New Delhi: It is one of the world’s biggest efforts at affirmative action, but India’s goal to undo centuries of caste discrimination has ended up fuelling new and often violent demands for special privileges, analysts said.
A clamour for secure government jobs or college places in a surging economy, combined with the tendency for politicians to play on caste insecurities and economic inequities, will create more trouble if the system is not reformed, they said.
Last week, a powerful farming community in northern India seeking caste privileges rioted in a key tourist region, blocking buses and trains, burning vehicles and clashing with police and a rival group, resulting in the killing of 23 people.
They called off their campaign on 4 June after authorities set up a panel to study their demand.
“This was a copybook example of caste conflict and how things can go horribly wrong if we depend on caste-based reservations all the time,” said Dipankar Gupta, a sociology professor at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
“There is a whole gamut of castes and tribes, and many of them are seeking similar privileges.”
Reservations, as they are known in India, began in 1950 when government jobs and places in state-funded colleges were allocated to the former “untouchables” of Hindu society and tribal groups.
Today they get nearly a quarter of places, which is about the same as the proportion they make up of India’s 1.1 billion people.
This positive discrimination was seen as necessary to undo centuries of injustice and the denial of opportunities in a hierarchical and feudal system where Hindu upper castes fiercely guarded their privileges.
Social scientists say the system has helped the former “untouchables”, who make for a large section of those officially denominated as the Scheduled Castes (SCs).
For instance, SCs hold about 13% of top civil services jobs today, compared to 1% in 1950 when the quota system was launched, Gupta said.
“They have gained in confidence, many are independently fired and in that sense, the policy has been quite successful,” he said.
Yet in rural India, discrimination remains widespread, with lower castes often forbidden to draw water from common wells, enter upper caste temples, or marry outside their caste.
Politicians still play on caste to build vote banks, and are charged with not doing enough to destroy caste barriers within society. Instead, extending the quota system has often been a simpler, quicker and politically more expedient answer.
Today, in some southern states, nearly 70% of government jobs or college places are reserved for lower castes.
Yet as the programme has grown, so has opposition.
In 1990, a further 27% of central government jobs were set aside for other lower castes, known as “other backward classes (OBCs)”.
Upper castes saw this as unfairly threatening the number of college places and jobs open to them, and dozens of students set themselves ablaze.
“Complex and tortured”
Last year, the Congress-party led coalition surprised everyone by extending the 27 % quota for OBCs to central government-funded colleges and universities -- again sparking angry protests by upper caste students across the country.
At the same time, more and more communities are demanding a share in the spoils of quotas.
“Nothing is more insecure to an Indian, apart from failing in an exam, than not having a job,” said sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan. “Economic prosperity has not trickled down. This conflict is more than just about castes.”
Political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan said affirmative action was “by necessity a very complex and tortured process”.
“Are politicians playing with it? Of course they are. And of course there could be violent conflict.”
Those opposed to special quotas argue that reservations reduce the number of places for students competing on merit, and ultimately affect the quality of professional services.
Few analysts disagree about the need for reservations. The problem they say, is the way in which it has been handled.
Many recommend that quotas eventually move away from being based on caste and towards economic criteria -- and be given for a limited number of years, as had first been planned.
Caste-based reservation criteria promote the wrong kind of competition, says Laveesh Bhandari, head of economics research firm IndicusAnalytics.
“It rewards the wrong set of individuals, punishes those who deserve better, and overall sets up an incentive mechanism where youth will deem fit to fight out for achieving the underprivileged caste status,” he said.