Monday, March 23, 2015

Once a backward, always a backward? New ruling by Supreme Court is a call to go forward

No one gives up privileges. Especially in India where privileges based on caste are at the core of politics, vote banks and zealously preserved vested interests. Predictably therefore Jat MPs and community leaders rose in protest within hours of the Supreme Court ruling against quotas to Jats on the basis of caste backwardness. But the Court's logic was irrefutable. It acknowledged that caste was a prominent reason for historic injustices in the country and therefore recognition of backwardness was associated with caste. However, self-proclamation was not a yardstick to decide backwardness, and vigilance was needed to discover emerging forms of backwardness in a continually evolving society. No longer, said the Court, could caste be the sole decider of backwardness.

The Court did not deny that the idea of reservations became a principle of governance in India for valid reasons. Castes suppressed for centuries could not compete with others in free and democratic India without help from the state. Reservations were the obvious way to provide help. But the underlying concept was that in three or four generations "the backward" would catch up with "the forward" and make props like reservations unnecessary. That part of the idea was conveniently ignored. The Supreme Court brought commonsense back into the picture -- that reservations on the basis of caste cannot be a permanent fixture any more than suppression on the basis of caste.

But caste is an easier route to jobs and positions than merit. That is why even educated segments of society flaunt the caste card. Lawyers in the High Court of Madras have been demanding that names recommended for appointment as High Court Judges henceforth shall not include those from Brahmin, Mudaliar, Gounder and Pillai communities, but only those from communities hitherto unrepresented. A retired judge of the High Court pointed out that the number of posts occupied by the named communities in the Madras High Court "is less than 15 percent, which is permitted even statutorily in case the rule of reservation at 69 percent is applied". But the President of the Lawyers for Democracy and Social Causes offered other sets of statistics to counter the argument. Either way caste claims dominated the discussion.

In politics, too, the backward have overtaken the forward and seized power in many states. The two dominant castes that control Karnataka, Vokkaligas and Lingayats, are officially backward castes. The officially forward castes became politically backward. In some other states there have been cases of persons born high paying bribes to get listed as low-born because that label opened doors to jobs and admissions.

One case that brought out the absurdity of it all was the rioting by the Gujjar and Meena communities in Rajasthan in 2007 and 2008. Historically both were fighter castes and enjoyed social recognition. The Meenas got themselves registered as STs although they were landowners and economically well-to-do. The Gujjars, economically weaker, became OBCs, although in Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh they were classified as STs. OBC was backward no doubt, but Gujjars wanted to be recognised as more backward with the ST tag. The 10 percent Meenas would tolerate no such thing as it would mean sharing their "privileges" with the 5 percent Gujjars. Several dozen people were killed in the riots.

The initiator of the Dravida movement, Periyar Ramaswamy Naicker, fought a lifelong battle against casteism of all kinds. Yet, in Shanmugapuram village in Thoothukudi district in 2008, a young Dalit named Periya Karuppan was given 101 lashes for keeping a male dog as his pet; the dog was killed. The village rule was that Dalits should not keep male pets lest they impregnate female pets of the upper castes. In Narikkudi Irunchira village in Virudunagar district, a resident named Guruswamy became a temporary worker in the postal department whereupon he developed a desire to wear a shirt properly ironed. The local dhobi advised him against it because only upper caste people were allowed to wear ironed shirts. Guruswamy's insistence on ironing his shirt caught the attention of local leaders. He was called to the Panchayat where a member beat him until he fell unconscious.

In Vivekananda's time only Kerala was a lunatic asylum of castes. Kerala has since improved, but elsewhere in the country lunacy lives on. The Supreme Court's decision in the Jats case is a timely reminder that we need to catch up with the world. Jat leaders committed to promoting the current development policy should welcome it. There cannot be economic development without social development.