Affirmative action is a dynamic, long-term process

Affirmative action is a dynamic, long-term process

Identity politics, social engineering and reservation is a dynamic process that cannot be frozen.

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Last Updated : 29 June 2024, 05:28 IST

Neither politics nor social reconstruction is static. To insist that evolution within a society and a polity on who should be identified as part of the ‘backward classes’ and who qualifies as a match for the economically weaker section (EWS) categorisation be frozen by throwing the book (the Constitution) at those who demand a relook, a rethink, and potentially a readjustment, is to shut out reality and choose the make-believe.

There is no absolute definition of backwardness and of being economically weaker; the terms are relative to other sections of the population who are not either backward or economically weaker. It was staggeringly unrealistic that the framers of India’s Constitution believed that 10 years of reservation would sort out the embedded social (and its consequential) inequalities and injustices that had accumulated over millennia for the ‘backward classes’ — the Schedule Castes (SCs), and the Schedule Tribes (STs). It did not even occur to them that the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) were equally deprived and discriminated against in the system of caste, and its brutal hierarchy determined just about everything — from where they could live, the well they draw water from, the work and professions they could pursue, who they could interact with as equals, who they had to defer to as superiors, how they worshipped, and the gods they worshipped.

The extension of reservation, which is up for renewal and therefore review by 2030, has added urgency to the politics of caste and identities. The fact that the issue of extension is on the table creates pressure within the political system to take positions.

Affirmative action, which is what the principle of reservation and its categorisation as a fundamental right in Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution is, is not just another policy over which the pro-status quo conservative Right led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can wage war against the liberal progressive centrist and Left parties against status quo. This war reduces the complicated and sensitive subject of reservation into a simple test of who wins more seats in the Lok Sabha.

Social engineering, which is not to be confused with the micromanagement of caste and sub-caste politics, is not easy; it cannot be dealt with by listing the number of MPs or MLAs from the backward classes or the EWS. Social engineering — for which reservation is a mechanism selected by the framers of the Constitution to level the playing field and deal with embedded inequality and injustice — needs policies that deepen, expand, and strengthen the capabilities of the backward classes and the EWS. This will ensure that their participation in democratic politics is not reduced to the ridiculous manipulations of vote-bank politics.

The 2024 Lok Sabha election campaign on the one hand demonstrated the capabilities acquired by the political class in micromanaging the vulnerabilities of the backward, the EWS, and religious communities and religious sects within those communities. There were the Lingayat and the Vokkaliga votes, the Matua and Muslim votes, the Sikh and Christian votes that were used to create support bases by reducing the voter to a single identification of either caste, community, or sect.

On the other hand, the campaign revealed the fault line that separated the Narendra Modi-led BJP from some of its current allies like the Telegu Desam Party, (TDP), the Janata Dal (United), and the Janata Dal (Secular), and the anti-BJP opposition of the Congress and other I.N.D.I.A. parties. For Modi, the ceiling on reservation is frozen and fixed at 50% of the population, regardless of the size and proportion of the population of the backward classes and the EWS. The decennial census has been inordinately delayed and he has refused to approve a caste census.

For the ruling BJP, the cap on reservation was fixed so that any change would be a violation of the Constitution. The BJP’s attack against the Opposition was the rejection of the principle of inclusion because the Opposition and even its current ally the TDP wanted the backward classes and the EWS within the Muslim community to be included in the list of beneficiaries under reservation. Reservation, as the campaign revealed, was a privilege that is limited to the SC, the ST and the OBCs, who are not Muslims by faith. The discrimination in the interpretation of who can be included in the reservation policies is obvious: there are Buddhists and members of various sects of Hindus, Mazhabi and Ramdasia and other Sikh groups, and Christians who belong to the SC, the ST and the OBC categories.

The BJP’s fault line was drawn after the cancellation of reservation for Muslims in Karnataka in 2023 by the Bommai government. In Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, and West Bengal, the state legislation expanded reservation to include backward caste Muslims, even though these laws have been challenged or overturned by the judiciary.

No political party, not even the BJP, can throw out reservation as a tool for affirmative action. That would be suicidal in electoral politics, where representation of the backward and the EWS is part of the politics of inclusion and power sharing. In Maharashtra, where state elections are due later this year, the political fight will feature how the two coalitions, the BJP-led Mahayuti and the Sharad Pawar-Uddhav Thackeray-Congress-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA), handle the demand for inclusion of the Marathas as OBCs.

Affirmative action is a dynamic and long-term process that needs continuous monitoring and adjustments to minimise the deeply-rooted diseases of social discrimination and violence. Policies to fix and level the field for the backward classes and the EWS cannot be short-term, and tweaked to create advantages at election time. Such measures reek of ill intentions.

(Shikha Mukerjee Is a Kolkata-based senior journalist.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.


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