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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Reservations as cancer

Business World has an editorial titled Reservations as cancer where they say that reservations were always unjust -- now they create only misery and jealousy all round without political advantage to any party:

It is an historical accident that Meenas were included amongst scheduled tribes and Gujjars were not. There was a time when Meenas were like any other Rajput clan. They built Amber fort, which commands the approaches to Jaipur. In the 16th century, Baharmull Kuchhwaha, a Rajput king, transferred his allegiance to Akbar, and with his help, destroyed the Meena kingdom of Naed. The feud continued for four centuries. When the British came, Rajput kings allied themselves with them to defeat Meenas, who lost their kingdoms and turned to robbery. That is how they ended up in the list of criminal tribes. Later, when the British ceded power to nationalists, the label, “tribe”, proved a godsend. It brought Meenas reservations in the civil service and education, and proved to be their entry ticket to the lucky Indian middle class. Today, Meenas are well represented in the civil service, and are turning to business.

Gujjars have a less distinguished history. They were originally nomads spread across the dry tracts of western India and Pakistan from Kashmir to Karnataka; it is possible that they came from Central Asia, perhaps Georgia. There are two subcastes of Gujjars: dodhi and bakarwal, or buffalo-keepers and goat-herds. When India was sparsely populated, they used to take their animals up to the Himalayan foothills in summer and descend back into the plains of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in winter. Now that settled population has grown and grazing grounds have shrunk, they are being forced to take to more sedentary occupations. But not being a landed community like the Meenas, they do not have steady incomes or family support and have not invested as much in education. As a result, they have found it difficult to climb up the social ladder.

When the mutiny broke out in 1857, Gujjars were amongst the most energetic rebels; as a result, they had their share of hangings and dispossession, and earned their place in the 1871 list of criminal tribes. But somehow the curse of the British did not turn into a blessing of the Congress on the advent of independence; Gujjars were not included amongst scheduled tribes.

It is thus an accident of history that Meenas are a scheduled tribe and Gujjars are not. Meenas did the right crimes in the 19th century to earn their place in the fortunate category of tribes; Gujjars somehow fell through the cracks of history. This is no justice; it is sheer chance.

This government does not believe in justice; it is prepared to take a chance. Its resolve to shower favours upon Other Backward Castes (OBCs) is a perfect example. OBCs are so close in their social parameters to the main population that if they deserve reservations, so does almost everyone. They are backward only in name; if they are backward, there are no forward castes, except politicians. But they are a big vote bank; reservations are the way the Congress hopes to get their votes. Hence, the government’s opportunistic move. Mayawati came to power by giving sops to the most forward caste; the Congress does not want to be left behind in opportunism.

But here too, Gujjars are unlucky. They are not numerous enough for the government to bother. There are many groups and castes related to Gujjars — after all, Gujarat calls itself the land of Gurjars — but they would rather hide their kinship to the poor Gujjars.

The looming civil wars of India are not over class as the Prime Minister claims. The working class may have fought bloodthirsty capitalists in the textbooks he once read; but in the India he rules, it is castes that are fighting over the right to undeserved jobs and places in educational institutions. The way to douse their wars is to leave caste behind, and to abolish reservations. Reservations were originally introduced for an opportunistic reason: the Congress wanted to wean away Untouchables from Ambedkar, and to persuade them not to convert themselves to Islam and Buddhism. So it gave them reservations — but only if they were Hindus. There are Muslim Meenas, called Meos; they were excluded from the reservations.

For reasons of political advantage, the Congress divided the people by caste and religion. But now those divisions it created are causing bloodshed and havoc. There is no more political mileage in them; instead, there is only trouble. Even sectarian political parties must see that the time for favouring vote banks has passed.

No politician likes to take a radical decision, least of all the Prime Minister. It may be beyond him to abolish reservations. But he should at least begin to reduce the reservation percentages. If he wants to profit politically, he can replace them at the margin by reservation for the meritorious poor. Let him practise inclusive growth.

Update: Arvind Subramanian wrote in Wall Street Journal Asia suggesting that the State shift from quotas to targeted education vouchers.

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