The quicksand of caste

Should the ambit of reservation be expanded? An open letter to Dalit friends

Friends, the very act of writing on reservations reveals a profound failure. We have not evolved a practice of common citizenship. Reservation about any form of reservations runs the risk of being an exercise in bad faith. What locus standi do I have to even begin to make any arguments? I cannot even pretend to imagine what it means to suffer the horrendous violence and indignity associated with caste. Can anyone trust the state to deliver on more effective forms of empowerment? How can anyone make a good faith argument that we need to move beyond caste? The comforting illusion that caste need not matter is itself a mark of privilege. How can one even say that it is time to break the tyranny of compulsory identities? Caste is a compulsory identity; its reality is still socially produced. So what is the point of bemoaning the fact that the state now categorises us in ways we cannot escape? In short, the attempt to transcend caste lines breaks down even before it begins. Caste has become like quicksand; simply the act of talking about it implicates you in it. Since we cannot escape our caste, we cannot speak to and speak for each other.

But we are stuck in this impasse. The government is moving, with unusual alacrity, to amend the Constitution to overturn court rulings that restrict reservations in promotions. The political consensus on this subject is not a sign of normative consensus; it is a sign that the chasm between citizens is so deep that the only tactful thing seems to be withdrawal in silence.

I am not writing to debate the technical merits of the constitutional amendment, or the legal absurdities that have now piled up in our system. I also do not share the grounds on which so much of the argument in these areas is made: unthinking usage of an abstract idea of merit. But this is a small plea to clear some space for the consideration of alternative paradigms. Otherwise, we shall not only remain tyrannised by compulsory identities, we will face an intellectual closure that will forever shrink our possibilities.

At the time of Independence there was a consensus that no matter what the identifying criteria, no matter what the objective of affirmative action, Dalits should be beneficiaries. And they should continue to remain so. But three things happened. First, the experience that was specific to Dalits was generalised into an indiscriminately expansive category of backwardness. Reservation was no longer about discrimination or historical wrong; it simply became a political category for accessing power through some claims to representation. It is rightly said that India is not sensitive to the problem of discrimination. But is it surprising, when the specificity of discrimination was so politically occluded by a discourse of representation? Reservation was no longer about justice; it was about political claims masquerading as claims about justice. On the other side, after reservation, the ethical labour of creating new social relations stopped. Reservation given, job done.

Second, the manner in which reservations were introduced created a new politics of conflict and competition in institutions that should have moved beyond caste. Our modern secular institutions, such as universities, can still make you shockingly aware of caste like no others. Dalits bore the brunt of it. There is old, obdurate prejudice behind this. But there is also a new ugly reality: the indiscriminate form in which reservations were implemented made it all too easy for these institutions to replace their professional missions with a destructive politics of identity, where some students are thought of as illegitimate usurpers and others as exercising the weight of undue privilege. In this politics, a new ghettoisation broke out. We are also about to do that to the state.

Third is, of course, the scandalous failure to prepare the preconditions for advancement. Reservation, even when it works, deals only with symptoms, not causes. Real equality of opportunity will require a change in a whole range of background conditions: from access to primary education to access to public goods, financial support, and a robustly growing economy that provides opportunities for mobility. They may not address all the problems of discrimination. But they will create conditions for genuine empowerment. That larger churning and mobility is necessary for what Ambedkar called "endosmosis". This larger failure meant that the promise of empowerment always remained an exercise in bad faith. If there is some hope, it is that growth has generated a form of unsettling and new resources that can set these processes in motion.

But these processes are threatened by the nature of our politics. Representation can, in some instances, direct limited benefits to particular groups. But it can also create a larger equilibrium in politics, where so much energy and coalition-building is centred on categorisation and division. The anxiety over slivers of representation has made it difficult to produce a larger politics of accountability. Our larger failures are connected to the narrow way in which we conceptualised the problem. Division creates a politics of fear that our political class uses to disguise its own failures.

There is also a more insidious failure. Identities are important. But the collapse of reason and identity has diminished intellectual life. Each of us is wary of subtexts about who the speaker is, rather than concerned with what the speaker is saying. All intellectual life is now about protecting identity turfs.

On any construction of justice, Dalits ought to be beneficiaries of affirmative action. And we need new modes of addressing discrimination. But does this require that we jump headlong into every attempt to expand the ambit of reservations, either by expanding beneficiaries or by applying it to new domains? Does it require that we continue to abet the politics of illusion? Isn't this paradigm as much a fetter and a diversion, as it is an enabler? The weight of history and the texture of politics are such that I have no locus standi to ask this question. But I am hoping that some of you can find creative ways of getting us out of this Procrustean bed, where both freedom and justice are now hostage to a politics of identity and suspicion. Perhaps, even asking this may be seen in bad faith, a way of deflecting responsibility to the victim. But I hope it will be excused as an expression of hope that a higher form of justice and citizenship than our current paradigm might someday be realised.

Yours sincerely

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi

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