‘Reservation for upper-caste poor is a sleight of hand’

Poornima Joshi | Updated on January 27, 2019

Sociologist Dipankar Gupta   -  The Hindu

Sociologist Dipankar Gupta discusses the dynamics of political mobilisation and the politics of reservation. Excerpts from an interview to Poornima Joshi:

The Indian state’s failure to provide the basics — universal education and healthcare — has never become the rallying point for political mobilisation. Why is that?

The more cleavages of class, caste, language, race a society has, the more difficult it is to practise democracy. Democracy works best in a society that is monochromatic. The moment you bring in differences, you find democracy beginning to stumble...India is full of cleavages, and all kinds of political ambitions have been built on them. Bridging cleavages is a tricky affair: it requires thinking of something universal for a large set of people with different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. That is the problem that the so-called national political parties face.

So, from time to time, we have passions getting aroused based on one cleavage or the other: the caste reservation movements get overtaken by temple or regional chauvinistic movements. One overlaps and overtakes the other, and nothing really sustains because there isn’t a universal understanding of what a modern state is required to provide for towards society in general.

Moreover, there is no awareness in India that the state is responsible for providing certain absolute basics like universal health and education. People think it is something the private sector should do and the government should somehow provide for through scholarships or reservations. All the public health programmes, for instance, are meant to enable you to avail of the private services. There is no consciousness that there should be a public health system. That is why we rarely have any movement for public education and health. Another important thing about something as significant as health is that there is no collective consciousness around it; we don’t all fall sick together. It is an individual experience. So, it is very difficult to build a movement of the ill. As for education, though there is an enhanced awareness of education being a tool for social mobility, the belief is that the private sector is better equipped.

There are now two strands of mass mobilisation: one around routine concerns (rural distress, joblessness) and another around Ram temple, Rafale, and caste. How do you interpret them?

It wasn’t mass movements that led to welfare measures in other countries. Most progressive reforms in democracies have been brought about by a handful of motivated individuals who snuck them in. In Belgium, an autocrat - King Leopold II - did extraordinary things for his own people while exploiting Congo... In Germany, Otto von Bismarck, another autocrat, created the world’s first welfare state. Progressive, modern state policies are thus often engendered from above and not exactly as a result of democratic /spontaneous movements. That is why one should have some respect for the elite who have enforced universally progressive policies such as maternity rights, abolition of child labour — which was actually resisted by the working class. My point is that in a society of a multitude of cleavages, it is difficult for a political party to keep the focus on a long-term programme that requires dedication, planning and might invite possible reversals in the short term.

Why is the politics of tokenism — reservation in education and jobs — still considered beneficial?

I’ve always been against OBC reservation. For me, reservation is very special and I am speaking from the perspective of what BR Ambedkar has said. According to him, reservation is always for a designated minority and for a limited time. The moment you make reservation for the majority, it changes the meaning altogether. It makes no sense to me. Reservation is not an anti-poverty programme. They are making it that because they cannot eliminate poverty. It is a sleight of hand.

Published on January 27, 2019

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