People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
July 02, 2006
Equality With Social Justice
R Arun Kumar
"YOU do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains, bring him to the starting line in a race and then say, 'you are free to compete with all others'. It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates" – Lyndon Johnson (in a famous speech in 1965 that laid the foundations for the Affirmative Action.)
These days the papers are full of the word 'equality', a term otherwise of not much credence to them. The 'youth for equality' by stating that they are for 'equality' and against reservations, have made clear their intentions on the reservation policy as one that breeds inequality and thus is unjust. A la Bush, they are branding all those who are opposed to the stand taken by the 'youth for equality' as being against equality. The question that arises and needs to be examined is whether it is possible to achieve equality without caring for social justice.
In Indian society whether we like it or not caste is a reality. Any interested reader can see scores of literate, professional persons advertising in matrimonial columns of newspapers seeking marriage from the opposite sex belonging to the same caste. In spite of the dramatic displays of blood and asking its caste by our upholders of 'equality,' the reality is that many of the premier institutes breed caste and are places of caste discrimination. Even in the recent agitation against reservations, some of the dominant upper caste members among the faculty warned the students coming from the OBC, SC and ST families not to speak out in favour of reservations. Their entire argument that merit does not exist in these sections and they become professionals sans quality also speaks volumes of their caste prejudice. The incidents of coloured answer sheets given to SC and ST students to identify them in the examinations or the upper caste students calling SC/ST students as 'shuddus' are too recent to be forgotten. What is surprising is the belated reaction of the judiciary, which is otherwise overzealous in taking suo moto cognizance of many issues and in intervening to stop or curb the protests. The not so surprising reaction came from the media.
REALITY OF CASTE DISCRIMINATION
Together with caste, discrimination based on caste too is a reality. The bias on the basis of caste has a huge influence on our society with its pangs not leaving even the education system. It starts from the entry level and shadows you till you leave it. A position paper by the NCERT's 'National Focus Group on Problems Of Scheduled Caste And Scheduled Tribe Children' notes that "several studies have affirmed that educational inequality (of access and achievement) has multiple bases in the contemporary structures of caste, class, gender and ethnicity evolving in interaction with political economy". It asserts that 'poverty and caste act as fundamental deterrents to education'.
Dealing extensively on the subject, it focusses on myriad ways in which caste plays a role in affecting and shaping the lives of the children. The paper notes that the physical positioning of the school too is based on caste lines. "School provisioning in predominantly scheduled caste habitations is much less as compared to general rural habitations... On the whole, higher caste habitations within larger villages are better provided". Thus at the entry level itself the children from these sections confront the problem of discrimination. The problems for the eager students from the SC families compound if they intend to study in the schools located in the upper caste villages or at least in multi-caste villages and the paper notes 'hierarchical norms still govern social relations'. This means that SC/ST children are simply not welcome to these schools in many villages in our country even today. The incident where a girl from Orissa was to be provided with police protection for going to a school on a bicycle is still fresh in our memory.
The paper also states the condition of the schools that exist in the SC and ST locations and the role of the teachers who are the sculptors shaping the 'destiny of our country in the classrooms'. It states that the 'teacher's social background (caste, religion, language) affect their interactions with the students'. Middle class, higher caste teachers are very unhappy with the environments of schools for the poor and are poorly motivated to teach children of the poor, particularly of SC/ST background, who are derogatorily categorised as 'uneducable'. An appalling body of evidence exists which suggests that teacher's preconceptions, bias and behaviour, subtle or overt, conscious or unconscious, operate to discriminate against children of SC/ST background. Teachers are observed to have low expectations of SC/ST children and girls and generally have a condescending and downright abusive attitude to poor children from slums. Levels of hostility and indifference to dalit/tribal cultural traits and value systems are high. They perceive dalit and adivasi children in a negative light, see them as unclean, dishonest, lazy, ill-mannered etc. The children could be criticised for their clothes, the dialect they speak, the abhorment of uncouth habits of meat eating, the ignorance of their parents and even the colour of their skin. They are punished and shouted at in efforts to 'discipline' and 'civilise' them." The paper points out several examples to substantiate these findings. Children are assigned a range of menial tasks - from cleaning and sweeping the school to fetching 'paan' and cigarettes for the teacher. They assign SC/ST children menial jobs and shift the onus of low learning on children and their families. The curriculum also upholds symbols of the traditional, male dominated feudal society and its obsolete cultural values and norms. The necessity for these arguments arose because the movement that has started against the intended reservations for OBCs has taken a position that reservations are against equality.
CASE FOR OBC's RESERVATION
It is a fact that the OBCs do not suffer to the extent as the SCs. But we should not forget the fact that the present day OBCs are the shudras of yesteryears and they too were down the social ladder in our hierarchical caste system. This made the Supreme Court observe in the Indra Sawhney case "Social backwardness – it may be reiterated – leads to educational and economic backwardness." Majority of the OBCs are artisans. In spite of the changing generations, many occupations even to this day are 'reserved' for particular castes only. This is true in the case of fishermen, washermen, potters, barbers, weavers, stone cutters, shepherds and many of their like. Some sections among them have secured possession of land and are well off and this should not confuse us with the vast multitudes who are still poor. Whatever occupational mobility has taken place is very limited. The socio-economic 'progress' of our country ensured that the majority of the artisans did not go up the graph but took the downward trajectory. Thus we do find that many of them are living in conditions of utter deprivation and some are even forced to commit suicides. The once famed weavers of our country are next only to the peasants in the number of suicides that we have seen in the recent days because of the deteriorating economic conditions. It is but natural for the economic factors to add to the social factors and impede their educational ambitions. It is after struggling against all such heavily placed odds few from these sections are coming to higher education. It is the duty of any liberal and democratic society to provide helping hand to these sections of the society.
This reality and naked truth is unfortunately not known to those students who are protesting against reservations. The socio-economic conditions in which they are brought up and the education system did not acquaint them with these facts. Neither do the corporate 'sponsors' for their protest want them to know these facts.
The arguments that the reservations intended for these sections will be eaten away by the well-to-do sections should not be made with the intention of denying the benefits even to the needy amongst them. It is also necessary here to understand what criteria the Second Backward Classes (Mandal) Commission has adopted to determine the OBCs. The Commission worked out 11 indicators to determine social backwardness. These indicators are social, educational and economic, and as the major controversy resolves around the caste criteria allegedly adopted by the commission, it would be relevant to reproduce the actual criteria used by the Commission. The 11 indicators formulated by the commission are:
Castes/classes considered as socially backward by others.
Castes/classes which mainly depend on manual labour for their livelihood.
Castes/classes where the percentage of married women below 17 is 25 per cent above the state average in rural areas and 10 per cent in urban areas; and that of married men is 10 per cent and 5 per cent above the state average in rural and urban areas respectively.
Castes/classes where participation of females in work is at least 25 per cent above the state average.
Castes/classes where the number of children in the age group of 5 to 15 years who never attended school is at least 25 per cent above the state average.
Castes/classes where the rate of student drop-out in the age group of 5-15 years is at least 25 per cent above the state average.
Castes/classes amongst whom the proportion of matriculates is at least 25 per cent below the state average
Castes/classes where the average value of family assets is at least 25 per cent below the state average.
Castes/classes where the number of families living in kachcha houses is at least 25 per cent above the state average.
Castes/classes where the source of drinking water is beyond half a kilometer for more than 50 per cent of the households.
Castes/classes where the number of the households having taken a consumption loan is at least 25 per cent above the state average.
DEFINITION OF CREAMY LAYER
In the Supreme Court judgement on creamy layer, it has been explicitly stated in paragraph 85 "No objection can be taken to the validity and relevancy of the criteria adopted by the Mandal Commission." It has directed the government to identify creamy layer among the OBCs and ensure that they do not garner all the benefits of reservation.
The committee defined the 'creamy layer' as when a person has been able to shed off the attributes of social and educational backwardness and has secured employment or has engaged himself in some trade/profession of high status and at which stage he is normally in no need of reservation. Thus according to this definition children of: (i) persons holding Constitutional posts, (ii) of persons in service category Group A/Class I, Group B/Class II officials and employees holding equivalent posts in PSUs, Banks, Insurance, organisations, universities and private employment (iii) personnel from armed forces and para military forces above the rank of colonel including navy and air force, (iv) persons in professional class, trade business and industry (v) persons holding irrigated agricultural land more than 85 per cent of the statutory ceiling area (vi) plantation owners (vii) holders of vacant land and/or buildings in urban areas and urban agglomerations and (viii) persons having an annual income of above Rs 2.5 lakh or possessing wealth above the exemption limit prescribed in the wealth act are excluded from the purview of reservations.
If the opponents of reservation still feel that only the better off will somehow avail the reservation opportunities then they should suggest means to stop this and not cry hoarse over reservations per se. If they believe that reservations are against equality then they should propose an alternate system to replace them. The failure to do so will certainly raise doubts about their notions of equality, which is certainly bereft of social justice.
ONLY A PARTIAL REMEDY
We have been arguing time and again, reservations alone will not solve the whole problem of backwardness. The Mandal Commission report itself recognises this basic truth and notes: "unless the production relations are radically altered through structural changes and progressive land reforms implemented rigorously all over the country, OBCs will never become truly independent. In view of this, highest priority should be given to radical land reforms by all the states". The class bias of the government too can be understood when it refuses to implement the land reforms agenda in the report and confines itself just to the provision of reservations. The government wants reservations to create an empowered middle class among these sections that lends its voice to the ruling class neo-liberal policies, while it is afraid of land reforms as they weaken the feudal basis of the Indian State.
We in the Left support reservations even though we look at them as a partial remedy because they provide a minimum solace to the deprived sections of our society. The people who avail of reservations and benefit from them should use their knowledge and resources for the interests of the class and sections from which they come and not become the stooges of the ruling classes.
In the era of neo-liberal globalisation, a united fight has to be waged against the policies that are curtailing both educational and employment opportunities. This struggle should demand not only reservations to the backward sections but also strengthening of the public education system and employment opportunities together with the implementation of the land reforms.
All the concerned citizens, especially youth 'for equality', if they are serious about achieving equality should join their hands to realise this agenda. They have to denounce discrimination based on caste and shun all the feudal value systems. The fight for social justice has to go along with the fight for economic equality and real equality cannot be achieved without social justice.
It is another matter that if they take up this agenda the media that has taken upon itself to "supply anti-reservationists with banners and posters free of cost" will black them out and the "over 50 corporate houses and private hospitals of the likes of Batra, Fortis and Apollo" sponsoring them with "funds, fans, coolers and mineral water" will despise them. Rest assured real India will be standing by you. Come, let us together take the 'broom' to 'sweep' away all the evils from our society and not the 'roads'.