Let's skim the upper caste creamy layer

(This is the second part of the article 'The compulsive need to oppose reservations', continued from here)

What does Pratap Bhanu Mehta really want? He wants 'alternative paradigms' other than caste based reservations to be considered. Why? To build a sense of 'common citizenship'. His worry is 'we are also about to do that to the state', by which he means we're infusing caste into the state.

Perhaps he did write, talk about these ideas before 2006, but one gets the idea that it was the second phase of Mandal reservations introduced during that period which provoked him to think more on the issue. Was the state clean until then?

If there were no reservations, he would perhaps have not thought so hard on caste and citizenship. Reservations have forced him to compulsorily think about caste. Doesn't that make reservation itself an effective alternative paradigm?

Alternative paradigms, but same location

But how does he plan to create alternative paradigms? That's not always clear from what he says in this article or from his earlier writing, despite his obvious interest in the subject of reservations. But one key point can be deduced: even though he says he doesn't share the grounds on which many of the arguments against caste based reservations are made-- 'unthinking usage of an abstract idea of merit'-- he makes all his arguments from the vantage point of merit. He's not thinking of any 'alternative paradigms' away from that location.

This perpective binds him to a very hypocritical stance: while he talks about de-casteing our 'modern secular institutions', he doesn't talk about lessening the tendency of those institutions to embrace and favour upper caste elites. He isn't talking about puncturing the disproportionate sense of entitlement that the instrument of merit infuses into the privileged communities, only about how the Dalit-Bahujans shouldn't make any claims on the basis of their disprivileged, 'compulsory' caste identities.

Commenting on the Supreme Court judgement which finally okayed the second phase of Mandal reservations a few years ago, Mehta said:
The court has, in deference to the legislature but in line with its own precedent, upheld reservations. It has upheld the constitutionality of the 93rd Amendment and 27 per cent quota for OBCs. But it is in modest ways forcing the government to rationalise the system in at least two ways: the exclusion of the creamy layer from the OBC quota and an injunction that the inclusion of specific groups be reviewed every five years. The rationalisation imposed is modest. 
That's probably one issue that probably bothers Mehta a lot: the creamy layer. One can assume Mehta prefers rationalisation too, that he approves of the skimming of the creamy layer. But why should any student who wishes to study further be denied the chance to do so? The popular logic runs thus: only the truly needy and deserving should avail of reservations. The well off should be excluded.

Mehta obviously believes, like many others, that a lot of rich aspirants from the reserved categories corner all the reservation benefits. He also believes, while writing on the quota for minorities, 'particular castes in the categories of SC and OBC have disproportionately benefited from reservation'.

Creamy layer individuals and creamy layer castes. His 'alternative paradigms' should resolve those two issues, perhaps? All alternative paradigms suggested in the past, including the 'deprivation index' method promoted by Yogendra Yadav, have neccessarily focussed on assuaging those two major anxieties of upper caste opponents of reservations and so-called defenders, upper caste again, of 'affirmative action'. Alternative paradigms?

But there isn't any substantive evidence that only rich aspirants, and a few castes across categories are grabbing all benefits of reservations. Those are at best assumptions, especially the first, and not even very intelligent ones at that. Can we build any alternative paradigm on the basis of such assumptions? You definitely cannot build any alternative paradigm based on the prejudice on which those assumptions are predicated.

Let's skim the upper caste creamy layer 

Let's look at the first assumption first: it's impossible to convince the upper castes of India that only rich, lazy, incompetent and untalented people among the reserved categories, the so called 'creamy layer' in other words, are not eating away all the seats and jobs offered through quotas. Are only rich, lazy, incompetent and untalented people among the upper castes grabbing all the 'general category' seats and jobs offered? 

That question would seem absurd to most upper caste opponents of reservations. Why? Because they obviously believe no one can succeed without hard work and merit. But why do they think the success of the reserved category students or applicants is not because of hard work and merit? Because they know they're rich, lazy, incompetent and untalented.

That kind of reasoning would be universally recognized as racism; but no, not in India. Therefore, the Dronacharyas in Delhi University, for instance, think nothing of stealing thousands of reserved seats every year, and admitting many more thousands of upper caste students than sanctioned by the government. And you can be quite sure they are quite proud of doing that, as proud as Oskar Schindler must have been adding more and more condemned people (to be rescued) to his list, except the people being 'rescued' here are from the classes which do the condemning, mostly.

Let's ignore 'lazy, incompetent and untalented' for the moment: but are none of the people in the general category lists rich?

Their parents and grandparents and their parents and grandparents etc have been 'meritorious' through generations without making any money? That couldn't be true. Why would they continue to strive so hard to prove their merit, generation after generation, to grab the best educational opportunities and jobs if they were not going to make some money from it? Why go through all that hard work for nothing?

It is reasonable to assume at least some of them must be rich, even if not all of them like the successful quota grabbers from the reserved categories. Let's skim that creamy layer.

But many among the upper castes might object to that. How can meritorious students from the 'general category' be skimmed? Well, how can meritorious students from reserved categories be skimmed? If the rule is that only rich students corner all reserved seats, then it is very reasonable to assume that only rich students corner all the general category seats too.

Let only poor candidates from all categories get all the opportunities. If it makes good sense to skim rich aspirants from the reserved categories in order to benefit the truly poor and marginalized, then it makes much better sense to skim them from the general category because there are quite possibly more rich aspirants there. Why? Because more marks mean richer candidates, right? And as all of the candidates in the general category score more marks than the creamy layer of rich aspirants in the reserved categories, they must all very obviously be richer than the first creamy layer.

If this proposition militates against the fine sensibilities of people who worship merit they should think about all the poor, needy, very deserving upper caste aspirants who are deprived of opportunities because of those rich, meritorious freeloaders.

The second assumption-- particular castes in the categories of SC and OBC have disproportionately benefited from reservation-- is quite ironic really. Because reservations came about because a few, particular castes were hogging all the opportunities; and those few, particular castes still continue to hog most of the general category seats, on an average, and also steal seats from the reserved categories in huge numbers, wherever possible.

But Mehta isn't going to talk about that. In his view, only the reserved category is tainted by the impurity of caste. When he talks of cleansing our 'modern, secular institutions' of caste, he means only those parts of those institutions which have been unwisely thrown open to accommodate the lower castes to whatever extent.

In other words, he has no issues with how the 'general category' is constructed, how it has been monopolized by a few castes for the last couple of centuries, ever since the British first admitted them into their institutions by reserving some seats for them, because they were too unmeritorious to get in otherwise. When the 'general category' has such a long history of caste, Mehta doesn't spare even a brief glance at it. How modern and secular is his conception of our modern, secular institutions?

Caste has been stifling the egalitarian potential of our modern secular instititutions even since they came into existence, and the introduction of reservation itself, as pointed out in the beginning, should be considered as the exploring of an alternative paradigm. How can tinkering exclusively with reservations, while ignoring the flawed nature of the 'general category' or merit, be considered as a solution to rid our institutions of caste?

If anything frees these institutions of the stagnant miasma of caste to some extent, breathes some refreshing air of modern ideas like egalitarianism and diversity into them, it is the system of reservations. The general category is the seat of caste, not the reserved categories.

 To be continued.
Cartoon by Unnamati Syama Sundar.

Also published on Round Table India.


The compulsive need to oppose reservations

Pratap Bhanu Mehta wants to break down the 'tyranny of compulsory identities'. Shouldn't reservations be the last place to begin then? Reservations happen when the state finally decides to pay attention to what caste has done to a lower caste individual. A whole life precedes it: a life spent facing and struggling against, in varying degrees, many structural efforts to incapacitate that individual. Shouldn't we begin at the beginning, then? From the 'scandalous failure to prepare the preconditions for advancement'?

What are these preconditions? Mehta mentions: 'Access to primary education to access to public goods, financial support, and a robustly growing economy that provides opportunities for mobility'.

Ignoring the superciliousness in Mehta's tone which seems to indicate the implicit belief that Dalits or other backward sections of Indian society have never seriously considered or agitated for the resolution of those issues, you will probably admit: how can there be any disagreement on all those issues? But how do we get there from here? It's quite clear it is very difficult to get there from here, because we haven't got there in the last 65 years. But the ruling classes, as represented by people like Mehta, should understand that a major reason why we are still stuck here, still discussing reservations, the symptoms, is probably because they have never paid as much serious attention to, or expended as much passion in, discussing causes as they have deprecating reservations. We're still here, because the ruling classes most probably like it here.

Reservations are still here because the conditions which create the compulsory identities are still here. And what sustains those conditions? Following Mehta's train of thought, we could say the answer is: the lack of opportunities. And what causes that shortage of opportunities? One reason could be the inability to create them. Another less obvious reason could be the unwillingness to create them.

Let's explore the less obvious reason first. The ruling classes have from the very beginning stood by the ideology of merit. Remember, Nehru wanted to build a 'first class country in everything'. You can't create opportunities for all when you swear by the exclusivity inherent in the ideal of merit, can you? This is a contradiction that champions of merit like Mehta can never see.

So when he talks about 'access to primary education' does he really understand, how the ideology of merit subverts that idea? That a caste system of varyingly 'meritorious' schools doesn't ensure equal, or equitable, access to primary education to all? Shouldn't Mehta have written this 'Dear Dalits' article when the RTE Bill was being debated rather than now, when the quota in promotions is being mooted? Why are you so in love with the symptoms, Mr. Mehta? But such has been the sincerity of reservation baiters for a long, long time. If they had been truly committed to the causes they boisterously espouse they would have started looking at the design of the education system in India first. A comment by a popular blogger turned novelist, on the social media, seems to illustrate clearly the narrowness of the thinking of these reservation baiters:
The demand for reservations in promotions after 60 years of reservations in educational institutions and jobs is a proof that reservations have failed.  
He seems, like Mehta, to be another symptom lover again, disguised again as a lover of causes. All kinds of media, right from those driven by satellites to those catalysed by water coolers, are full of such profound anti-reservations wisdom. But he is right in recognizing that something has failed, and thankfully, is also much less sanctimonious than Mehta in expressing his views. What has failed? Reservations?

If the education system, even after 60 years, can accommodate students from reserved categories only under compulsion it clearly means the education system has failed. A system which seems to produce only largely 'unmeritorious' lower castes against largely 'meritorious' upper castes: isn't something wrong with that system? Any objective outsider would consider such a system deeply flawed at best, or intentionally racist at worst. To reiterate, reservations are not a failure, the education system is.

Our deeply flawed education system didn't grow out of nowhere, it grew out of a deeply flawed society. Why don't you look at our society as a whole, Mr. Mehta, instead of harping on what happens in the sphere of public employment which concerns less than one per cent of India's population? Or in higher education in central universities, the exclusive club within a club, which concerns much less than even 0.1 per cent of people in India?

The question that naturally crops up, considering the tendency, among the upper caste dominated middle classes and their shallow intellectual leaders, to rile against reservations every time a yawning gap in representation is sought to be even partially filled by an ever dilatory state: are the ruling classes truly prepared, and willing, to create more opportunities for all? Even in areas where shortages have been eliminated-- like in undergraduate medical, business and engineering colleges where many seats are going a-begging-- you'll find deep resentment against reservations and students from the reserved categories. Why? 

Around 3 lakh engineering seats remained unfilled in the country, last year. For the last few years, tens of thousands of engineering seats are going unfilled in just the three southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and now this year, the figure would be more than a couple of lakhs. Seats remain unfilled in Maharashtra, and in Uttar Pradesh, and across India. There are many medical seats that remain unfilled too. A similar situation exists in institutions offering other popular courses in law, business etc.

So the first reason, inability to create more opportunities, can't be a cause of 'lack of opportunities', at least in the field of higher education. There are enough opportunities for everyone and more; but why do we still hear such virulent and very loud complaints against reservations in our public sphere? It's not just a few 'public' intellectuals like Pratap Bhanu Mehta who seemed to have made successful careers out of reservation baiting, there seem to a whole range of social, voluntary organizations that seem to thrive entirely on agendas which, directly or indirectly, oppose reservations. The Hazare-Kejriwal movement is a prime example.

This is the reality: in higher education, India has moved beyond the era of shortages, but the Pratap Bhanu Mehtas of the 'merit-excellence' business still seem to be stuck in it. They don't want students from the reserved categories in higher education even when there are more than enough, much more than enough, seats in higher education. This paradox can't be explained through logic, because this antipathy seems to be founded on purely emotional grounds. This opposition is founded on hatred, it'd seem.

 To be continued. 
 Cartoon by Unnamati Syama Sundar.

Also published on Round Table India.


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