Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Reservations and Progressives in West Bengal

As we all know, West Bengal is a progressive state. This is not simply a claim by the Left Front. It is a claim by every honest to goodness Bengali who does not believe in such pathetic measures like actually examining reality, preferring to look back to the Bengal renaissance and the golden age of Indian cricket, when Ganguly was king.

That is why, it is worth looking at some of the voices of progressive Bengal concerning reservations, and use these voices as a peg to present some arguments. I have in mind three sets of incidents. The first concern posters put up in my own University campus by the All India Democratic Students Organization. When the reservation issue came up early in 2006, their first poster charged the ruling class of seeking to fragment students’ unity by raking up the non-issue of reservations. When the agitation by the anti-reservation activists met police violence they simply condemned police violence. There was no condemnation of the politics of the YFE. So let me briefly quote from the YFE’s official statement. According to the YFE, “YFE stands for total Roll-back of the proposed legislation to increase the reservation percentage in central government institutions and central examinations. YFE stands for reviewing the complete reservation policy and phased eradication of reservation policy.” In explaining this, YFE goes into a bit of history. According to them, reservations were introduced by the British as a divide and rule policy, because they treated the Brahmins as untrustworthy. “In a country that was ruled for more than 1000 years by foreigners, people were divided on the basis of being backward or forward, although the entire country was backward, un-educated, poor, un-employed, depressed and deprived.” Thus, at one go, the entire period of Turko-Afghan and Mughal Rule is clubbed with British rule, and a psedu-history is constructed whereby this long foreign rule had created backwardness for all.
The casteist and communal attitude of YFE and itsa supporters also come out when we look at sites linked to the YFE, and the blogs posted there. Unlike printed articles, where either a relatively responsible media is doing it, and therefore ensuring some minimum cuts, or at least there is some legal control, the wild internet, free for those with money, which mostly rules out the people for whom reservations are sought, finds the elite and especially the sons and daughters of the elite give full freedom to their outlook. I copy just one here, for lack of space.
“ask mr p chidambaram to first collect the 49.5 percent revenue from the bloody bhangis and then we will pay even if he asks us to pay 200 percent of our incomes”. This was posted on 25 May in , and can be read at
In the West Bengal Chapter of YFE, one Suman posted a comment, which asked the middle class to rise up against the government.

So the AIDSO, which claims to be the student organisation of the one true revolutionary party founded by India’s Lenin, has nothing to criticise in the caste, communal or class outlook of the YFE and its supporters. If we are to argue that we should condemn all police violence, under all circumstances, I wonder what will be the reaction if the police is called out to stop riots?

But I would be doing an injustice to the AIDSO if I pretended they were alone in this. People senior to them in the academic world have likewise taken strange positions. In recent times, one university in West Bengal has twice advertised the post of a lecturer in one of their departments. On both occasions, there had been applicants, surely possessing minimum qualifications, since they had been called for interviews. Yet on both occasions, the post remained unfilled, with the selectors declaring that none had been found to be suitable.

This same logic, of being particularly finicky when selecting for reserved posts, can be found time and again. In a number of discussions with academicians of repute, I have come across the argument that if posts are advertised as requiring some specialisation, there might not be any SC, ST or OBC applicants available. I have not seen the same academicians being troubled over that fact. Yet the UGC has grants for additional coaching of students coming from socially deprived backgrounds. In my own Department, for example, I have never seen any attempt to utilise these funds.

What these lead one to surmise is that we are really not keen to support the filling up of reserved posts. If we go back again to the YFE site, we will find them arguing that reservations have failed in India. No doubt. But why is it so? The answer is, because the upper castes have done little to ensure that the policy succeeds.

This is the wider context within which I propose to discuss some of the issues like merit, economic reservation, and exclusion of the creamy layers. To say that the creamy layers should be excluded sounds very just. In reality, this is the best way to ensure that OBCs absolutely do not get in, particularly in the better institutions. For example, how many poor students, with no coaching from top level institutions specialising in coaching for IIMs, IITs, the Medical colleges, etc, get in into those institutions? Reading the YFE and allied sites and particularly their blogs and discussion groups, one is struck by the number of well to do in their ranks. One proposal doing the rounds was to withdraw money from the nationalised banks and put them in the foreign banks which have come in. Obviously, only people who have the kind of money, the withdrawal of which might pose any pressure, were discussing these issues. In other words, those objecting most strongly for the exclusion of the creamy layer OBCs are members of the elite themselves. Some of their medical fraternity friends are truly equal, having purchased seats legally.

The emrgence of a dalit or OBC creamy layer would certainly not ensure social justice for all dalits and OBCs. But then, the YFE is not talking socialism either, is it? But if the ST, SC and OBC creamy layer is expanded, some good may occur. Exclusion of the creamy layers would really mean the seats being ultimately transferred to the general category on the ground that no OBC was found. Kancha Ilaiah has argued that the emergence of a well educated elite within each caste community is necessary for that caste community reaching the modernist stage. If upper caste intellectuals use a suddenly progressive argument, stressing class rather than caste, stressing the poor rather than the elite, they need to show that they mean it, by launching a mass movement for uniform educational facilities for all, and for free hostel and boarding facilites for all students who are so poor that they would have to drop out in search of jobs. If that policy was implemented in a sustained manner for a decade, we might find that reservations could indeed begin to be phased out. It is worth remembering that the Mandal Commission had indeed recommended something close to this. But upper caste intellectuals from West Bengal who are hiding behind progressive masks (the openly elitist ones do not bother and I am not bothered with them) have neither written dozens of articles and manifestos along these lines, nor taken out a single demonstration. They really would not like the idea of uniform schooling, where their children must rub shoulder with “ill-bred” children. But where is career open to merit, if there is not equal scope for the development of merit?

1 comment:

soumya said...

you have also not come out openly in support of reservations.the only benefit of reservations is that it rattles the ruling class (or castes). the brahmin, baidya, kayastha clique of bengal has ruled for long in the garb of congress and the left. this clique can only be dislodged if there is massive consolidation along caste lines. class consolidation is passe, as we have seen in bengal over so many years how easily it is hijacked by the bbk clique. caste consolidation cannot be hijacked by the bbk clique because they will be its outsiders. like parties of the left, caste groups do not require bbk spokespersons. a laloo yadav or charan singh will suffice.

i may be accused of taking a retrograde position. but i am truly not. if capitalism is progress then from our indian experience we know that caste consolidations will only facilitate it.

people will have a better quality of life within a society mired in backwardness as we can readily observe in so many states of India, other than bengal. a strictly caste based society like that in kerala can also support progressive social institutions.

in the bengal context, it's bane is the bbk clique and the only way to get rid of it is a caste based consolidation. this consolidation exists and it only needs a political activation.