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Caste in Crisis: The Limits of Positive Discrimination in India

In mid-February, residents of Delhi were met with an unpleasant surprise: seemingly out of nowhere, an unprecedented water crisis forced schools and businesses across the metropolis to shut down while close to ten million inhabitants were forced to make do with less than 50 percent of the normal water supply. Water shortages have been fairly common in Delhi’s recent past, but this crisis was unique for a very specific reason: it was caused, not by widespread drought or infrastructural failures, but by sabotage.

The Delhi water crisis was generated by mass protests in the neighboring state of Haryana.  Thousands of protesters from the Jat caste blocked railways, roads and, most importantly, one of two key water canals leading to Delhi. The demonstrators were calling for changes in the “reservation” scheme, a system of quotas for public sector jobs and universities designed to overcome discrimination against lower castes. Yet the protesters were not angry about being considered “lower caste.” In fact, they were demanding lower status in order to be entitled to privileges under the reservation system.

The Indian caste system has gained worldwide notoriety for perpetuating grave inequality and injustice. The age-old hierarchal system, which has shaped the dynamics of Hindu society for centuries, originally assigned families and groups to specific castes based on their professions. The resulting social stratification was long exacerbated by rules prohibiting people from marrying outside of their own caste. Members of lower castes were systematically preyed on by higher orders: In 19th century Kerala, for instance, women of lower caste were not allowed to cover their upper bodies when within sight of upper-caste men. In particular, the Dalit castes were forced to endure degrading treatment for decades. The caste divide deepened during the British Raj, since the British considered caste an accurate classification of intellectual capability and pursued policies that promoted upper castes above all others.

When India gained independence from the British Raj in 1947, the question of caste rose to the forefront of national political discourse. One of the key architects of the country’s new constitution, B.R. Ambedkar, was a Dalit. As head of the Constituent Assembly, he argued against untouchability and caste-based discrimination. One of the principal legacies of his efforts is the current reservation system, which mandates a minimum quota for the members of “scheduled” castes and tribes in legislative assemblies, public sector jobs and public universities.

The reservation system was initially derived to compensate for these caste members’ persistent disadvantaged socioeconomic position. Nationally, the system dictates that at least 22.5 percent of positions in assemblies or public jobs must be given to members of the specific lower castes. Many states go even further, with quotas accounting for over 50 percent of placements. Along with members of “Other Backward Castes” (OBCs), scheduled castes and tribes have thus benefited from a constitutionally enshrined system of positive discrimination. In this context, positive discrimination in India differs significantly from its more flexible American counterpart, affirmative action. While American affirmative action highlights the commitment of the government to promoting disadvantaged minorities, it does not set minimum minority quotas in all branches of the public service and the legislature. India’s reservation structure, on the other hand, sets rigid quotas at both the state and national level for members of lower castes.

At a fundamental level, the effects of the reservation system are unclear and controversial. First, critics have argued that its relevance has lapsed after its initial success at inception. The system was initially designed to last for a decade — in the interests of fairness and long-run egalitarianism, it was not supposed to become a permanent feature of Indian society. Yet 69 years later, it is still in place, with no prospects of dissolution or even re-evaluation.

Recent studies have also contested the notion that reservations bolster the lower castes: One study even suggests that political representation for lower castes is correlated with increased poverty. India’s social inequality rates have also been on the rise since 1990, belying a positive effect of reservations in recent years. Although caste-based discrimination in India is still very much present and needs to be systematically tackled by the government, the quota system as it exists today seems to stir up as many — if not more — problems as it resolves.

The limitations of the reservations system have never been as evident as in the Jat protests that led to Dehli’s water shortage last month. While they were traditionally not considered “upper caste,” the Jats have become an affluent caste and risen to political dominance in the Haryana region. This is partly due to the fact that they constitute 28 percent of the Haryana population, making them the single largest caste in the region. As a result, they are considered a “dominant caste,” a term used to describe castes that may rank low on the traditional Hindu hierarchy, but are nevertheless socially and politically powerful. Their status of “dominant caste” explains why their demands to be included in the reservation system are unsurprisingly considered absurd.

The Jat protests highlight the problems with the current Indian response to caste inequality. First and foremost, Article 15 of the Constitution clearly states that the reservation system is geared towards advancing “socially and educationally backward classes,” a classification which, for the most part, does not apply to the Jats. Consequently, attempts by the Jats and other dominant castes to obtain special privileges through the exploitation of the reservation system distracts from the concerns of lower castes, simultaneously delegitimizing the entire system’s ability to address cases of genuine caste injustice. It also adds licenses and perpetuates the grievances of the middle and upper castes, members of which feel unfairly treated by the positive discrimination measures.

Moreover, the reservation system is simply not adaptable enough to account for an increase in social mobility and its effect on the caste system. While caste is still a strong predictor of socioeconomic status, it is not the only determining factor as it once was. The Jat example highlights the potential for lower castes to gain political power over time and overturn their hierarchical disadvantage. Instead, features such as landlessness have become stronger determinants of poverty. It is therefore no longer enough to promote the interests of lower castes, ignoring other disadvantaged communities in rural or conflict-ridden regions such as the northeastern states.

Additionally, only Hindus are actually born into a caste. Therefore many members of other religions are excluded from the system. Indian Muslims, who in particular have also been historically disadvantaged, are not entitled to caste-based positive discrimination privileges. For the reservation system to be a truly effective approach to achieving greater social equality and making up for historical inequalities, it has to help all of the disadvantaged, not just certain lower castes.

Apart from the ineffectiveness of the reservation system in promoting an egalitarian social structure, it has also lead to caste emerging as a political bargaining chip. Especially at the regional level, politicians use caste-based incentives to garner votes in local elections. Their inflammatory rhetoric has deepened pre-existing social divisions and caused further discontent. This is certainly true of the recent Jat protests: The former Chief Minister of Haryana, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, rose to power on a platform promising reservations for Jats. The failure of his campaign promise, which was overturned by the Supreme Court, heightened the frustration of the Jat community and indirectly led to the recent demonstrations.

So perhaps the largest issue with the reservation system is that, instead of abolishing the remnants of the caste system, it brings them into the mainstream of Indian politics. It is necessary to know your caste for reservation quotas, college and job applications, and census surveys. Reservation quotas haven’t undercut or eliminated the idea of caste in Indian society — they have only perpetuated and legitimized it.

Given the range of concerns with India’s quota system — especially those brought to light by the Jat protests — it is obvious that the way the Indian government approaches caste needs to change drastically. India needs a more fluid system of affirmative action that provides support to the disadvantaged without completely undermining meritocratic principles or reinforcing the social divides that it intends to remedy in the first place. The time for intractable caste quotas has lapsed. Instead, the government should continue to promote the interests of lower castes (and indeed, all underprivileged communities) through education drives, scholarships and a stronger stance against caste-based violence. However, changes to India’s caste policies look increasingly unlikely as the reservation system continues to dominate the country’s sociopolitical landscape.

About the Author

Mili Mitra '18 is an International Relations concentrator and a senior staff writer for BPR.