Deconstructing the Patel Argument for Reservation
When I was in the first year of law school, one of my friends criticized reservations so starkly that it made me feel uncomfortable to have any further discussions with her on the topic of reservations, to such an extent that I blatantly accepted what she had to say about the issue altogether. Privileged as she was not only socially (belonging to an upper caste) but also economically. Her discontent and anger was on reservations snatching away the seats of well-deserved candidates. I think after that I never took much efforts to analyze my own thoughts about reservation. Several years have passed by but the reservation issue still lingers in my head and surfaces quite occasionally in my day-to-day life.
So what are reservations? Why is it always the most controversial issue? Why do most political parties fear to even touch upon this topic even while utilizing this issue to fatten their vote banks? And why are Patels in Gujarat seeking for reservation for their community? A community that accounts for almost 20% of the Gujarat’s population and which is socially, economically, culturally and politically uplifted! And lastly what will be the impact of such agitations on our political, social life as citizens of a constitutional democracy?
I do not wish to write anything about the so-called self-proclaimed messiah of the Patel community whose sudden rise has shocked many. The ignorance he professes by adopting measures which does not have any stand in our legal system are shocking and saddening. He transcends all limits possible by his violent agitations for unreasonable demands put forth in a language which will definitely attract one of the sections of Indian Penal Code.
His threatening words do not even spare the ruling NDA government. And what makes me unhappier is he declares himself a follower of The Iron Man of this country, Sardar Vallabhai Patel and wants to be called ‘Sardar Patel’. If he had little known what that great man was and how deeply he respected the democratic principles which he so painstakingly stood by his entire life, the state of Gujarat would not have come to a halt through such nuisance.
There are primarily three issues involved here. First, can the movement be seen as an anti-caste movement which many claim it to be? Second, has the Gujarat model of development which the Modi regime very proudly flaunted for contesting in 2014 Lok Sabha election failed? Thirdly, the grim reality of education system and the prospect of job creation in India?
Is this an anti-caste movement?
The Patidars or Patels, as they are famously known, are a rich community in India. Their presence is felt in affluent sectors like industries, trade etc. they are even known to be successful farmers. However their discontent cannot be out rightly dismissed by calling it an unreasonable demand. The agrarian crisis that threatens the growth of our economy has mirrored in the tensions among different landed communities in India like Jats in Northern India, Marathas in Maharshtra, Lingayats in Karnataka, Gujjars in Rajasthan. The dominating castes are not happy with how things are working for them. The attractive government jobs, bureaucracy, service sector jobs, higher education are the areas which never attracted them to such an extent as it does today. And the presence of reservation only makes it a bigger hurdle to cross. The dominance which they want to retain can only happen by suppressing the privileges granted to the socially and educationally backward castes. So the demand- “either you give us the reservation or do away the system of reservation”! How can this be seen as an anti-caste movement then? Caste reservations were stigmatized by the same communities earlier when they agitated against Mandal commission report. Ironically today they want to be a part of that very quota.
Their demand is very clear to me though they might lack a systematic approach and a strong leadership. These are the communities whose inclusion in the modern Indian economy depends on the probabilities of a shift in reservation policy whose benefits they want to reap. However if such mobilization could fetch results it would be a mockery of the very faith we instill in the institution of Justice System. Therefore calling it as an anti-caste movement will not be justified.
The social stigma attach to reservation is the most humiliating and insensitive thing that I have come across. The reservations were not meant for economic backwardness. That I think was never the intention of the legislators. It was introduced to address the menace that caste system has created. The self-humiliation and the inferiority stigma that the so called ‘lower’ caste people face is what the reservation policy wants to eliminate.
It was a policy to give people belonging to socially backward castes a chance, have access to equal opportunities in life. A girl like me, coming from the community I come from, would never have reached where I am today if not for reservations.
Is the education system at fault?
The second issue of education system in India needs a lot of elaboration. The low higher education enrollment percentage, the student-teacher ratio and the quality of education is itself in a bad state in India. Our Universities are in disrepair. Most of our universities and colleges do not match the global quality parameters. The private education has become so costly and corrupt that Vyapam like scams are a routine.
The corruption haunts us in our daily lives and when the victims are educated youths they start looking for options for this dilemma. Can we really blame the reservation policy for discontent? Low quality infrastructure or altogether lack of infrastructure in our country is a major issue which needs clear and proper amount of attention at the earliest. If you look at the ratio of government to private colleges you will find a vast difference. The number of private institutes that came into existence in last decades is manifold. Further politicizing education is a disease which needs immediate cure.
What we need is accessible yet quality education and which can be achieved only with a no profit motive, conclusively by government. Let’s face it! Very few of our Universities/colleges will appear in Top ranking across the world. However the present Government has further reduced the proportion of allotted budget amount to education. This cannot be seen as a very positive step. Now the question is why am I discussing education policy in India? It’s plain and simple suppose if there are 100 seats and 10,000 students, so there are this 1000 students contesting for one seat and out of which if the 50 seats are reserved for candidates, the situation only becomes grim. So reforming our educational system should be the prime motive of the government. There has to more number government colleges with world class amenities.
Are there enough jobs?
Job creation is another issue not only limited to Gujarat but the whole of India. Though our GDP constantly shows positive growth, the modern sector is highly capital-intensive generating lesser jobs in comparison with people who qualify for these jobs, creating further lesser employment opportunities. As per the official data the number of official job seekers in Gujarat above the senior secondary certificate (SSC) has increased from 6.7 lakhs in 1995 to about 7 lakhs in 2014 while that of graduates has increased from around 12,000 to 40,000 in the same period- An increase of about 3.6 times, which evidently excludes the educated youth from state growth.
The picture isn’t very different for India. While another cause of concern in the state of Gujarat is immigration for various skilled, unskilled and even highly skilled professional jobs has increased over the years thus leaving lesser scope for the native educated youth. The above discussion evidently questions the very development model in Gujarat which was applauded by entire country. Such rallies and movements are also reflecting the frustrations of students who feel deprived even after having adequate qualification.
We need to address the issue in a more matured way. Inclusion of more communities in the reservations list is a controversial issue. Granting such status to one will automatically and in most obvious way lead to the demands from other communities. Such inclusion will also be stringently opposed by those who are already enjoying the benefits of it. There has to be more dialogue and discussion not only with these communities but in the country on various platforms. Sensitizing students in universities, colleges, schools over the issue of reservations by holding debates, lectures, discussions of various Supreme Court Judgements, the Constitution and how it is interpreted, by making them aware of its historical relevance so that in future we can deal with problem of social inclusion/exclusion in a better way is required. Also de-stigmatizing reservation is something we should look at. I agree caste based reservation is not the best of solution to our societal problems but it was the best that was offered back then and now we have this with certain modifications. We should not forget that in India ‘low’ caste status goes hand in hand with poor economic status.
The noble motive behind our framers who allowed this policy in Indian Constitution was social and educational upliftment of backward classes. The deliberate eliminations of the word ‘economic’ while deciding the status needs more understanding and further spread of awareness equally among the so called ‘lower’ as well as the ‘upper’ caste. The reservation policy which was adopted for a tenure of only 10 years was due to fact that criteria for inclusion should not remain stagnant and the policy makers after every 10 years should asses it by introducing reasonable modifications suitable for the changing needs of the society as well as these deprived classes so that they can reap greatest benefit out of it and climb the social ladder.
The issue of vote bank politics is foremost in many aspects but that reflects the political, social, cultural degraded transition of our society and not the policy as such. There definitely may be many other factors for the same.
Also there are many dimensions to this issue and it will always be open for debate but the government at present cannot bow before the populist demands nor should it let the administrative machinery and normalcy of life come to a standstill. It needs to involve itself with meaningful discussions with this community in Gujarat and thereby confronting the issue in a wider perspective.