Caste based reservations in India | A Christian Perspective

This post is an compilation of 3 articles. The articles came about as a result of a Ahmedabad Reflection Forum meeting that I had the privilege to attend back in october. The goal of the forum is to discuss current issues with a Christian perspective and form Scripture based opinions. We had very heated discussion on caste based reservations in India with very strong arguments coming from both side of the fence.

The below 3 articles are in a sense an amalgamation of various viewpoints presented at the meeting. Without further ado, let’s begin.

In opposition of Caste based Reservations (by Leena Santosh. Dated: 10/12/2016)

‘Opening his mouth, Peter said: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality’. Acts 10:34. If God does not show partiality, should we? The casteism prevalent in India, for centuries, goes against this principle of fairness and impartiality that Bible teaches us. But ironically, the solution (reservation policy) that we have come up with to address this issue, happens to go against the very principle that it perceives to uphold.

The reservation policy was first introduced in India in the late nineteenth century. Since then it has seen several amendments under the leadership of dedicated visionaries who fought for the plight of the most downtrodden section of our society which comprised of nearly 80-90% of the Indian population. The concept was noble wherein a compulsive inclusion of “representatives” of the schedule castes (SC), schedule tribes (ST) and other backward castes (OBC) through reservation policy, would bring about fairness in the social order of the society that was torn in the lines of caste. Unfortunately, this grand scheme has resulted into reverse discrimination. In the past, a person was denied education, job and career growth based on the fact that he/she belonged to a lower caste and not on the basis of his capability. Today, the denial is based on the fact that he/she belongs to the open category and not on the basis of his/her efforts and ability.

In the prevalent changing dynamics of our society, reservation policy, needs rethinking. Some pointers for alterations to our policy makers are as follows. Firstly, if a person has already claimed reservation and benefitted to it, his/her next generations must not be able to claim the reservation again. Secondly, along with caste, the economic status must also be considered before allowing reservation. Take the case of Tina Dabhi (IAS topper this year). Her father used reservation to get proper education, entrance into the government as an IAS and even for promotions thereafter and without reservation he wouldn’t have had these opportunities to join the mainstream society. On the other hand, his daughter inherited opportunities in terms of finance and an environment of growth from birth unlike her father. Hence if Tina Dabhi should have cleared preliminary examination of UPSC, it should have been based on her hard work and capability and not because of a reservation quota. In Timothy 5:9, (‘Do not add any widow to the list of widows unless she is over sixty years’) even the bible puts restriction on who should be and who should not be helped by the church. Not all widows (read downtrodden/needy people) are entitled to help from the church. The younger widows and widows with wealthier relatives can take care of themselves and hence are not entitled to church’s assistance. When the rich SC/ST/OBC applicants avail to reservation quotas they not only rob the open category aspirants who have put in their blood and sweat, but also from their own poorer SC/ST?OBC counterparts who have lesser marks and lesser qualification because of lack of opportunities and not lack of effort.

Thirdly, the policy makers must use resources to strengthen the public education while gradually reducing reservation quota. The state of our government run/municipality schools, as of today, is dismissal. Improving the education quality in these government run schools is a proper solution to the problem as opposed to the reservation policy. Building the house on rock is wise Mathew 7:24. Strong public education is the rock on which our societal order free of casteism should be built- not on sandy ground of reservation policies. When low cost affordable education becomes quality education in our government run schools, the economically backward people irrespective of their caste, will get an equal opportunity to compete and find their own way of life.

Implementation of the above may seem like a daunting task. But like it is said in Galatians 6:9 ‘Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.

Why I support caste based reservations? (By Sumeet Mohanty. Dated 12/12/2016)

I was notorious in college for being a rebel and a backbencher. I’d studied quite hard to crack the IIT-JEE, but with the marks that I’d received, I managed to get a rank where I could not get any of the coveted engineering disciplines. Not in the General Category at-least. I managed a discipline which was not exactly my favorite and I spent 4 years scraping through a majority of my courses. I remember during one my classes, my Professor called me to the front and with a straight face asked me, “Why are your grades so poor? Are you a Scheduled Caste?”

More than 2000 years of the most devious form of social engineering have gone into the making of the above sentence. At a time when education centered around the Vedas, the Gautama Dharma Sutra says in Chapter 20, Verse 12, “Now if a Shudra listens intentionally to the Veda, his ears shall be filled with molten tin or lac. If he recites Vedic texts, his tongue shall be cut out. If he remembers them, his body shall be split in twain.” It doesn’t therefore take a Doctorate to figure out that after being deprived of knowledge and education for scores of generations vis-à-vis the educated and more entitled castes, just mere improvement in the accessibility to education for seventy odd years will not undo the effects of a couple of millennia of injustice. President Lyndon Johnson in his commencement speech at Howard University in 1965 puts it as follows, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “you are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

A nation is the result of a socio-political contract between communities and people groups of different ethnicities, regions, religions, languages and in India’s case, castes, agreeing to live in harmony with each other. A strong nation is built when this contract is inclusive and makes provision for equitable distribution of the nation’s resources amongst these different people groups. Merit has and will remain a criterion for distribution of any resource only within the overarching, fundamental framework of inclusiveness upon which a modern day state is founded. Dr. Michael J Sandal, Professor of political Philosophy who is renowned for his Harvard course – “Justice: what is the right thing to do?” very rightly asks as to why merit alone should be the sole criterion for college admissions, especially when one of the unsaid aims of a university is to advance national goals of inclusiveness. Taking his argument one step further, if a community is large enough for its voice to be heard and it demands that in order for it to remain an integral part of a nation, its members should get proportionate representation in college admissions or for that matter in political representation or the administrative services or academia or media or even cricket, shouldn’t that demand trump the criterion of merit?

Detractors of caste based reservations insist that reservations should be given on the basis of income, not caste. What they forget is that poverty alleviation and economic justice are the goals of a welfare program like MNREGA, not of an affirmative action program like reservations. Arguments are commonplace citing as to how instead of reservations, the schooling system should be made more robust and inclusive. Aren’t the Right to Education and Sarva sikhsya Abhiyan programs tailor-made just for the same? The purpose of reservations is to ensure that all dominant communities in the country find adequate representation across all strata in society, at-least till a time when these welfare programs bear fruit and reservations are no longer required.

Some point out and quite rightly that reservations have not yielded the necessary results. As Christians, we understand that to undo a discriminatory system which is a product of unjust socio-religious engineering requires a spiritual battle against the principalities and powers that established it. Only Christ’s love can heal the wounds of two millennia of discrimination and subjugation. Caste based reservations are not the final answer to India’s problems, Christ is. Then why do I still support a system that is most likely not going to emerge as the final victor against the mammoth of a problem that it seeks to redress? Because, as in a game of chess, just because a pawn doesn’t always finally end up winning you the game doesn’t mean that it be removed from the chess board. It has its place along with the rook and the bishop and the queen.

Lastly, but most importantly, the New Testament not only seems to support the idea of reservations, but takes it one step further. The fledgling church in Acts 6:1-6 faced a problem of the Greek speaking widows complain of being ignored in the daily food distribution. The disciples prayerfully along with the new believers handed over the administration activity of the Food Distribution System to seven individuals who were full of the Holy Spirit. All seven names were Greek names. Were no Hebrew speaking men found who were meritorious enough for this task? Were Hebrews not present who were full of the holy Spirit? Individual capabilities and merit were not considered, but the majority community selflessly and out of love delved power and responsibility to the minority community that was being discriminated against to undertake administration. The Bible in these few words gives a powerful message to governments and policy makers across the ages: discriminating on the basis of associated identity is inherent in humans and preferential treatment for the community being discriminated against is acceptable as a Biblical act of remediation.

Caste, Merit & the Indian Culture (By Me. Dated: 15/12/2016)

Leena bhabhi begins her article by asking the question, “If God does not show partiality, should we?” Then, she goes on to say, “Unfortunately, this grand scheme has resulted into reverse discrimination. In the past, a person was denied education, job and career growth based on the fact that he/she belonged to a lower caste and not on the basis of his capability. Today, the denial is based on the fact that he/she belongs to the open category and not on the basis of his/her efforts and ability.”

Immediately, I tell to myself, “Leena bhabhi seem very partial towards a merit based society”. If Sumeet is discriminating on the basis of Caste, then Leena bhabhi is discriminating on the basis of Merit. And even if Merit may be a “more just” parameter on the basis of which to discriminate, it is still discrimination. Meritocracy is still a discriminatory system. And both of them being discriminatory systems, if working in isolation, in the end, yield the same results. Let me elaborate.

Caste based reservations, if continued indefinitely, will raise the lower castes to the status of higher caste, reversing the imbalance of power and status, This is the reason that both of you (and pretty much everyone involved in this discussion) agrees that caste based reservations must be removed at some point in time. Key words being “till a time when reservations are no longer required.”

Meritocracy, if continued indefinitely, will raise those with higher “Merit” to the top of the society, concentrating the power in the hands of few. Ignoring the elephant in the room, the very definition of “Merit”, Meritocracy is still a type of oligarchy and as such, brings with it all the evils of oligarchy. (Not to mention, it is a system that competes directly with democracy.) The minority with “Merit” will rule over the majority with less “Merit”.

Realistically, the systems will not work in isolation but in the context of the history and culture of India. Now, I’m no expert so correct me if I’m wrong, but Meritocracy as a societal construct does not exist in India. Whereas the Caste system does exist. If one were to remove all cast based reservations overnight, Meritocracy will by default fill the void. But in Indian context, Meritocracy will actually begin to reinforce the caste system because the merits of the higher castes are higher due to the total opportunity enjoyed by them in the history of India as compared to the opportunities enjoyed by the lower castes (even though higher castes are a minority.)

When a new idea or a concept is introduced in a culture, it is always understood in the context or ideas and concept that are already understood. The whole idea of Meritocracy depends upon the definition of Merit. As long as the Indian subconscious continues to make judgments based on person’s caste, it will also continue to ascribe merit on the basis of caste as illustrated when Sumeet’s professor asked, “Why are your grades so poor? Are you a Scheduled Caste?”

I’ve said much against Meritocracy, but to be honest, I do think it is a far better system than the Caste system. But as long as the caste system is woven in the very fabric of the Indian culture, it will also cast its shadow upon Meritocracy and thus it is not suited for India.

Does that mean I support caste based reservations? I’m not sure. I do support the intent and idea behind caste based reservations when it was first implemented. But I’m highly doubtful that the same intentions drive the current political climate around the reservation debate. As they say, content follows intent. If the intentions of our politicians are not in line with the original goals of reservations, then the content of their policies will reflect their actual intent. Taking this into consideration, it’s quite plausible that continued existence of reservation in Indian society will work to divide the society along caste lines. Instead of reaching a point in time where reservations are not longer required, it might actually strengthen the caste system by the way of reverse discrimination as Leena bhabhi pointed out.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I still haven’t pointed out the obvious. The foundation of caste based reservation is Caste. Caste is determined at birth. Thus, qualification for reservation is also determined by birth. Sumeet asks, “If a community is large enough for its voice to be heard and it demands that in order for it to remain an integral part of a nation, its members should get proportionate representation in college admissions or for that matter in political representation or the administrative services or academia or media or even cricket, shouldn’t that demand trump the criterion of merit?” I am not convinced that it should. When something trumps merit, it automatically means that it is more important than merit. The goals of inclusiveness as pointed out by Sumeet do seem like a worthy candidate. But I must ask, “Inclusiveness based on what?”. Caste is the answer. In short, indirectly, caste trumps merit. This is the basic principle on which reservations operate. The same principle can also be reasonably defended as the basis of the caste system.

It is also important to note that support for caste based reservations also indirectly validates the caste system. And without removing caste based reservations, it is impossible to remove caste system. If the goal of affirmative action is to transform the culture in such a way that affirmative action is no longer required, then it seems to me that reservations will fail to even qualify as an affirmative action. Because,

  1. It lacks the ideological foundation to transform the culture.
  2. It is trying to cut the very branch it is sitting on. (a very worthy goal indeed. No pun intended.)

Sumeet has already said reservation is not the final solution to India’s problems. I’ve tried to trace where exactly both systems working in an Indian context will fail. They are bound to fail. And I hope that India will be rid of caste system before the worst comes to the worst. I agree fully with Sumeet when he says solution to India’s Caste problem is Christ.

So far I have not stated where I stand. The reason is, even if I do side with one or the other, I want to make it clear that the reason I side with is not because I think it is a particularly good solution but because it is a less bad solution. Effectively, I’m choosing a lesser evil. I reluctantly side with caste based reservations because, in my opinion, removing it will immediately begin to reinforce the caste system. And though reservation may be ill equipped to eliminate the caste system, it does weaken it.

Policy changes suggested by me:

  1. Reservation policy should be accompanied by a disqualification policy. (The first suggestion of Leena bhabhi can be considered under here but I’m not a fan it working in isolation. There should be some more parameters here as well. And economic status should be somewhere near the bottom of the list.) The disqualification policy should detail the basis on which persons can be disqualified from assigned reservation quota. These persons must compete in general quota. Every person applying for a reserved seat should be evaluated against the disqualification policy.Such disqualification policies will also serve as an indicator as to when reservation for that particular people group becomes unnecessary. For example, if disqualification rate reaches higher than 70%, and there are more than 50% seats going empty for 3 consequent years, reservation should be removed and the seats should be returned to general quota.
  2. Reservation policy should also be accompanied by a development policy that targets the development of targeted reservation group. This may be as simple as making sure that other government policies such as MNREGA or Right to education are implemented and monitored closely for that particular people group. The monitoring should be done by the leaders / representatives of the targeted people group.
  3. In education (and not in government), if reserved seats are not filled within certain time frame, empty seats should be allotted back to general quota. (I’m not sure what the current scenario is.)
  4. Politicians fighting elections on basis of reservation promises should be required to submit their full reservation policy to election committee. The policy should be approved by state level high court. The policy cannot be changed after they win. (I don’t know how practical is this, but anyways I’m putting it here.)

Addendum: I think that the reason that we as Christians struggle with it so much is that we fail to realize that caste based reservation as a concept is trying to achieve the Christan ideal of justice and equality by the non-Christan means of caste system. The goal is noble. The means are not. We want to reach the goal, but want to avoid the collateral damage it brings. And so, we want to support and oppose it at the same time.