Contentious points on reservations
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is often portrayed as the guiding light for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Although a certain level of divergence does exist between what the RSS espouses and the policies of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, the influence of the ‘parent body’ is unmistakable. As the RSS’s apparent influence over governance increases, it has become important to pay attention to discussions within the organisation. The three-day conclave of the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha, the highest decision-making body of the RSS, which ended in Nagpur on Sunday, passed some rather interesting resolutions. Social media has been awash with memes of the RSS’s resolution to replace Khaki shorts, its trademark uniform for 91 years, with brown trousers as part of the organisation’s endeavor to “move with the times” and demonstrate that it is “not rigid”. However, its endeavor to “move with the times” should not be merely understood by a change in attire. Among other resolutions, the organisation backed the entry of women into temples, insisted that affluent groups should not demand reservations and called on the government to conduct further investigations into alleged “anti-national” behavior on university campuses. On the question of “anti-national” activities, this column has in the past often discussed how that the RSS’s version of nationalism is utterly narrow and divisive. But the focus of today’s column will be on the interesting resolution passed on the reservation system.
Before the Bihar Assembly elections last year, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s statement on reservations was used as cannon fodder by NDA’s opponents. Well, what did he say? “If we would have implemented this (reservation) policy as envisaged by the Constitution makers instead of doing politics over it, then the present situation would not have arrived. Since its inception, it has been politicised. We believe, form a committee of people genuinely concerned for the interest of the whole nation and committed to social equality, including some representatives from the society, they should decide which categories require reservations and for how long. The non-political committee, like autonomous commissions, should be the implementation authority; political authorities should supervise them for honesty and integrity”, Bhagwat said. Suffice to say, his call for a “committee of people genuine concerned for the interest of the whole nation” is mired in a lack of understanding of how systems of governance work. But he did not call for an abolition of the reservation system, as some in the opposition camp had claimed. The argument put forth by defenders of the RSS chief is that he expressed dissatisfaction at patently non-backward groups, such as perhaps the Patels of Gujarat or Jats of Haryana, raising a demand for reservations. In other words, the decision to judge a community as a member of the Other Backward Classes category should be de-politicised.
One could accuse Bhagwat of naivety. But he is not entirely wrong. RSS general secretary Suresh Joshi comments at the recent Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha reflected a similar position. “When prosperous groups ask for reservations, then it seems the line of thought is not correct,” he said. “Those who are prosperous should actually help weaker sections of society. When instead of this they ask for reservation for themselves, I think it is a lack of thought about the values Dr. B.R. Ambedkar espoused.” Suffice to say, his comments are at complete odds with the BJP-led Haryana government’s promise for reservations in government jobs for the Jat community. In the popular imagination, communities such as the Patels and Jats are largely seen as both socially dominant and economically prosperous. This apparent paradox is resolved when one recognises that certain sections of these socially dominant communities are economically backward. It is especially true of these erstwhile traditional landowner communities, many of whom have seen their landholdings shrink through generations. Those who move away from the farm, often find that the education they receive is often not good enough for the current job market.
While a large segment of these communities remains economically backward with little scope for employment in the cluttered job market, they still share that sense of social dominance and entitlement with their more prosperous brethren. The violence perpetrated on other communities by the Patels and Jats, although completely unjustified, stems from this apparent contradiction. The Mandal model established nearly three decades ago, which created the Other Backward Classes (OBC) segment, had the unfortunate effect of laying down the use of caste-based quotas as the only State response to social and economic disadvantage. It failed to expand the criteria for social justice beyond caste. As argued in these columns earlier, the recent agitation by the Jat community is down to a combination of the reservation policy’s failure to broaden the scope of social justice beyond caste, inadequate job creation under the current economic model in India and a poor higher education system, which creates millions of poorly skilled graduates. The current OBC system will not solve this problem. Young Jats or Patels, who are seeking a slice of the 27 percent OBC quota in government jobs, will be left in a direct confrontation with other communities in the OBC list. However, the RSS did back reservations for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, asserting this had led to social empowerment over time. In light of how Bhagwat’s comments were apparently misconstrued, Joshi probably felt the need to make that clarification. Of course, it would naive to deny a definite political motive on the organisation’s part.
“Caste laws specifically excluded Dalits and Adivasis from membership of society, so this had to be remedied in our Constitution by legally enforced inclusion, that is,
Reservation,” according to noted sociologist Satish Deshpande. “This model of reservation addressed social exclusion rather than economic deprivation, even though the former almost always produced the latter.” Suffice to say, the RSS would nod in approval at these comments made by a sociologist, who does not share the organisation’s ideological moorings. Suresh Joshi went one step further when he said members of the Hindu community “responsible” for caste-based discrimination should strive for its eradication. The only difference between the comments made by the two RSS leaders is one of timing. In the landmine of Bihar politics, Bhagwat’s statement for an apparent review of the reservation system fell afoul of the delicate caste arithmetic that the BJP sought to play up. To conclude, there are no simple answers to some of the questions that are thrown up by the reservation system. Nonetheless, with the increasing violence now associated with caste-led agitations for job opportunities in a struggling economy, our political class must step up and address the issue of reservations with greater clarity and honesty. The time to hide behind caste-based political compulsions is fast running out.