While not entirely unexpected, the SC verdict on reservation for economically weaker sections has caused dismay and disappointment among those already enjoying reservation.It is not envy of the newly reserved class which will not encroach on their turf,but fear that it might push many in their position farther back in the race for advancement.
Ravish Kumar of NDTV has rightly deprecated the clamour about what he considers a non-issue,especially in view of the immense and burgeoning numbers of the unemployed in the country.But it does require some examination insofar as it throws a light on a current of thought among the ruling classes that this whole business of reservation has been a nuisance at best and a curse setting the country back at its worst.
Two judges out of three who dismissed the plea challenging EWS reservation had testily asked how long reservation would be allowed to continue.The constitutional provision has been extended too many times and too long.The Constitution had not envisaged such a possibility and it ought therefore to be scrapped.
But the idea behind it was not that it was to be a free ride for all time.Founding fathers of our Constitution had a different view. The gap between forward castes and dalits etc.was too great and needed abridgement,and reservation was needed to overcome the traditional and inherited inequality.Those economically weaker are not unequal in this sense as they have better scope to leap over the barriers that their present lot consign them to.And sooner too.
For even though they may be poor now,they had plenty of social capital and inherited skills and attitude that their SC /ST counterparts lacked.Therefore something special should be provided by the constitution to ensure maintenance of even chances between both the groups.
There is no question that poverty,’economic weakness’, should be eliminated.But that can be done through other means,like say,area-wise development schemes and improvement of education and basic medical facilities,and employment.But reservation for forward castes may threaten the very idea of affirmative action for supporting the ideal of equality.
People forget that the constitution was a unique document for the country and its future at the time of its preparation.Indian society had been then a highly unequal and rigidly encased society.It was to be an instrument to virtually revolutionize that society through peaceful means.While Nehru thought planning and founding of democratic institutions could provide the means for such a giant’s stride,Ambedkar
with his brief stint in the Viceroy’s government had formed an enormously optimistic idea that through paramount state action the entire structure and character of the vast and diverse society/ies of India could be changed in a brief period of time.Neither probably had any realistic idea of the tremendous resistance and sabotage their intentions would face from entrenched social forces and obsolete institutions.The fifteen years envisaged for abolition of caste inequities that had been entrenched for many hundreds of years were pitifully short,and on top of it inadequate to meet the resilience and re-birth in new forms of many such obstacles to reform.
The second possible conjecture is that it might help the forward castes to close ranks and oppose the prospective candidates for upward movement among dalits like a phalanx.
Actually in the discussions on equality social and cultural gaps are considered much more tenacious and malevolent than economic inequality.Within traditional social system the gaps are structural and therefore so much harder to overcome.On the other hand economic inequality may be overcome with economic plans and programmes that nullify the effects of askewed economic relations.
What transpired in the judgment actually follows from such contradictory impulses in our society or country.On the one hand there is a genuine remorse for the privations and injuries the Dalits and the Adivasis etc.have been suffering from and a strong desire to redress the wrongs,on the other there is the knee-jerk reflex from the emerging consensus among the forward elites that this whole business of reservation had been a mistake at the beginning and has now become a curse.It tends to be seen as an illegal privilege that ploghs up and fills with ridges a level playing field.This is a strong conviction especially of those members of the elite who have had to claw their way upward into their present status.Merit naturally is their watchword.The two honorable judges who had snapped at the idea of extending this supposedly obsolete instrument were only echoing this emerging consensus.
Actually the popular notion that the Supreme Court is an oracle of timeless wisdom is a worn-out myth.Apart from the mistakes of individual judges and benches the judgments of judges on fundamental questions at times proceed from unconscious class and caste bias.In America people have come to accept more easily that judgments of the Supreme Court there proceed from either a conservative or a progressive bias,and judgments on abortion rights have swung between two extremes of the two opposite tendencies.But we have to consider the possibility that in our time the pendulum might stop dead and not resume its swing for good.
The forward elites typically lose sight of the tenacity of caste and its progeny of institutions though many heart-rending incidents of caste abuse happening under their very noses.
The shocking suicide of a Dalit PG institute of medical science in Maharasgtra under pressure from her forward caste elites,the Hathras rape-murder case,the weekly news of Dalit men and women being cruelly punished and grossly humiliated for holding up their heads and refusing to abide by caste-rules in villages should open our eyes as to how far the noble idea of equality has actually penetrated our society and consciousness. Only prolonged struggle to uphold the equality conferred on the oppressed and exploited sections of society by the constitution can vindicate it.
We have not seen the end of the debate yet.
Hiren Gohain is a political commentator