Even the late Jagjivan Ram, a proud champion of dalits long before they had fastened on the word to denote their identity, acknowledged there could be no true equality in India until quotas and reservations had become unnecessary. But now that affirmative action has been dragged into the news again, thanks to the misplaced advocacy that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Mohan Bhagwat lost little time in regretting, it must be said that few subjects give rise to as much hypocritical twaddle.
It is a disgrace that India should squander scarce resources in launching space satellites and reaching for the moon when diet and medical care are so poor that the average dalit female can expect to die 14 years before other Indian women whose longevity is hardly impressive by international standards. It is shocking that a dalit man’s corpse should have to be hoisted across the Palar river in Tamil Nadu dangling 20 feet in the air to avoid polluting high-caste territory. It is outrageous that covenants and constitutional provisions should be flouted to drag Kashmiri Muslims and Ladakhis into the direct control of a Central government that cannot provide the basic necessities of life or guarantee human dignity to between 15 and 20 per cent of the 1.3 billion-strong population. Dalits (like Muslims) have become even more vulnerable to mob lynching due to the current politically inspired obsession with beef.
The dalit situation is an aspect of caste, and caste-based crimes have registered a 25 per cent rise since 2016. Caste is a fact of life wherever Indians can be found. In a landmark September 2015 judgment, a woman from Jharkhand who faced many restrictions and difficult conditions while working for an Indian-origin couple in Britain was awarded £184,000 in damages in a case that involved overtones of caste-based discrimination. At the other end of the scale, a successful lawyer in London is returning to Ahmedabad for his son’s munda (thread) ceremony. “We are brahmins, you know,” he elaborated. Another prominent British-Indian brahmin avoids speaking his native Tamil because his caste is revealed the moment he opens his mouth. India’s great diversity obviously allows and even encourages different markers for traditional customs and practices in different parts of the country. Caste marks have begun to appear among London Underground passengers too.
Given this eclecticism, I am prepared to suspend disbelief when Castewatch UK, an organisation committed to the eradication of caste-based discrimination, campaigns for a British equivalent of India’s legal ban on any manifestation of caste prejudice. Britain’s equality legislation doesn’t expressly forbid such practices, but the amended Section 9 of the Equality Act 2010 requires the government to introduce secondary legislation to make caste an aspect of race so that discrimination on the grounds of caste can also be banned and punished as a form of race discrimination. This is a cause that public-spirited Britons like Lord Lester of Herne Hill and the Punjabi-born Lady Flather have taken up.
They suffered a setback last year when the government’s Equalities Office announced that it was “not persuaded” that the law needed changing. Castewatch UK, the anti-caste organisation, professed surprise and dismay at the decision, but it should have no hesitation in admitting that no matter what regressive and obscurantist baggage Britain’s 1.5 million Indians may bring with them from the subcontinent, free education, equal opportunities and economic independence sooner or later purges them of the prejudices of the past. They are far more relevant to reform than reservation.
That is what Mr Bhagwat should bear in mind if he really wants to create goodwill in a nation that is now both vertically and horizontally fragmented. Most of the pious platitudes spouted on the subject are self-serving nonsense. Take, for instance, the Pratinidhi Sabha’s resolution in 1981, which read: “Reservation has, because of its wrong implementation, become a tool of power politics and election tactics instead of serving the people for which it was framed.” Of course, it has. But was it ever intended to be otherwise except in the imagination of idealists like B.R. Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru? Special provisions that were initially intended to last for only 10 years would not otherwise have been extended decade after decade until they appear to have become a permanent feature of the national architecture.
As reported, Mr Bhagwat’s ambidextrous speech seemed to court both sides of the reservation debate at once, in a magnanimous display of fairness. He recommended a harmonious dialogue, saying: “Those who favour reservation should speak keeping in mind the interests of those who are against it, and similarly those who oppose it should do the vice-versa.” Mr Bhagat is too seasoned a politician not to know that his recipe for an impeccable Oxford Union debate is irrelevant to the cancer that is eating into India’s body politic. Any practical administrator must think both of the age-old social ills that quotas were expected to remove, and of the abuses that often make the cure seem worse than the disease.
Social analysts point out that reservation has created a vested interest in backwardness. It has given birth to what is called a “creamy layer” among dalits. Some call it “brahmanisation”. Whatever the term, this new elite continues to cream off the benefits of affirmative action while the bulk of dalits remains disadvantaged as ever. At the same time, more and more groups are clamouring to be listed as Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes, with newly invented additional categories confirming the hankering for quotas. Special benefits have deteriorated into unabashed bribery to win votes.
If any politician truly wants to improve the dalits’ plight — which seems unlikely — he or she will stop mentioning reservation and focus only on education, opportunity and income. They are the three unfailing pre-requisites of a democratically egalitarian society.
The writer is a senior journalist, columnist and author...