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Millennium Post

Reserving the caste question, for now

Even though veteran Congress leader Janardan Dwivedi’s suggestion of removing caste as a criterion for reservation in education and job markets sound decidedly benign and post-ideological, the bitter truth remains that caste continues to play a major role in determining economic futures of millions of people in this country. While caste-based quota seems straight out of a polity mired parochial one-upmanship, dangling the quota carrot before a hungry and opportunity-deprived vote bank, and while some eminent sociologists continue to begrudge the prevalence of caste in determining the allocation of benefits, it is equally true that caste remains one of the deepest fault lines along which the country remains viciously divided. Exploitation on the basis of caste is double-edged: it is at once a form of cultural racism as well as a kind of class-based discrimination, since in the Vedic Hindu texts, the caste system was actually a codification and demarcation of labour. Caste-based discrimination, over the ages, solidified into entrenched prejudices and it is for this reason that empowerment of Dalits, scheduled castes and tribes as well as other backward classes has played such a significant role in the evolution of Indian politics, both in theory and practice.

In this light, the time is still not right to dissolve caste-based reservation altogether because in wide swathes of the country, a toxic concoction of caste and religion still remains the chief engine of a regressive and exploitative politics of opportunism. As the recent riots in UP and the violent clashes off and on in greater part of northern and western India have demonstrated, official invisibility of caste from state administration would cause more problems and perpetuate more systemic and historically-rampant inequities instead of creating a level playing field for all. Congress president and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi is therefore right in brushing off the proposal to make reservations caste-less and instead make them class-based. In effect, the SC/ST (Reservation in post and services) bill, 2008 and also Constitution (117th) amendment bill aimed at reserving seats in promotions are not just electoral sweeteners but in fact are crucial legislative tools to bring in parity in the terribly unequal society that is India.
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