File photo. The Supreme Court has recently stated that even after 68 years of Independence, the reservations system has not achieved what it hoped to and that it was time that the government considered scrapping quotas in higher education. Photo: HT
File photo. The Supreme Court has recently stated that even after 68 years of Independence, the reservations system has not achieved what it hoped to and that it was time that the government considered scrapping quotas in higher education. Photo: HT

The pain and problem of reservations

Each of the poems written on reservation has its own context, a few perspectives are common in all poetry and much of the prose that emerges on this topic

If one tries to look for poems written on “affirmative" action or “reservations", they are fairly easy to find. Some are about South Africa during and after the end of Apartheid; some about the US civil rights movement and affirmative action policies for African-Americans, and, of course, many our own, pre- and post-Mandal era.

While each of these poems has its own context, a few perspectives are common in all poetry and much of the prose that emerges on this topic. These themes are: support for the idea that social injustices of the past must be acknowledged and corrected; frustration and acceptance that an idea originating in social justice has been now been politically coopted; realization of our own individual place (beneficiary or victim) of such policies; and debate as to the position one must take on defining the criteria for reservation—economic, social or racial. Finally there is the meta-theme of pain and confusion caused when such programmes fail to deliver what they set out to.

A few Hindi poets are worth reading to grasp the pain and problem in equal measure. In one, titled ‘Aarakshan’, Buddhinath Mishra writes:

Van chhaya hui aarakshit; Sabhee jalshrot bhee ho gaye aarakshit

Hai arakshit sirf komal pran ; Kastooree mrigon ka.

Hai vyavastha mansar par; Mor ka adhikar hoga

Hans ke hisse padengee; Jhadiyan bas behaya ki

The poet is lamenting that all “natural" resources seem to be reserved, the forests included. Ultimately, according to him, the deserving, whoever they are, in his case the ‘hans’ (swan) do and will feel defeated because of present reservation policies and are bound to revolt. Another poet, Mahesh Diwakar, directly attacking ‘crocodile-like leaders’, who constantly insight fear or a “garal" in the name of reservations writes,

Aarakshan ka Garal’- Bagh-bhediye, ajgar neta Bhed sareekhi janata hai

Jinda mans chabaya karate,Kursi lok-niyanta hai

Aarakshan ka garal pilakar, roj udhen nabhyan men

Desh-dharm sab isane bante foonko ise makan men..

In the painfully articulated lines above, the poet is urging us to see that politicians have for long exploited the electorate in the name of reservations, divided communities, long abandoned the cause of national interest, and long failed to deliver anything they promised.

Indeed, from the agitations and immolations we saw during the Mandal commission days in the late 1980s to the ongoing Patidar demonstrations in Gujarat, we do recognize that motivations of such retributive justice and anger may be present in those who show up to lend support, but it is also clear that it is impossible to separate manipulative politics from idealistic causes of social justice.

All we now know is that the scale and frequency of these protests and agitations warrant a re-audit of current policies. And that the current reservation system is severely flawed and far from its original mandate—to promote equality and justice.

If not, these agitations will prove to be more dangerous now then they were before the days of 24/7 media. Furthermore, given India is at the intersection of a painful transition to a market economy which drives conflict and between the haves and have nots to a higher decibel, a skewed reservation policy will make matters worse, dragging the conflict on for years. It would be wise for the current political dispensation to come up with ways to recuse itself from the power it has so misused and walk away from using reservations as a political tool for garnering votes.

But of course, giving up this ‘tool’ amounts to self-sabotage and would reduce chances of re–election for anyone who attempted it. In the short run it would feel like the amputation of a limb they so needed to win elections. The pain would be severe, but it would stop the poison from spreading further. It would be high-risk – but isn’t that what structural reform is about and don’t statesman take the risks of self-destruction when they set out to do what is truly in the national interest and out of the realm of regressive opportunistic politics?

We understand it won’t be easy. Tempers run high and evidence cuts both ways—it can support continuing reservations and/or abolishing them entirely. Further, the moral argument, that social injustice must be rectified by expansive and perpetual affirmative action, remains on firm ground. But so does the argument that the current generation was not involved in perpetuating the injustice and an intergenerational approach to rectify it is unfair. These strong opposing points of view will have to contained in a progressive way. And, in all likelihood, a progressive and objective policy will disappoint all stakeholders (good policies usually do). Yet this move has to be made now.

The Supreme Court has recently stated that even after 68 years of Independence, the reservations system has not achieved what it hoped to and that it was time that the government considered scrapping quotas in higher education. The court boldly stated, “…we echo the same feeling and reiterate the aspirations of others so that authorities can objectively assess the situation and so that national interest can become paramount...".

The Supreme Court’s words are similar to the lament of the poets. We hope that the politicians are listening. If they aren’t, we will continue to see agitations of the Mandal and Patidar kind—a waste of time for protesting youth and perhaps most importantly, an open gangrene-like wound on an economy that prides itself on talent (read merit)-based services - a key human resource not to be “reserved."

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