We Need to Start Taking Affirmative Action Seriously

Like dalits, large numbers of Muslims also suffer from background inequalities that impede the attainment of full citizenship rights. Why are these sections not candidates for affirmative action?

Vice President Hamdi Ansari at the All-India Majlis-e-Mashwarat function in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

Vice President Hamdi Ansari at the All-India Majlis-e-Mushwarat function in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

Two developments over the last week have once again catapulted affirmative action policies to the forefront of public attention.

The Patels, arguably a community that possesses some degree of economic advantage as well as political clout, assembled in huge numbers to demand that reservations should either be abolished, or expanded to include members of their community.

On the other hand, Vice President Hamid Ansari at the golden jubilee celebrations of the All India Majlis-e-Mushawarat on August 31 2015 drew attention to the Sachar Committee report – which documented the marginality of the Muslims to political, economic and social structures in the country and concluded that their condition was worse than the Scheduled Castes.

Vice President Ansari suggested that the Indian state has just not enabled an already disprivileged community to realise the rights that are due of each citizen of India. It is this very state that has to correct its own neglect of the community, its own default:

‘The official objective of sab ka saath, sab ka vikas is commendable; a pre-requisite for this is affirmative action (where necessary) to ensure a common starting point and an ability to walk at the required pace.”

Data shows that a high percentage of Muslims fall within the category of Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Castes, but corrective strategies to remedy deficits, he seemed to imply, have simply not been implemented. One of these corrective strategies is affirmative action.

The first development – the agitation of the Patels – generated anxiety in the leadership of the BJP, because the party draws heavily on the political and electoral support of the community. The second – the Vice President’s suggestion – spawned angry and distasteful retorts from the Hindutva brigade, which simply refuses to extend the full advantages of citizenship to minority religious groups, howsoever disadvantaged they may be.

The ‘doubly disadvantaged’

Both developments raised the one question that periodically wracks the biography of affirmative action. Which group is entitled to benefit from these measures and why? Why ‘this’ group and not ‘that’?

The controversy appears endless. It was not always so. The need for affirmative action for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes had been clearly understood by members of the Constituent Assembly. Both categories had been in history doubly disadvantaged insofar as they had been economically deprived via the route of social discrimination. Reservations were one part of a larger project of affirmative action and the wider objective of distributive justice. They concentrated on guaranteeing the physical presence of members of the two communities in schools, universities and in government employment.

If reservations had not been set in place, caste discrimination would have continued to thwart the efforts of the ‘lower castes’ to benefit from education and employment. The country had embarked with great hope on the path of democracy and political equality. Affirmative action for the doubly disadvantaged was one way in which a nascent democracy would tackle background inequalities and realise equality.

Why questions arose

Over time affirmative action policies became controversial for at least three reasons. First, successive governments reduced the concept – which involved among other things preferential access to land and loans – to reservations in educational institutions and public employment.

Second, instead of providing the preconditions of wellbeing to all citizens, the state opted to expand the constituency of affirmative action and include the backward castes. This occasioned a degree of animosity, because many backward castes have not been subjected to the sort of humiliation the dalits have suffered. Most groups in the category were not doubly disadvantaged, some were. In effect the Indian state chose the soft option of reservations, and avoided making hard choices that concentrated on securing wellbeing for all.

Third, the sole focus on reservations exercised a crippling effect on the political imagination of groups aspiring to a better place in the sun. Instead of demanding quality education and health care, jobs and insurance benefits, groups began to mobilise for often a minute share in quotas set aside for affirmative action. As landed communities began to agitate for reservations, this particular mode of social justice became an object of desire for some and of dispute for others. The wheel turned full circle when the largely affluent Patels, in a display of brute strength, pressed for reservations. In the process, the recognition that a large section of the Muslim community is entitled to a share in affirmative action – because they are worse off than the dalits – is either overlooked or dismissed.

In the current scenario of acerbic allegations and counter-allegations, the two questions that need to be urgently renegotiated are the following. One, how do we justify affirmative action? Two, which group can be considered a legitimate candidate for affirmative action?

Discrimination needs remedying

An answer to the first question involves some consideration of what democratic life involves. Independent India adopted an ambitious program of redistributive justice that sought to turn existing inequities and hierarchies on their head. This was necessary to realise equal citizenship. For this task, agents of the state had to (a) take cognizance of background inequalities that hampered the project of equality and of democracy, and (b) estimate how accumulated disadvantages could be tackled. The realisation that Scheduled Castes and Tribes were economically disadvantaged because they were socially discriminated against, underscored emphasis on the politics of physical presence. There was no other option in our caste bound and moribund society. Double disadvantage justified affirmative action. And it is double disadvantage that tracks the lives of sections of the Muslim community, and justifies affirmative action. The need to establish the physical presence of members of the community in forums, many of which are closed to minorities is as urgent as the case of the dalits.

We can follow two paths to establish this argument. We can open up history and see which group has been disadvantaged and why. The opening up of history is, however, not a prudent option for it will likely lead to a proliferation of narratives of victimhood, and we are not in a position to judge which narrative is more valid than others, all narratives being subjective. The other and more preferable option is to begin from the ‘here and now’ – from the democratic context of our collective lives. If people continue to be denied basic rights simply because of birth into a community that has been stigmatised, or subjected to discrimination, they are doubly disadvantaged. Economic deprivation or lack of opportunities alone does not qualify for affirmative action. But if economic deprivation flows from social discrimination, the group is a legitimate candidate for preferential treatment.

This does not mean that economic deprivation, or lack of access to jobs is not an issue of concern. It is of supreme importance. There is no reason why the solution to this problem lies in affirmative action and only affirmative action as Hardik Patel seems to believe. There are other paths to wellbeing, conceiving of universal entitlements and rights to basic needs for instance. This is the first stage of realising equal status. Once each citizen has secured access to basic goods; liberty, quality education, health care, shelter, clean drinking water, food, employment, and social security, the special circumstances of groups who suffer from multiple background inequalities are addressed. The lives of many dalits are shaped by background inequalities that inhibit the realisation of full citizenship rights. But large numbers of Muslims also suffer from background inequalities that impede the attainment of full citizenship rights. Why are these sections not a candidate for affirmative action?

It is true that the adoption of affirmative action policies in abstraction from a general consensus that all individuals have the right to certain goods that are essential for wellbeing results in an unnecessary premium being placed on affirmative action. It is time we took the overload off affirmative action – taking the measure seriously, and using it sparingly, to remedy the unhappy situation of the doubly disadvantaged. They are a legitimate candidate for affirmative action because economic deprivation flows from social discrimination, and economic deprivation reinforces social discrimination. By this criterion the Patel community is not a likely candidate for affirmative action; sections of the Muslim community undoubtedly are.

Neera Chandhoke is a former professor of political science, Delhi University, and is currently a Visiting Professorial Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, JNU. Her latest book, Democracy and Revolutionary Politics, has been published by Bloomsbury, London in 2015.