Friday, April 2, 2010

[ZESTCaste] A Framework for Evaluating Reservation

Editor's Notebook

A Framework for Evaluating Reservation

S ocial scientists are obsessed with formulating theories, all because
the primary task of social science is to explain social phenomena, and
theories are its tools. Whether to explain the Congress' victory in
the 2009 elections, the reasons behind the Maoist upsurge in central
India, or whether Shah Rukh Khan's movie, My Name is Khan, benefited
from the aggressive stance of Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirmal
Samiti in the days leading up to its release, social scientists are
involved in a perennial quest to find patterns behind events and
develop theories to explain them.

But much to their chagrin, unlike natural sciences like physics and
chemistry, which offer explanations using precise laws (Einstein's
e=mc2 and Newton's laws of motion being amongst the most famous ones),
social science is at best an approximate science and rarely, if ever,
offers precise explanations. After all, it hinges on that most
unpredictable and erratic of things: human behaviour.

In this sense, the very idea of reservation is peculiarly paradoxical.
On the one hand, we consider equality the nonnegotiable underpinning
of a just society; on the other, there are often demands for special
provisions for, and by, certain sections of society. This dilemma
surfaces intermittently in debates on social justice, the most recent
on account of the women's reservation bill recently passed in the
Rajya Sabha.

How does one reconcile seemingly contrary goals? Is there a theory
that explains the rationale of reservations? Can we develop a
theoretical framework for evaluating the necessity of reservation for
a certain section of society?

As for a theory on reservation, one finds some answers in political
philosophy, in what is called the 'politics of difference,' where it
is argued that where differences between social and economic positions
of various groups are so significant, common equal treatment may not
provide enough opportunities to improve social standing..

Reservation, or affirmative action, as its lukewarm counterpart is
known in the West, seeks to make special provisions for those
historically marginalised sections that suffer from inherent
structural inequalities, and provide them with special privileges for
an equal playing field.

Reservation here is seen as analogical to giving a headstart to a
physically-challenged person competing in a race in which no other
competitor suffers from a disadvantage. It would surely be far from
just if the former was asked to start from the same line as the

Those against reservation would probably not change their stance on
the basis of just one set of arguments. Nonetheless, we need to
explore whether we can arrive at a theoretical framework for
evaluating whether a a particular social group merits reservation and
weigh its demands with respect to other competing claims. Would
backward castes merit reservation more than Muslims? Or is there a
stronger case for gender-based reservation?

To even consider reservation for a certain social group, it must be
evident that people of that community suffer from disadvantages
because of the mere fact they are born into it. But it is also equally
important that an overwhelmingly large majority in that group suffer
from marginalisation in one form or another due to prevailing social

When reservation was first proposed for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled
Tribes, nearly entire communities were harshly discriminated against.
Can we make a similar argument for women as a whole? Don't women born
in middle and higher-income families, which lay considerable stress on
education, have a relatively privileged upbringing? Might not
gender-based reservation serve to benefit these privileged women more
than those who really need it? A similar argument can be made with
other social groups too, but in the case of backward castes, such an
overwhelming majority suffers from marginalisation that benefits are
bound to trickle down to those most in need.

Furthermore, reservation is meaningful if it is used to usher a sense
of pride into a social group that has historically been so thoroughly
suppressed that it suffers from a deepseated psychological lack of
confidence. Since reservation allows access to positions of power and
privilege to a select few from suppressed groups, it is believed there
is a spillover effect that gives voice and pride to the group at
large, if only because one of them is now matching status with those
who have been in power so far, and have, in many cases, been their
oppressors, too. This percolation often happens when the marginalised
group lives under a system of ghettoisation or collective seclusion
that contributes to a sense of shared suffering.

One of the characteristics of the caste system is its segregation, not
just in the traditional sense, but in the sense that people of the
same caste, living in the same neighbourhood and under similar
circumstances, were either able to access benefits or were debarred
from them because of an institutionalised and socially-embedded
distributional injustice. Can we argue that gender-based social groups
live under ghettoisation similar to what we see in social groups built
on ethnic or religious identities? Is there any evidence of a shared
sense of collective identity among people of the same gender, cutting
across economic classes, as one would find among the backward castes,
or even among some religious minorities?

These are just some questions that could point towards a theoretical
framework for evaluating the case of reservation between competing
demands. Social science can only offer imprecise pointers to and
approximate parameters of such a theory. Nevertheless, in our quest
for social justice through reservation, we must not defeat its overall
purpose by according benefits to a certain community while ignoring
the more pressing needs of other, more marginalised groups that might
be suffering from deeper structural inequalities.


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