OPINION MAY 1, 2010
India's Government By Quota
The affirmative-action plan to eliminate caste discrimination was
supposed to last 10 years. Instead it has become a permanent, and
divisive, fact of life.
By SHIKHA DALMIA
For nearly half a century, group or racial preferences have been
America's prescribed remedy for racism and other -isms standing in the
way of social equality. But anyone wishing to study the unintended
side-effects of this medicine on the body politic need only look at
India. There reactionary groups are trying to co-opt a women's quota
bill, not to create an egalitarian utopia, but its opposite.
India's ruling secular Congress party has joined hands with Hindu
nationalist parties on a bill to guarantee 33% seats in the parliament
and state legislatures to women. This is on top of a similar quota
that women enjoy at the local or panchayat level. The bill sailed
through the upper house but has met stiff resistance by India's
lower-caste parties. Why? Because it threatens their monopoly on the
country's quota regime.
Just as racism is the bane of America, caste is the bane of India; its
rigid strictures for centuries sustained a stratified society where
birth is destiny. Although caste has declined in India's large,
cosmopolitan cities, elsewhere this system still restricts social
mobility for the country's 100 million dalits (untouchables). They are
not only consigned to demeaning jobs but they're not even allowed to
pray in the same temples as upper castes.
But the scheme that India's founders devised to eradicate the caste
system has actually deepened the country's caste divide, and created
several more. The women's quota bill is only the latest development in
the competition for victimhood status that has pitted every group with
any grievance, real or imagined, against every other.
India's founders began on the right track, constitutionally banning
untouchability in 1950 and, just as in America, guaranteeing equal
treatment under the law for everyone regardless of caste, sex,
religion or race. But then came the fatal leap. They created a list or
"schedule" of all the dalit sub-castes deserving preferential
treatment and handed them 17.5% of the seats in the parliament and
state legislatures. They also gave them 22.5% of all public-sector
jobs and guaranteed spots in public or publicly funded universities.
The scheme was supposed to last 10 years. Instead it assumed a life of
its own, making scheduled-caste status a bigger driver of success than
individual merit (at least before liberalization opened opportunities
in the private sector).
The tipping point came in the late 1980s when the government's Mandal
Commission. This body, charged with examining the plight of the poor
and disenfranchised, concluded in its final report that the original
list of scheduled castes was too short. It recommended a new,
catch-all category called Other Backward Classes covering over half
the population and called for reserving 49.5% government jobs and
university seats for these groups
The report caused an uproar. Hindu students from nonscheduled castes,
particularly from modest backgrounds, exploded into riots. Already
rubbed raw from the existing quota regime which allowed academically
inferior, scheduled-caste candidates to breeze into the best
universities and land secure government jobs while they struggled,
they took to the streets. A few immolated themselves, one big reason
why the government collapsed in November 1990. But the quota system
survived, and post-riot governments have slowly expanded it.
Quotas have become a fact of life in India because they are the major
currency with which Indian politicians buy votes. In a few states with
their own quotas, almost 70% of government jobs and university seats
go to the reserved castes.
The major political resistance to the quota regime during the Mandal
riots came from Hindu nationalist parties—but that was before they
found a way to make it work for them. In some states like Rajasthan
they have actually instituted quotas for the poor "forward
castes"—code for upper-caste Hindus.
And these parties wholeheartedly back the latest women's quota bill
because it will simultaneously allow them to: establish their
progressive bona fides; once again stick it to Muslims, arguably the
only genuinely disenfranchised minority without its own legislative
quota; and consolidate their power base in parliament since the women
elected are likely to be relatively well-off Hindus.
A tragi-comic note in this drama is Raj Thackeray, an ultra-nativist,
Hindu politician from Mumbai who wants to chase all out-of-state
residents out of his city. He is warning the lower-caste leaders to
show respect for women by supporting this bill or else "they will be
given a lesson on it."
Protests have broken out in the country, with Muslim and lower-caste
women opposing it as currently written and urbane, city feminists
demanding its immediate passage. But the lower-caste parties' only
objection is that the quota bill doesn't contain a sub-quota for
lower-caste women. In other words, the debate in India is no longer
about using quotas to redistribute opportunity—it is about
redistributing the quotas themselves. No politician or party is
opposing this bill on principle.
It would be tempting to blame the abuse of quotas on the degraded
state of Indian politics. But, in reality, India is demonstrating the
reductio ad absurdum logic of quotas.
Progressives in India—as in America—believe that equal protection of
individual rights is insufficient to create equality because it does
nothing to address private discrimination. Protecting the property
rights of persecuted castes is hardly enough if they can't get jobs in
the first place. Hence, in their view, government has to give
persecuted groups a leg up to equalize opportunity.
But this turns the system into a zero-sum game, triggering a race for
the spoils in which powerful groups can seize the advantage. Because
quotas or preferences don't originally apply to them, they become the
new aggrieved—victims of "reverse discrimination." And it is easy for
them to mobilize this sentiment into a political movement precisely
because they are powerful.
India's lesson is that abrogating individual rights through group
preferences or quotas institutionalizes the very divisions that these
policies are supposed to erase. Human prejudice can't be legislated
away. That requires social activism to coax, cajole and shame people
out of their intolerance. There are no short cuts.
Ms. Dalmia is a senior analyst at the Reason Foundation and a Forbes columnist.
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