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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Quota system needs change to address social justice concerns

Beyond Caste

By Ravinder Kaur (in Times of India - on 5th June 2007)

The ongoing agitation by Gujjars for inclusion in the ST category once again provides us with an opportunity to clear the cobwebs around the reservation policy. Interestingly, that most ardent votary of reservations for OBCs, Arjun Singh, has not spoken his mind on whether Gujjars should be given ST status so that they can better access higher education and jobs. At the national level, Gujjars face competition from several other better equipped OBCs. In Rajasthan, it is the Jats who loom large. If it is social justice that is at stake, the Gujjars being lower in the hierarchy than Jats and Yadavs, must surely get their share of the education and jobs pie. The Gujjars are rightly worried that this will not be possible if they remain in the OBC category. Hence their strategic demand to lay claim to ST status where they will have less competition, apart from another group from Rajasthan, the Meenas. Most of the ST quota currently goes to the Meenas and to privileged north-eastern tribals. It is no surprise that the Meenas, having ruled the roost for many decades, are not thrilled at the prospect of having to compete for IIT, IIM, medical and IAS seats with the Gujjars. Two main issues are highlighted by the Gujjar demand: First, how do we conceive of social justice for groups? Second, how do we sociologically determine these groups for governance and more narrowly, for benefits of affirmative action? Taking the second question first, it is wellknown among sociologists that both social and state-created categories are constructed with plenty of fuzziness on the ground. In India, can we clearly distinguish between caste and tribe in all cases? The Meenas, most of whom are relatively prosperous and landed, do not reveal distinctive characteristics which can set them apart from other peasant groups in Rajasthan. They have never been isolated in the same manner as the forest-dwelling tribes of central India. If Meenas can be classified as a tribe, there is no logical reason why the Gujjars, who can lay claim to nomadic and pastoral pasts, should not. The Gujjars are a populous caste found in several states of the north and north-west India, whose livelihood has been based on agriculture and animal husbandry. Like the Yadavs, they are economically relatively welloff but are lower in the caste hierarchy than castes such as the Jats. Gujjars in states like Himachal Pradesh and J&K have ST status. In the early 20th century, plains Gujjars together with OBCs such as Ahirs and Yadavs attempted upward mobility by claiming Kshatriya status; today some of them are claiming ST status. At that time it was higher Hindu status that was the coveted good, today it is education and jobs even if it means downward caste mobility. The first question is equally crucial — how do we conceive of social justice in the first place? Having once decided that the basis of inequality in Indian society is caste, do we necessarily have to stick solely to the caste criterion even 60 years down the line? The courts have been persuaded by governments to favour reservation for entire caste groups deflecting attention from large intragroup inequalities. By favouring undifferentiated caste groups which may be extremely heterogeneous internally, economically and socially, are we not denying the most disadvantaged social justice? An earlier example of radical injustice was towards the Madigas of Andhra Pradesh, a group within the SC. In this case, the coastal Malas, another SC group, cornered most of the benefits meant for SCs. After suffering at the short end of the stick for a long time, the Madigas launched an agitation for splitting the group into four different sub-units in proportion to their population. The Andhra government, in 2000, passed an Act splitting the SC category into four. At that time, the chief minister, Chandrababu Naidu argued, “Categorisation is a well-meaning step aimed at social justice and not at creating social discord”. However, these noble sentiments did not last long as the Malas fought back and in 2005 the Supreme Court reversed the subcategorisation, undoing the hard-won victory of the Madigas. Interestingly, in parallel with upper caste arguments in favour of ‘merit’, the Malas had argued that while they were hard working and deserving the Madigas ate beef and loafed around. The Supreme Court, on its part, argued that the SC category was unitary and could not be split constitutionally. This, when the OBC category has been split into four in the south with no one objecting to the internal quota. Not surprisingly, SC intellectuals supported the retaining of a single category arguing that SCs should remain united and settle internal dissension without resorting to the courts. They argued that support for splitting the category reflected upper caste bias against reservations. Does this mean that caste justice comes at the expense of injustice to some groups within? In the recent proposed reservations for the OBCs, the politicians have voted heavily in favour of retaining the creamy layer. It is not even debatable that this will benefit the upper crust of the OBCs, leaving the most backward small service castes high and dry. If state largesse is to be distributed fairly, we need to emerge out of the straitjacket of caste and tribe and assess groups on their current social and economic status. The writer is associate professor, department of humanities and social sciences, IIT Delhi.