Reservation and Resentment
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Union government announced reservations for the OBC and EWS categories under the All India Quota (AIQ) for medical and dental institutions across India (TIE, 2021). However, there seems to have erupted a backlash against the move. Understandably so, the backlash emerged from the socially elite groups against the BJP-led central dispensation, for, it rode the wave of upper caste support base in the 2014 and 2019 (Table 5) Lok Sabha elections.
How do we understand the social contempt towards reservation from social and economic elites? There is a nuanced sociological fission reaction in this response to the reservation. From the system of erstwhile ritualised hierarchy, caste identities have been reconfigured at economic and political levels (Subedi, 2016). On the one hand, the intermediate forward castes within this hierarchy notably Jats, Patels, Marathas etc have emerged as contenders for recognition under the OBC category and on the other hand, the dominant caste groups like Brahmins still express outright contempt for caste-based reservations. It has been argued that material concessions within the ambit of distributive justice for the poor among the social elites can enable “de-stigmatization” of reservation (Gudavarthy, 2012). In this context, notwithstanding the politics of recognition which the EWS category entails, it was an attempt by the current government to accommodate claims of recognition among the social elites including the upper castes.
Observing the backlash against the newly instituted policy of extending OBC reservations to medical and dental courses, a question must be raised about the efficacy of such an argument. Has reservation been liberated from social contempt despite such material concessions? Lines such as '#NEET_में_आरक्षण_वापस_लो' and “Tum Log Mask pehen lo, Hum Log merit kill kar rahe hain” etc were trending on Twitter. The Long-standing arguments against reservation primarily from the Upper caste households are as follows: One, there is a disjunction between merit and reservation. Caste-based reservation intendedly results in the “murder of merit”. Two in continuity with the first argument reservation will result in inefficient outcomes due to alleged lack of merit. The Supreme Court debunked (See Saurav Yadav v State of Uttar Pradesh) both the claims and subtly exposed the hypocrisy and the treachery when the claims called for the general category to be a reserved category for the upper caste groups.
On close observation of the backlash, there seems to be a dislocated and misdirected anxiety and anger among the caste Hindu groups which are genuine. At a subconscious level, the resentment seems to be towards commercialisation and privatisation of services like education. There is a perception prevalent among vast sections that there is a decline in the services offered by medical and engineering professionals – the financial and social utility/returns derived out of the “system” far outweighs the “investments” made.
The documented average cost incurred by average income households to pursue professional courses in private institutions in the State of Karnataka, where I come from, is 40-50 Lakh rupees in a medical institute. A report by the Times of India argued, “Higher the fees, lower the average NEET score” (TOI, 2018). Therefore, the anger is against this dilution of opportunities for the upper-caste Hindu middle class. The second layer of crisis is that of global finance-corporate capitalism, which has seen the erosion of its accommodative capacity, undergoing a permanent state of crisis and is unable to absorb a vast educated constituency. This is supplemented with the fact of the systematic destruction of state governments funded universities across the country. On one hand, the fast-paced technological revolution, professionalisation and standardization of education have excluded many, on the other hand, the inaccessibility of institutions due to soaring costs have generated a sense of precarity among the advantaged groups. Therefore, there is a sense of injustice - a sense of relative socio-economic decline which is in turn being directed against reservations. To borrow from Guy Standing, they are the precariats of neoliberalism. Ajay Gudavarthy characterizes sucha a group as “mezzanine elites” in his work “India After Modi: Populism and the Right (2018)”
This presents both a challenge as well as an opportunity for the Left-progressive circles to articulate and assert the social and economic utility of the public-funded institutions against the pervasive privatisation of education. A public-political discourse based on distributive justice emphasising the number of publicly funded educational institutions is the need of the hour. In this regard, the introduction of professional courses within an umbrella institution would enable the creation of a unified sense of learning. What has been the strategy of the Left parties to address these issues other than to hold demonstrations in defence of public institutions in Jantar Mantar? The BJP’s hegemonic intervention in Indian politics as a “historic” bloc and an authoritarian party has only unified traditional social cleavages while creating and intensifying new cleavages.
The BJP’s historical-ideological convictions against “Mandal politics” (Mile Mulayam Kanshiram, hawa mein ud gave Jai Sree Ram) resulted in “Kamandal politics” (Haathi nahin Ganesh hai, Brahma Vishnu Mahesh hai) in the 90s as a counter mobilization and consolidation of “Hindu votes”. The ascendancy of the “BJP system” post-2014 is constituted by mobilizing inherently hierarchical social structures and the entailing conflicts - consolidation of Mandal and Kamandal - a historical phase in Indian political history. Right-wing politics operates within an embattled zone of multiplicities or dialectics beyond the comprehension of Left politics. Yes, the BJP’s hegemonic interregnum will disintegrate. But what are the alternative strategy and narratives of the Left in addressing these above-mentioned issues other than to stick to old narratives? It is certainly a time for self-reflection.
Nikhil Jois KS
Nikhil Jois K. S. Studied undergraduate degree at Christ University, Bengaluru. Interests in theatre, classical music & anything Jazz including Classical Art. Distantly passionate about political theory, political sociology and critical social theory. Aspire to be an academician or a political journalist.
Gudavarthy, A. (2012). “Can we de-stigmatize Reservations in India?”. Vol. 47, Issue No. 6. Economic and Political Weekly.
Subedi, M. (2016). “CASTE IN SOUTH ASIA: FROM RITUAL HIERARCHY TO POLITICS OF DIFFERENCE.” Politeja, (40), 319-340. Retrieved August 4, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24920210
Yadav, S. “Explained: NEET’s All India Quota, and OBC & EWS reservation”. (August 3rd, 2021). The Indian Express.
Nagarajan, R. “Money, not Quota, dilutes merit in medical admissions”. (June 11th, 2018). The Times of India.