Sunday, April 09, 2006

49.5% of how much?

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline By MJ Akbar : 49.5% of how much?

Caste is a fact, but is it a virtue? Government policy should seek to eliminate differences rather than consolidate them. And is caste the only statistic that the mighty government has? Is there no other definition of poverty?


Pardon me, but I have this inconsiderate habit of looking at the wrong end of a statistic. Let me explain.

When I hear the Honourable Arjun Singh declare that 49.5% of our best and brightest college students shall henceforth come from a particular combination of castes, I want to know not what the 49% consists of, but what that combination of castes constitutes.

Whenever there is a caste-based allotment of the fish and loaves of Indian development, it is ipso facto an allotment to Hindus, for the simple and obvious reason that caste is a Hindu phenomenon. Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, to name the three prominent Indian minorities, have no caste. Some formula-fudgers have tried to solve this dilemma by the theory that the poorer minorities, all converts, have retained a sub-identity of caste beneath their new faith.

This is the kind of thing that sounds very nice in Delhi but is a hoax outside, where real life begins. It is a linguistic tidbit thrown towards minorities who have been excluded from the meal at the main table. It is only partially true, and ineffective for at least two reasons. Minorities have a near impossible task in finding evidence for a sub-identity; and when they do it is generally from the bottom of the heap, which means they do not get a place in the limited queue. If the Honourable Arjun Singh can find one Muslim who has been admitted into a quality educational institution because he is a "Backward", it would be welcome addition to my knowledge.

Politics is a more fluid science than demographics. But when Mayawati strategises about elections, she does not automatically include "sub-identity Muslims" as part of her Dalit vote bank, nor does Mulayam Singh Yadav assume that "sub-identity Muslims" are an extension of his "Backward Yadav" vote base. They know that these are separate interests and they make a conscious attempt to harmonise varied interests on a common platform. But when it comes to allocation in educational institutions or jobs, the harmony becomes distinctly atonal.

Imran Ali and Yoginder Sikand have reported the findings of a recent study done by them, in collaboration with ActionAid (India), Jahangirabad Media Institute and Indian Social Institute, New Delhi to examine the "social, economic and educational" condition of Indian Muslims. A few, necessarily brief, quotations from their report:

Some ‘low’ caste Muslim respondents pointed out that while their castes had been included in the official list of Other Backward Castes, they had not benefited from this provision. Government facilities for the OBCs, they said, had been cornered almost entirely by more numerous and influential Hindu OBCs… The high degree of Muslim poverty is evidenced from the fact that 41.9% respondents (in rural areas) have a total annual household income of less than Rs 10,000, 17.5% between Rs 10,001-Rs 20,000, 5.4% between Rs 20,001-Rs 30,000 and only 0.1% between Rs 30,001-Rs 40,000… Many Muslim families complain of being deliberately neglected in government programmes meant for alleviating rural poverty… Overall, as this survey suggests, Muslims are among the most marginalised communities in India in terms of economic and educational indices and also in terms of political empowerment… A host of factors, as we have tried to show, have been responsible for the marginalisation of Muslims as a whole. This calls for urgent steps to ameliorate their condition.

According to the 2001 census, Hindus constitute 80.5% of India’s population, Muslims 13.4%, Christians 2.3%, Sikhs 1.9%. Others make up the remaining two per cent. The minorities are not included in reservations, nor are the upper castes: between them, the minorities and the upper castes would add up to 40%. So in real terms, 60% per cent of India is being guaranteed 50% of the seats in the best educational institutions. Do the math.

But mathematics is not a principle. What is the principle, if there is any? To help the underprivileged? Then why are India’s minorities excluded from the bonanza?

Is it impolite, or, worse, unpatriotic, to raise such a question? A subconscious fear is exploited whenever Muslims make any economic demand, like reservations, that they are reviving the ghost of partition. 1947 is over. Anyone born after India became free will be 60 years old next year. How long is the political class going to fool Indian Muslims by frightening them in public and purchasing their ever-available leaders in private?

I have never been comfortable with minorityism. In fact, I have tended to anger Indian Muslims by asking them a difficult question: at what stage of their history did they become a minority? Were Muslims of North India a minority under Mughal rule two hundred years ago? Were the Muslims of Hyderabad a minority when the Nizam was in power sixty years ago? The answer is, no. In other words, a minority status is not a function of numbers; it is a function of empowerment. The Brahmin has a miniscule population and lives across all economic layers, but no Brahmin sees himself as a minority, because he is socially and politically empowered. Democracy is the greatest blessing the dispossessed can have, for it is the only system that finds space for progressive empowerment.

But if the percentage game is going to be played into overtime, as is being done by this government, in educational institutions and jobs, the two most significant tools of empowerment, then a democratically elected government of India has no right to exclude minorities from this game. Arjun Singh has always positioned himself as a champion of minorities. Where are they when he has made his most significant political play?

If we are to get social change peacefully, then there is a legitimate place for positive discrimination. No one in his senses, for instance, can argue against positive discrimination for Scheduled Castes and Tribes: they carry a burden of neglect and enslavement that India should be ashamed of.

But a good idea has been perverted by excess. If half the students of a quality institution are there because of quotas rather than intellectual ability then they will affect the quality of the institution. Instead of the institution raising the standards of the students, students will lower the standards of the institution. The young are not unreasonable; the old do not have a monopoly on wisdom. Students have accepted existing levels of quotas because they too can see its limited need. But students will not allow politics to drag their schools into a swamp. Politicians can think no further than the next elections. The young have their whole lives to consider.

Caste is a fact, but is it a virtue? Government policy should seek to eliminate differences rather than consolidate them. And is caste the only statistic that the mighty government has? Is there no other definition of poverty?

I could argue that market forces have done more to change a repellent reality like untouchability than all government diktats put together. Urbanisation, driven by either choice or need, has not eliminated casteism, but it has dulled its cruelties. Does anyone know who is touching whom on a crowded Mumbai bus? Does anyone care? Can anyone afford to care?

A theory is floating through Delhi, and will doubtless find its way into national conversation, that Arjun Singh did not inform Prime Minister Manmohan Singh before this cynical midterm twist of the knife. This is partly because of the Prime Minister’s credibility with the middle class; it does not want to believe that its hero would sully his clean hands with conventional Congress vote-bank politics. A more cynical view is that the Prime Minister has denied foreknowledge of so many critical decisions that have been made by his government that one more can easily be added to the list. By being too non-political the Prime Minister might have sparred himself into a corner. He could end up as Prime Minister of only a happy Stock Exchange and a forlorn Indo-US nuclear deal. In the beginning, the middle and the end, a Prime Minister’s function is political. Dr Manmohan Singh may want to escape from politics. But politics will catch up with him.

1 comment:

raul misir said...

Rahul Singh Baghel said...

Just prove it That Arjun Singh is a real wellwisher of OBC'a and SC/ST!

He is just trying to fullfill his dream to become Prime Minister, which will never happen.Ask people of his native ,Sidhi,Rewa,Satna ,Shahdol where he just helps himself and his family to create enormous wealth and property...
I am same Baghel Thakur as Arjun singh, he seldom speaks truth in his life,ask him when he was unable to pay back his tubewell loan in 1982 then how he and his family has become owner of Kerwa Palace and other properties in Bhopal.,rubber pouch factory Bangalore,Apple Gardens in Solan Himachal Pradesh and Major Shareholder in JP Cement (JayPrakash Industries)