Shyamal Banerjee/Mint
Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

Ambedkar in the times of Hardik Patel

Political bargaining for reservations has now reached absurd lengths

In a very perceptive essay written 50 years ago, the cerebral socialist politician Ram Manohar Lohia identified three main strategies to end caste discrimination.

The first strategy was what he described as the wordy one. It loudly condemned caste in general terms, but left the system intact. The main political parties of his day wanted the brightest of the so-called lower castes to join the elite without disturbing the overall social structure. Lohia was thus critical of those who believed that economic development would in itself create the conditions for upward social mobility large enough to end the caste system.

The second strategy was described as an empty one by Lohia. He pointed out that some populous caste groups had taken advantage of universal franchise to get more political power. Their goal was not to share this power with other castes lower down in the social order, but only to replace the dominant castes of the day; the plan was not to destroy the caste system, but to re-engineer it by shifting power within different social groups.

The third strategy was what Lohia described as the true struggle. He said that reservations “irrespective of merit" would pitchfork the five most downgraded groups of Indian society—women, Sudras, Harijans, Muslims and Adivasis— into positions of leadership. Lohia had hoped that such a strategy would radically transform the social structure to an extent that even the so-called upper castes would benefit.

The strategy preferred by Lohia was eventually embraced by the Indian political system. But the result has been not what B.R. Ambedkar famously called the annihilation of caste or the democratic social transformation that Lohia hoped for. It has instead solidified the role of caste in Indian politics. The actual politics of reservations has led to consequences that are closer to what Lohia identified as the problem of the second strategy—an entitlement grab by numerically important castes that have been able to acquire political heft.

Last week’s violence in Gujarat needs to be seen against this historical background. The movement of the Patidar caste led by Hardik Patel is mirrored in similar agitations for reservations from other politically powerful castes such as the Jats in North India or the Marathas in Maharashtra. This has nothing to do with either ending the toxic caste system or encouraging social mobility among the truly dispossessed.

There are several ways to look at the current demands. The agitators claim that the existing reservations have left members of their caste with minimal access to education and jobs. Some Dalit intellectuals such as Prakash Ambedkar have argued that what has happened on the streets of Gujarat is a sign that the forward castes are feeling threatened by the progress being made by castes that are below them in the social structure. A few economists have pointed out that the agrarian crisis has left those castes that benefited from the Green Revolution without opportunities for economic advancement.

The intense political bargaining for reservations has now reached absurd lengths. Even the castes that control political power in states are claiming to be in need of affirmative action. It is worth asking whether the Lohiaite political strategy of reservations has reached a dead end. There is no doubt that caste discrimination continues to cast its pernicious shadow over Indian society. But it is time to open a fresh debate about what can be done to end the caste system rather than just endlessly expand the scope of reservations based on which caste has the ability to torch buses.

The final word should be left to the great Ambedkar: “Caste has killed public spirit. Caste has destroyed the sense of public charity. Caste has made public opinion impossible… Virtue has become caste-ridden, and morality has become caste-bound. There is no sympathy for the deserving. There is no appreciation of the meritorious. There is no charity to the needy. Suffering as such calls for no response. There is charity, but it begins with the caste and ends with the caste. There is sympathy, but not for men of other castes."

It is time to go back to the Ambedkarite quest to annihilate caste.

Can India ever get rid of caste-based demands for upward social mobility? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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