Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Caste, Cream and Quotas

Caste, Cream and Quotas
- By Susenjit Guha

When India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru envisaged 10 years for reservations to lift the backward classes, he never expected that even in 2008, the Congress HRD minister Arjun Singh would mull about retaining them as long as they were required.

Obviously politics has played a part in the reservation controversies whenever they surfaced. And Indian society, politics and politicians are equally responsible for the plight of the backward classes and castes.
Politicians are worried not about the recent Supreme Court ruling of a 27% quota for the backward castes in centrally funded educational institutions, but of the ‘creamy layer’ exclusion. Representatives of backward classes whose support the government cannot do without, fall in the creamy layer.

Having undergone one major amendment in 2004 when the NDA government was in power, the creamy layer was redefined by NCBC as those among the backward classes whose annual income were Rs2.5 lakhs, up from Rs1 lakh.

But is there any need to worry? Not really, since many upper caste Dongres, Chaturvedis, Sharmas, Raos and Mukherjees earn Rs2.5 lakhs and dream of sending their children to the IIT’s and IIM’s. As expenses are high, banks chip in with higher education loans which are not caste barred.

Why should those who have reached a comfortable income parameter continue to benefit from government quotas and depriving others who are in genuine need? Shouldn’t economic conditions determine the relevance of quotas?

And caste distinction is not religious, but a social malaise of Hindu society. Hindus may have different rituals, different gods and goddesses, but the Vedas are the bedrock of the faithful. Dasyus, Panis and Asuras were regarded as negative cosmic forces that allied with the powers of darkness and deviated from humanity.

The division was between the spiritual and materialistic. Accordingly, each Vedic cycle begins with truth which drives human beings and ends when they are under the spell of ignorance and falsehood.

Different classes---nobility, priests, tradesmen and commoners---existed and they emerged from different occupations in Vedic society but were not stratified into castes, higher, lower, forward or backward. Conflicting theories exist how and when societal divisions and hierarchy got sharpened.

Caste was so ingrained even as early as the 8th century that even Shankaracharya who revived the non-dualistic Advaita Vedanta berated a sweeper for crossing his path while he was returning after bathing in a river. He quickly realized his folly when the person alluded to the scripture and his teachings.

Subtle forms of caste consciousness still exist in other parts of the sub-continent. Some feudal landlords in Sindh still sport Rajput names after their usual Muslim names. But dalits in Karachi don’t face discrimination in the local Hindu temple like they do during pilgrimages to India.

Bangladeshis, originally from Midnapore, Burdwan, Malda, Bihar and undivided Assam sneer at the traditional East Bengali Muslim whose immediate forefathers were mostly fishermen or peasants. Some even trace their ancestry to Sayeeds to prove they are from Central Asian stock.

A mere classification according to occupation somehow morphed into social fault lines. The bare, disturbing truth still stares at us from the matrimonial columns of newspapers.

Although the government said funds would not be found wanting for quota implementation while projecting an outlay of Rs85000 crore for higher and technical education in the XI Plan, doubts remain if it will be sufficient for the massive infrastructure expansion required. Backward classes form the bulk of India’s population.

What about absorbing more children from backward classes at the primary and secondary levels of education? Quotas for IIM’s and IIT’s without starting from scratch can impact the quality of recruitment. India might end up with managers and engineers who traveled all the way on quotas, not on merit. Politicians cannot walk away from the ensuing mess.

And they are not happy with the exclusion of the creamy layer from the 27%. Politics will decide if they want to file a review petition.

Arjun Singh may have put an indefinite time frame on reservations---as long as they are required---but 60 years is too long a time for them to still exist and create controversies. And the rise of caste based politics again reminds us that mainstream political parties had never risen above politics to take the backward classes forward.

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