Affirmative inaction

Our quota scheme has no coherent answers even for basic questions

India needs an effective and fair system of affirmative action. But the present system is a mass of contradictions and anomalies. The basic questions — who you target, why you target and how you target them — have no coherent answer. We have moved away from an emancipatory constitutional vision. Instead of liberating us from the tyranny of compulsory identities, we have reinforced them; instead of justice, we have delivered a simulacrum of justice. We have crowded out more imaginative alternatives. We have reduced specific histories of oppression to a political power play. Narratives appropriate to horrendous oppression of Dalits have been indiscriminately appropriated. The number of beneficiaries continues to expand. But internal to the system there are new exclusions.

Particular castes in the categories of SC and OBC have disproportionately benefited from reservation. This is not surprising. There is a clamour to subdivide the reservation pie. In R. Krishnaiah vs Union of India, the AP High Court struck down an Office Memorandum, creating a 4.5 per cent sub-quota for minority OBCs in the OBC quota. The judgment does not close the door for a minority sub-quota. But it raps the government for unconscionable casualness. It did not follow the procedure for identifying backwardness as laid down in the National Commission for Backward Classes Act. More egregiously, the government failed to meet the test that this was a reasonable sub-classification. The court argues: "clubbing certain minorities such as Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Zoroastrians, into one group does not per se lead to any conclusion of homogeneity among them". There was a self-incriminating cynicism in which this "homogenous" category was constructed.

Minority OBCs ought to be included in existing scheme of reservations. Excluding Muslim OBCs, for example, solely on account of their religion is unfair. But is there a case to be made for a set apart from the fact that they are a minority? What does "minority" add to a backward OBC tag? The presumptive argument is this. Minority (particularly Muslim) OBCs cannot compete with Hindu OBCs. This is a plausible argument, but only superficially so. This will be true of many subgroups. Malas and Madigas; Gujjars and Jats cannot compete with each other. It is possible to bite the bullet and accept greater and greater sub-classification. Courts, since Indra Sawhney, have been open to sub-classification. But since Chinnayya, they have baulked at the reduction ad absurdum this can lead to. The presence of different social groups in government needs to be enhanced. But the manner in which it is enhanced is important. We seem to be moving towards reducing the legitimacy of institutions entirely to social composition: so much for Gujjars, for Malas, for Jats, for Muslims and so on. This is not about equal opportunity, it is about distributing the spoils of state power strictly according to caste, thus perpetuating it. These are two entirely different visions, and we are unconsciously drifting from one to the other.

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