The pangs of change

Print edition : August 09, 1997

Indian democracy is a secular miracle of the modern world, but the quality of our democracy is poor.

AFTER he ceased to be President of France, Charles de Gaulle retired to a village where the day began with the perusal of the morning's newspapers, an exercise which usually so angered him that he would crush the offending papers into a ball and hurl it into the fire, and then turn to writing his memoirs. These days the ordinary Indian feels similarly incensed when he reads the morning's papers. Apart from news of various disasters, local, national and international, there are endless reports of scams and investigations, of the absurd antics of our leaders and their self-serving comments on various public issues. The country's fortunes are on a continuous slide, but the leaders do not seem to care.

But pessimism with the immediate should not prevent us from noticing the good things that have happened since 1947. India is emerging, albeit slowly, as a major power, and in spite of its leaders. It is a vibrant democracy, and democracy is becoming deeper through the Panchayati Raj and Nagarpalika Acts. Indian democracy is one of the secular miracles of the modern world, and a model for other developing countries.


A mother and child. A total attack on mass poverty will involve tackling major ills such as the failure to make primary education universal, lack of primary health facilities, clean drinking water and sanitation, neglect of the girl child, and failure to empower women.

However, decentralisation of power to the districts, tehsils and villages, and to towns and cities, has not come a day too soon. This should make for speed, efficiency, more openness, and greater accountability of officials to the people, qualities which are conspicuous by their absence in the government today. But while celebrating democracy and decentralisation, it ought to be realised that panchayati raj will not be problem-free. In fact, taming the rural dominant castes will be a major task for panchayati raj, if not the country. The dominant castes occupy a privileged position in the rural hierarchy and are used to making certain that other castes, including the "high", carry out their wishes. Also they are used to receiving a number of services from members of the Scheduled Castes which the latter nowadays consider demeaning. But refusal to perform these services will bring down the wrath of the dominants on them. Bloody clashes between the dominants and Dalits are certain to increase and spread and are perhaps inevitable in translating the constitutional commitment to equality to reality. The police, the law courts, the media and public opinion all need to support consistently the Dalit demand for equality if the dominant castes are to be made to accept democratic values and practices.

WE may pat ourselves on the back for being a democracy, but we have to admit that the quality of our democracy is poor. Fortyeight per cent of the people are illiterate at the national level, and in the BIMARU (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh) States, illiteracy is even higher, and female literacy, abysmal. This has happened in spite of the fact that the Constitution required all children in the age group 5-14 to be in school by 1961. According to media reports, 63 million children are currently out of school, and political parties are now considering making education a fundamental right. Perhaps the hope is that once elementary education is a fundamental right, public interest litigation will goad the States to implement it.

Another achievement that needs to be mentioned is the banning of untouchability (Article 17) by the Constitution of India (1950), and later, making its practice in any form a cognisable offence under the Civil Rights Act, 1975. Banning untouchability may be viewed as incidental to the constitutional assertion of the equality of all citizens before law (Article 14). Other Articles concerned with implementing the commitment to equality are Article 15, which prohibits discrimination against any citizen on any matter at the disposal of the state on any of the specified grounds, namely, religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, and Article 16, which prohibits discrimination on the ground of religion, among other things, in the matter of employment under the state.

Reservation of seats in legislatures and in education and employment in government for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes is a continuation from colonial rule, and is intended to protect and promote the interests of groups which thought that their interests would suffer under conditions of open competition.

The Scheduled Castes and Tribes have each reservation in legislature in proportion to their numbers to the total population. As of now, Scheduled Castes enjoy 18 per cent and Scheduled Tribes 5 per cent reservation at the national level. Reservation in legislatures is designed to empower Scheduled Castes and Tribes and through legislatures a few become Ministers, which enables them to work for the betterment of their communities and constituencies. The fact that representatives of Scheduled Castes and Tribes are Ministers symbolise the opening of doors which had remained shut historically.

Reservation of government jobs and seats in educational institutions for the backward classes was a feature of peninsular India during British rule, and this practice continued in independent India. In South India, the princely state of Mysore introduced reservation for the backward classes as far back as 1870, but it was in the 1920s that reservation became a feature of public life all over South India and the regions included in the Bombay Presidency. But while the empowerment of the backward classes occurred largely in the pre-Independence years in South India, it began in North India only in the 1950s. The gap between North India and South India in this respect is a fact to be reckoned with.

Job reservation for the OBCs in the government developed into a national issue in 1990, ten years after the Second Backward Classes Commission (Mandal Commission) submitted its report. It was a national commission and it made several recommendations for the improvement of the backward classes (3,743 among Hindus alone) including reservation of 27 per cent of jobs in Central and State governments. The report, along with many others, was gathering dust in the Central Government's warehouses till 1989 when the Janata Dal, under the leadership of V.P. Singh, included in its election manifesto the implementation of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission. In August 1990, V.P. Singh's Deputy Prime Minister, Devi Lal, resigned from his post and announced his decision to hold a rally of his followers in Delhi on August 9. Devi Lal, a Jat from Haryana, was reputed to have a large following among the backward classes. However, on August 7, V.P. Singh announced that his Government would implement the Mandal Commission's recommendation of reserving 27 per cent jobs in the government for the backward classes. The decision caused considerable unrest among the upper castes in North India, with several youths committing suicide by setting fire to themselves. V.P. Singh had, by his decision, thrust caste-based reservation to the forefront of national politics, with parties with the avowed aim of promoting the interests of OBCs, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and minorities, thereby receiving a shot in the arm. "Social Justice", which was first adopted as a slogan by the Justice Party of Madras in the 1920s, became the slogan of these parties. Nehru's aim of establishing a "casteless and classless society" gave way, under V.P. Singh's leadership, to "socialism with a caste face", an ideology whose exponent was the Nehru-baiter, Ram Manohar Lohia. Many progressive people hailed V.P. Singh's decision to implement Mandal as a "secular revolution" while others regarded it as extremely divisive.

Predictably, V.P. Singh's decision led to litigation, and eventually, in November 1992, the Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment, gave its approval to 27 per cent reservation in government jobs to OBCs but decreed that the quantum of reservation should in no case exceed 50 per cent. It also decreed that the "creamy layers" in each backward caste should be excluded from eligibility for the benefits, a decision which has met with opposition from all the backward classes. The Kerala legislature even passed a resolution denying the existence of "creamy layers" among the OBCs in Kerala. In the same judgment, the judges rejected poverty as a criterion of backwardness, restricting reservation benefits to members of "the socially and educationally backward classes", which in effect meant backward castes.

The idea of reservation as a means to obtain access to education, employment and power has become popular in recent years. Reservation is being demanded either for Muslims as a whole, or for the backward sections among them. Dalit Christians want to be accorded the same status as Scheduled Castes among Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. During British rule many former untouchables got converted to Christianity in the hope that conversion would result in shedding untouchability and obtaining access to education and employment. But the converts found Christianity to be caste-ridden, with caste-based discrimination rampant in the Church. But the demand of the Dalit Christians for reservation is strongly opposed by the Scheduled Castes as it will cut into their quota. However, they are not opposed to Dalit Christians being accorded reservation outside their quota.

Women, who have been accorded 30 per cent reservation in panchayati raj institutions, are now demanding 33.3 per cent reservation of seats in Parliament and State legislatures. This has turned out to be an emotive issue, further complicated by a demand for "sub-reservation" for women from the OBCs, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and minorities. This will involve introducing political reservation for OBCs and minorities, both new and radical measures.

In April 1995, the Congress party, under the leadership of P.V. Narasimha Rao, then Prime Minister, called an all-party conference to raise the quantum of reservation from 50 per cent to 62.5 per cent, a move requiring an amendment to the Constitution. The aim of the proposed hike in reservation was to make sure that OBC candidates were adequately represented in Central government services, and to provide 10 per cent reservation for the very poor among the high castes. Another proposal was to protect reservation in promotions for Scheduled Caste and Tribe candidates, and to provide promotion quotas to the OBCs. The Congress party called the conference in anticipation of the general elections that were held early in 1996.

IT is unfortunate that reservation is widely regarded as a panacea for ills such as poverty, and lack of access to education, government employment and political power. Reservation has its uses but only up to a point, and there is no way by which it can become an instrument for restructuring society. First, the benefits tend to be appropriated by the more advanced in each group at the expense of the more deserving. Further, the category OBC is heterogenous, comprising rich and politically influential groups at one end, and numerically small, very poor groups at the other. The latter, who are often as poor as the Scheduled Castes but are not categorised as such, become bitter and extremely antagonistic to the Scheduled Castes.

Envy of the Scheduled Castes, is, however, not confined to the very poor among the non-Scheduled Castes. Such envy is widespread, and the land-owning dominant castes in particular resent what they regard as "uppity" behaviour of the Scheduled Castes. They seem unable to adjust themselves to the fact that Scheduled Castes now have easier access to education and high-income and high-status jobs, and to the assertion by the more militant Dalits that they are equal to the high castes. Clashes between the dominant castes and Scheduled Castes are becoming frequent everywhere. Such conflicts are only likely to increase as education spreads among the Scheduled Castes and as more of them are politically mobilised. The country is in for increasingly frequent outbursts of local violence. India's revolution will not be a swift and bloody one but a long and bleeding one.

When a caste manages to obtain the label "backward", it fights to retain it. And when dominant castes manage to get labelled as "backward" it means that the size of the cake diminishes significantly for the Other Backward Classes. Karnataka provides a striking example of this with both the Lingayats and Vokkaligas, being tagged "backward". (Between them they account for nearly a third of the State's population.) Further, reservation, as implemented in India, seems to be regarded as a total solution to backwardness. Those in power seem to think that once reservation is given to a group the government's responsibility towards it ceases. For instance, students from Scheduled Castes and Tribes and OBCs get admission in professional colleges where they have to compete with very talented and hardworking students from the middle classes who score very high marks. But very little attention is paid to provide coaching for students who get in through reservation. Nor is there any monitoring of their progress, or provision for counselling when they need it. It is all terribly sad. There does not seem to be any awareness among those in power of these problems.

But the gravamen of the charge against reservation is that it is tokenist, and that it fails to address the most important problem before the country, namely, mass poverty, and the many ills associated with it. A total attack on mass poverty will involve tackling other major ills such as the failure to make primary education universal, lack of primary health facilities, pure drinking water and sanitation, neglect of the girl child, and failure to empower women. All these matters have to be attended to in any attack on poverty. Only the elimination of poverty will release the creative energies of the people of this country and the present situation, which taps at best the resources of only 15 or 20 per cent of the population, is not only unjust but terribly wasteful.

Finally, a striking but not sufficiently noticed phenomenon is the great gulf that exists between the leaders of the country and the people. The former, each with a sycophantic coterie, say and do things which seem grotesque in the context of the horrendous problems facing the country. Long ago Gandhi said: "My people are ahead of me, I must run and catch up with them for I am their leader." Today's leaders are not even aware that the people are far ahead of them.

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