Reservation in perspective

The quota debate continues to bypass scientific wisdom and evidence

Reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have been a very important element of the public policy of India since its independence. While it took more than a century of democratic politics and social churning for countries in the West to recognise the critical value of state intervention in the form of affirmative action in favour of historically marginalised groups and categories of the population, this country's leadership had the vision to integrate it into the Indian Constitution at the moment of its drafting. Those who cynically describe the Indian Constitution as a mere copy of different constitutions of Western liberal democracies completely ignore some of these ingenious elements, which make it such an important part of the democratic world today.

Despite wide-ranging criticism and opposition, India's reservation policy has many admirers, and for good reason. Apart from providing opportunities in education and employment, it also provides for mandatory representation of some of the most marginalised sections of Indian society, who would have otherwise found it hard to become part of the democratic set-up. Even more importantly, perhaps, the reservation policy gave those who had always been on the margins some stake in India's democratic politics, its economy and the state system. Their active participation in the political process has also been a useful source of legitimacy for the Indian state and its developing bourgeois economy.

Politics and public policy are indeed related, and in a democratic society they should work in consonance with each other, but they are not the same thing. While the politics of a democratic country ought to be shaped by the institutions through which it functions — the parliament and the courts, for instance — policy must also have its autonomy.

This is not to suggest that the institutions through which policy works could be left to themselves. These so-called modern institutions also have a social structure of their own and operate within a larger social environment. As organisations, they too have to adhere to a normative system that is appropriate for a democratic society. They must have internal mechanisms to ensure this and they have to be accessible to outside monitoring and social accountability. As we know only too well from our experience and the experience of other third world countries, the colonial culture of preserving secrecy only breeds corruption and incompetence. In other words, policy has to be both imagined and implemented within a social and political framework based on reason and democratic cultural practice.

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