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AAP and Castes?

| by Rajinder Puri

( January 18, 2014, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Addressing the Delhi assembly immediately after winning his vote of confidence, Chief Minister Mr. Arvind Kejriwal expounded on what he understood as Aam Admi, or common man. He considered every Indian regardless of status, wealth or calling to be an Aam Admi provided he was honest, true to his calling and committed to the national good. He projected in fact his vision of the new Indian who might help the nation reclaim greatness.

Recently however his senior colleague Mr. Yogendra Yadav stated that in pursuance of social justice the Aam Admi Party (AAP) would review the current reservation policy with the intention of increasing quotas for reservation. He said:

“We will work for more reservation for disadvantaged groups. Discrimination on the basis of caste is extreme in India . Equally worse is discrimination based on gender and class. We will work towards the welfare of all groups that are victim to such discrimination.”

How far will this policy square with the visionary concept of Aam Admi projected by Mr. Kejriwal? As a serious scholar of socialist studies Mr. Yadav doubtless has good reasons for pursing this policy. But one would urge him to reflect. Politically the ideological foundation for caste based reservation was laid by Ram Manohar Lohia. During an era when entire villages were dominated by one caste or another, when people were frozen into their areas of habitation, when there was little or no mobility of labour, Lohia rightly discerned that the conventional notion of class injustice was inadequate unless it was recognized that caste for all practical purpose denoted class. In the pursuit of affirmative action he advocated reservation on the basis of caste.

The Mandal Commission was set up by the government to categorize and classify the various castes in the country. However a big political boost to caste based reservation was achieved after Choudhary Charan Singh as Prime Minister for the first time during the very last phase of his career accepted the Mandal Commission formula and promised caste based reservation in all government employment. As the general secretary of his party and a candidate from the New Delhi constituency in the general election immediately thereafter I bore the brunt of the immediate and disastrous political consequences of this decision. New Delhi was heavily populated by government employees. Sensing immediate threat to their job security and future promotion voters were at my throat. The intended backward caste beneficiaries of this measure were not sufficient in this constituency to offset the fierce opposition. So unpopular had Choudhary Charan Singh become in Delhi that perhaps the only time a Prime Minister visiting a cricket test match under way was booed as he was by the crowd.

The irony was that both Lohia and Charan Singh had developed serious misgivings about caste based reservation near the end of their careers. I was sitting with Lohia at his residence when a party worker approached him for a ticket to contest the election. He mentioned his caste to strengthen his claim. After he departed Lohia said to me with a trace of bitterness:

“They always want representation in elections, never for courting arrest in any jail bharo program!”

Clearly, he thought that the reservation policy was having an adverse impact on the psyche of people. Charan Singh of course was for almost his entire political career a staunch opponent of promoting caste differences. Very astutely he utilized the caste factor for selecting poll candidates depending on the profile of the constituency. This was no different from what is practiced in the west where candidates are selected after study of a constituency profile. For the rest Charan Singh relied upon class differences for promoting affirmative action. But instead of talking about the Left and the Right as all socialists did, Charan Singh sought to polarize rural against urban India. However after his last general election, during a national executive meeting which I attended, Charan Singh said that caste reservation would fragment society. He wanted to reverse his decision. Madhu Limaye dissuaded him from announcing this.

This writer has frequently criticized caste based reservation as a flawed approach with negative impact. Some of my objections bear iteration. For starters caste based reservation is against the provisions of our Constitution and the Supreme Court made a serious error in approving the policy. Clause 2, Article 16 of the Constitution states:

“No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, descent, place of birth, residence or any of them, be ineligible for, or discriminated against in respect of, any employment or office under the State.”

However Clause 4, Article 16 of the Constitution states:

“Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any provision for the reservation of appointments or posts in favour of any backward class of citizens, which, in the opinion of the State, is not adequately represented in the services under the State.”

The government very cleverly made a list of criteria to determine class backwardness which included caste as one. Thereafter weight was given to each listed criterion. Caste was given preponderant weight. Hey presto! Caste became equivalent to backward class! The Supreme Court erred by approving this law. If caste cannot be a criterion for reservation at the primary level, it cannot on principle become a criterion at a subsidiary level. If caste can be used to justify reservation despite Clause 2, Article 16, so can religion and gender going by Clause 4, Article 16 of the Constitution. Interestingly enough the Andhra Pradesh High Court used precisely this argument. It quoted this Article of the Constitution in order to strike down a government Bill to create a religious based sub quota for reservation. In this writer’s view a revision petition filed in the Supreme Court might well result on the earlier ruling to be scrapped and reservation for Backward Castes to be struck down.

However beyond the legal arguments it is the political and social aspects of caste based reservation that is most negative. In practice this policy has resulted in maximum advantage to the rich corporate sector allowing it to manipulate the poor for political ends. Caste based politics has proliferated parties. The high cost of electioneering renders them easy to manipulate. As a result the rich corporate sector in pursuance of its immediate ends can make or break political alliances at will. Thus the BSP and SP allied to win power, and then split to become foes. Kalyan Singh, the BJP leader at the head of the movement against the Babri Masjid, could defect to Mulayam Singh, champion of the Babri Masjid! The BJP with ease can dump or welcome Kalyan Singh. Karunanidhi allied with the BJP, then with the Congress. Mamata Bannerji allied with BJP, then with the Congress. Jayalalithaa allied with Rajiv Gandhi and then with Vajpayee. Did the availability of election funds and the interests of the corporate sector play no part in these and other twists and turns among coalitions?

My proposal for achieving social justice is as follows.

The government regardless of cost ensures universal, compulsory primary education across the entire nation within the next five to ten years. It must declare an end to all caste based reservation at the end of that period. For affirmative action it must introduce quotas for reservation on the basis of economic criteria. In order to counter caste bias that undoubtedly exists in great measure it should for a specified period introduce reservation in all selection boards for government employment or education to ensure proportional representation to SC, ST, OBC and Minorities among the board members.

Even if this proposal is unacceptable, one would urge Mr. Yogendra Yadav to reconsider his decision. He might reflect that BR Ambedkar did not reach his position of eminence through reservation but through education. Indeed the same might be said of Mr. Yadav’s own eminence. Education is the great leveler and provides the roadmap for the future. Its scope needs to be widened and deepened to create the Indian of tomorrow. Should not Mr. Yadav’s party aim for that?

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