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Byline by MJ Akbar: Reserved for Politics
I wonder if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh realises how effectively he has maimed the legacy of Finance Minister Manmohan Singh by an ill-intentioned reservation policy that seeks to restore the primacy of political manipulation over rational economic evolution. The British protected their empire by the effective use of a Roman principle of political management: divide and rule. The British divided Hindus and Muslims in order to survive. Dr Manmohan Singh’s government is pouring acid on the divisions of Hindu society in order to protect its power.
Caste is a fact in India; casteism is an evil. There was early recognition of this evil when the basic structures of a modern Indian state were being established by the generation that won us freedom from the British. Coincidentally, I am writing this on the day Jawaharlal Nehru, a Brahmin who challenged the inequities of Indian society, died. Nehru understood the need for affirmative action. But none of these terms — caste, casteism or affirmative action — is a stagnant reality.
Nehru, and the Constituent Assembly, followed their leader and mentor, Mahatma Gandhi, and extended affirmative action to those who had suffered the greatest injustice, the Dalits. They did not raise the bar to the Backward castes. Was Nehru an enemy of the Backward castes? He dreamt of and founded the great institutions that have become the pride of India all over the world. Reservations were not an unknown concept: why didn’t Nehru, or his daughter Indira Gandhi, allot half the seats in educational institutions for select castes? You cannot accuse them of being indifferent to India or its realities. In fact, the inequity was much worse sixty years ago, and thirty years ago, than it is today.
But Nehru and Indira Gandhi knew that, if it is to succeed, social policy in a democratic polity must be held together by reason and consensus. When there is reason, policy is reasonable; when it is reasonable, there is consensus. Casteism, and the domination of the upper castes, was much, much worse in 1950 and 1967 than it is in 2006. But there was no anger when reservations were made into law in 1950. The upper castes that would not permit the shadow of a Dalit to cross their path suppressed their bloated egos and kept their mouths shut. Reservations were accepted as a necessary step towards a better India. Today, excess is on the verge of destroying the necessary. Reservations are now the interest — collected by pick pocketing the future of India — paid by politicians for loans from their vote banks.
Students and doctors are out on the streets not because they reject the need for social justice. They are out because politicians are stealing the future of the young in order to preserve the power of the old.
Does Dr Manmohan Singh understand why these young men and women have suddenly become so disillusioned with him? It is because Dr Singh gave them their most recent illusion. He promised the young release from the shibboleths and knots that had curdled India for too long.
A child who was five in 1991, when Dr Manmohan Singh became finance minister and guardian of economic reform, is twenty today. He, and, thank God, she, have grown up in the belief that India won political freedom in 1947 and discovered economic freedom in 1991. Perhaps the latter could not have come earlier. It needed the confidence of a state that had been able to protect its political independence against the encroachment of neo-colonisation. It may also have needed the failure of theories like state-entrenched socialism. It was certainly spurred by the humiliation of Indian gold reserves being placed in hock to London bankers to maintain foreign exchange liquidity. Since then, through the vicissitudes of democracy, Dr Manmohan Singh has represented a virtue that has disappeared from politics: integrity. He was the true hero of the new Indian dream. There is heartbreak on the campus. Arjun Singh cannot be the source of any disillusionment because who could possibly have any illusions about him?
The true tragedy is that Dr Manmohan Singh’s economic reforms were, imperceptibly, beginning to heal sordid divisions like caste by luring the young towards an urban mindset. Government is not the only source, or catalyst of change, a proposition surely endorsed by Dr Singh. I would argue that market-driven urbanisation has done as much to obliterate the worst elements of casteism as any law passed by Parliament. Check out the BEST metaphor: it might be a weak attempt at a pun, but it is useful. When a Mumbaikar gets into a public bus (run by BEST) does he worry that the person he is rubbing against might be a Dalit? How do you recognise a Dalit in Mumbai? You don’t. Caste flourishes in the frozen geography of a village, since areas are allotted by caste.
There seem to be worse dangers ahead as this government wilts under the pressure of militant Cabinet ministers with a single demographic support-base and rising ambitions. The constituency needs of Meira Kumar and Ram Vilas Paswan could end up holding the government, and then the country, hostage. Both are telling the private sector, via television (which also informs their voters) that it is only a matter of time before there are reservations in their factories. This is always accompanied by a threat: or else.
Muslims started the politics of reservations, long before Independence, demanding their own seats in legislatures. The British were only too happy to concede to such logic. The Congress argued that community-based reservations were only a prelude to a division of the country, and when Pakistan was formed this argument seemed to have made its point. However, the Congress accepted this logic for Dalits, presumably on the grounds that Dalits were, socially and economically, far worse than Muslims. Implied, but never stated, was the confidence that no other community would extend an economic demand to partition.
The tension is churning out the innumerable contradictions in a policy line that refuses to adapt itself to new realities. Statistics are a much more sophisticated science than they were in 1950, as is demographics. It is possible now to take affirmative programmes towards those below the poverty line, rather than return to the bane of India, the caste line. It amazes me that a government headed by an economist refuses to consider this option. There would not be a murmur from students if an economic criterion were applied. An economic criterion has justice on its side; a caste criterion merely politics.
One of the more interesting facts about the anti-reservations agitation is the significant presence of Muslim students. These students have broken through powerful barriers of discrimination in order to reach where they are. Everyone in six decades of politics has come to Muslim doors for votes, but there is no quid pro quo; no one has given them an assured percentage of jobs or a place in educational institutions. The Manmohan Singh government may consider itself the paradigm of secularism, but it does not talk of reservations for underprivileged Muslims. (As statistics prove, the inclusion of Muslims in certain Backward castes is nothing but a hoax.) Those Muslim students who are becoming young doctors and managers are proof that there are other methods by which discrimination can be challenged. They are also painfully aware that when you divide Indians, you run the danger of dividing India.
Economic reform was beginning to unite the young. Politics is once again turning a crack into a chasm.