Why there are so few senior Dalit bureaucrats

Since they are in the bottom half of the merit list of the UPSC exam, they are likely to be under-represented in senior government service decades later

Here's a fact you can't tear up in Parliament. It provides the basis for the current constitutional amendment bill providing quotas in promotions for Dalits and tribals in government service. Despite six decades of entry-level quotas, there are few Dalit senior officers. By one count, of around 88 secretary-level posts in the Central government, not one is filled by a Dalit. Systemic discrimination, allege its proponents. Is that the only explanation for this "fact"?

To begin with, who appoints officers to senior posts? In the last decade or so, it is well known that ministers, not senior bureaucrats judging their own, choose key bureaucrats. Central secretaries (after empanelment) are often chosen by the concerned minister. It seems schizophrenic for politicians to systematically discriminate against Dalits and tribal officers, yet overwhelmingly vote for a law to correct this.

This "fact" is also a partial picture. As the submissions before the court argued, anecdotal evidence suggests Dalits are well represented in the state (as opposed to Central) bureaucracy. It is hard to read meaning into this without comprehensive data something the courts asked for and the government refused to provide.

During the Constituent Assembly debates in the late 1940s, no one questioned the grievous historic injustice meted out to Dalits and tribals. An independent India agreed to inherit that sin. The logical solution was a strong state that protected these groups from discrimination, providing them quality schooling, health and opportunity. But the flailing Indian state was not capable of "delivering" real social justice so quickly. Reservations were a second-best solution. Since the state could not, in a generation, correct the inequities of the past, reservations would correct caste prejudice within the state, and create a Dalit middle class. These thousands of jobs and college seats were important; but they were (and are) no substitute for more essential social justice providing succour to the millions of deprived Dalits and tribals outside of the state.

It is catastrophic to admit now, 60 years later, that far from preventing discrimination against Dalits outside the narrow confines of the state, the Indian government has been unable to protect Dalit officers within the state. That is what the bill implies. Fortunately, this is not true. Since Independence, Dalits have been empowered within the state through quotas and powerful political parties. Overwhelming political support for the constitutional amendment is proof of this. Yet, Dalits and tribals remain the poorest, most discriminated, least literate Indians outside of the state. This then, is the 21st century consequence of what B.R. Ambedkar alluded to half-a-century ago: "in politics, we will have equality, and in social and economic life we will have inequality".

What then explains why there are, in some cases, so few senior government officers who are Dalit?

Let me suggest one. In any organisation, those who are towards the top of an entrance exam are more likely to rise to the top, compared to the bottom half. Our cabinet secretaries and foreign secretaries have typically been those nearer the top of the UPSC examination when they first joined. Even those at the bottom of the general list in the UPSC struggle to make it as Central secretaries. This is a trend seen in entrance exams everywhere. Those towards the top of an engineering or medical college entrance test tend to leave college at the top of the pile. Why should government be any different? Since Dalits and tribals are at the bottom of the merit list (since most avail of quotas), they are likely to be under-represented in senior government service decades later. Add to this the problem that since age restrictions are relaxed for them, Dalits and tribals officers tend to enter service older, retiring before reaching senior posts.

Is this fair? Of course not. But the real tragedy is not why there are so few Dalits and tribals in senior government posts. It is why, 60 years after Independence, so few of them make it to the top of the general list. The answer is blindingly clear. So little government money (and frankly, the energy of social justice advocates) is spent on improving public schools, colleges and scholarships the surest way for historically marginalised groups to overcome the lack of social capital back home.

This is only a hypothesis. But it offers a compelling counter to the claim, made without any systematic evidence, that the seeming absence of Dalits in top bureaucratic posts is, of itself, evidence of discrimination.

The bill does more than divert attention from social justice. It hurts the only force (apart from the market) with the ability to improve the condition of Dalits and tribals: the state. Bureaucracy 101, since first written by Max Weber, dictates that efficient organisations have to be hierarchical and internally meritocratic. This is intuitive: if your junior or peer becomes your boss solely on the basis of identity, how likely are you to perform? By making the state the site of social justice, instead of the vehicle for social justice, the interests of the marginalised are harmed most.

Are those few politicians opposing the bill mouthing these liberal and socially just arguments? Well, Exhibit A is the Shiv Sena, about the most illiberal party in Indian history. Exhibit B is the Samajwadi Party, whose member tore a copy of the bill in Parliament. Mulayam Singh Yadav, more than any other, grasps the bill's cynical aim. The current amendment is in response to a court judgment invalidating a law passed by Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh. Her BSP owes its origins to Dalit government officers such as Kanshi Ram, who first organised within the bureaucracy, then floated a political party outside. Dalit bureaucrats are the feeder service into Dalit politics. For Mulayam, this Bill will empower his opponent in his home state and for that reason alone, his Lohiaite backward caste party will tear a pro-reservation bill. When illiberal and cynical laws are opposed by illiberal and cynical people, democracy's doom is not far.

The writer is a lawyer and doctoral candidate at Princeton University, US

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