I was in Class 3 or 4 when Mandal Commission recommendations were accepted. My middle-class locality dominated by Punjabi and Banias was aghast when the then Prime Minister V.P.Singh announced reservations of government jobs based on caste and not on merit.
The students protested, and schools, colleges, and offices remained shut down for many days. As a child, I didn’t understand the implications of reservation, but this was my first brush with complicated terrain of Indian politics. The demolition of Babri masjid cemented my interest in Indian politics and made me a lifelong student of politics.
The street corner and drawing room discussions were colored with issues related to caste and other social identities. This was also the first time, I heard the word ‘caste’ in my home and even came to know about my caste and was made aware of the entire caste system.
There were raging discussions as some hailed this as a historic step that would break the shackles of backwardness for many caste groups in India and to some it was just a political gimmickry for consolidation of votes. While for many others, it was the end of meritocracy in India. To me, it was a few more days of school holidays. (yeah, I hated going to school).
My first actual encounter and understanding of caste-based reservation were when I applied to Delhi University colleges. It was the first time I saw, girls and boys who came in laal batti wali gaadis while standing in queues which were shorter than the rest and also paying half the amount in fees. While students like me came by DTC buses, paying full fees and standing in those serpentine queues cursed the reservation based on caste in India. We all have since seen, how the well off and the undeserving amongst the so-called backward and deprived classes have reaped the advantages of the quota system. We all have some or the other friend whose parents were in decent government jobs and were better off than us socially and economically, but still, their children acquired government jobs not on their merit but reservations.
This is not to say that caste-based reservation has no advantages. I am all for affirmative action for the needy ones, for the deprived ones.
But does India have a system to determine who a victim is? Have we ever done a proper assessment of how caste-based reservations have empowered the marginalized ones?
And also, are reservations the only way to empower the discriminated ones?
I am certainly against the distribution of crumbs to any group, sect or religion in India.
I don’t know how the policy contours of reservation of 10% of seats for economically backward upper castes will be operationalized. Or should this 10% principle be applied in all other castes? Whether it will be legally sustainable in the court of law as it exceeds the 50% ceiling on reservations.
Also, this raises the question of the size of the pie. The pie ( number of government jobs) is already too small and loaded. Why is our economy unable to accommodate the aspirations of the growing population of the youth who is literate but not skilled enough.
Time will tell how the recent move by the present Modi government tackles a whole lot of issues reservation system raises. Looking at the record of the previous governments in having a healthy and critical debate on the supposed benefits of affirmative action is not very encouraging.
Am I too cynical, let’s wait and watch?