstances the consequences will be net loss for the society as a whole.
In 1992/1993 the government and Supreme Court excluded the creamy layer of OBC from the reservations. This group is defined according to their gross annual income. Children belonging to OBC families whose income is above Rs 450 000 a year are not classified as socially and educationally backward, and are therefore not given any rights in the governmental reservations program. This exception applies for OBC children only, and not children of SC and ST families. This certifies the requirement to look at underprivileged individuals, rather than underprivileged classes. There will always be differences within a caste, and if the reasoning for denying the creamy layer reservations is their income, then why not base the reservations on income and not include caste in the equation at all?
But income-based reservations might not be an optimal solution either. The lower castes are usually the poorest ones, so it would more or less benefit the same people. But the caste-system is a strong in-built part of the Indian society, and so the discrimination towards the lower castes (in this case, represented as those with lowest income) would probably be just as visible as it is now. Even without the word “caste” included in the law, it would be quite evident who is benefitting from the scheme within the community. And so the discrimination would affect the same people.
The reason for introducing the law in the first place is to empower and better the opportunities for the underprivileged. In other words those who are incapable of changing their situation as it is predefined by the family they are born in. With an income-based reservation scheme, one would focus on helping those in economic need, and not those discriminated because of circumstances they are in no control of themselves. Therefore an income-based reservation would not meet the idea behind the law. For example, a low caste family might earn a reasonable amount of money, a typical middle class income. The reason behind this good economic state might be the fact that the family works hard, but within the job limitations set by their caste. This does not mean they will have the opportunity to consider a job for a higher caste, or have the same amount of respect and trust as a higher caste person in the same society.
Furthermore, the Government of India recently introduced sub-quotas within the reservations. For example, a sub-quota of 4.5 % is given to minorities within the 28 % reserved for OBC. The rationale behind this is to ensure that OBC minorities, such as Muslim communities, are able to compete at the same levels as other OBC, such as those belonging to Hindu communities. And so this raises the question about who the unprivileged are, and who is to determine that. Apparently caste is not the only disadvantage as the need to include subgroups was seen. Was it then right to base the reservations on caste to begin with? And if the reservation law was to be based on caste, would it be right to modify it accordingly later on?
Many people have stated that they feel the law is only a way to gain votes by politicians who themselves do not believe in it. It is appealing to promise something that is thought to better the condition of a big population. But at the same time the amount of votes gained from the same population cannot be overlooked. People tend to vote as they are promised a law that is thought to better their state, but what is planned to work in theory does not always work out in the practical sense.
It would be relevant to see what the effects of the law has been; whether or not lower castes are now included in the educational and employment system, and if this has led to any improvement in their situation in the Indian society. A study tried to estimate the impact of positive discrimination in India. It showed beneficial effects in urban areas and places where the educational competition might be though. Overall there was no effect.
The idea behind this law is good, and the execution has worked in some cases as explained above. But overall there is a huge discontent among the common man. It will be important to look at ways to prevent this discontentment from growing any further.
PS: Watch Aarakshan (Bollywood movie) if you found this interesting 🙂