Caste in Stone

Article excerpt

Abstract:

In 1948, India laid the groundwork for the world's oldest system of affirmative action: a concerted effort to give preferences in employment and education to selected disadvantaged ethnic groups, with the hope that they would integrate into society at large. Today, a half-century later, affirmative action in the Indian context can be labelled only a colossal failure. The principal beneficiaries of the policies have been the elites among the lower castes; particularly in rural areas, discrimination against the lower castes continues unabated. Moreover, India's affirmative action policies have made caste identities more salient when the intent was to diminish stratification by caste.

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Consequences of India's Affirmative Action Policies

Speaking before India's Constituent Assembly on November 4, 1948, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the champion of India's "Untouchables," articulated the challenge of integrating the long-oppressed lower orders of society into the national polity. "It is wrong for the majority to deny the existence of minorities. It is equally wrong for the minorities to perpetuate themselves," he said. "A solution must be found [that will] recognize the existence of the minorities to start with. It must also be such that it will enable majorities and minorities to merge someday into one." Ambedkar envisioned a public policy that would protect India's lower castes against discrimination through legal safeguards-a strategy that would hopefully result in the eventual integration of the Untouchables into society.

Thus was laid the groundwork for the world's oldest system of affirmative action: a concerted effort to give preferences in employment and education to selected disadvantaged ethnic groups, with the hope that they would integrate into society at large. Ambedkar could scarcely have predicted the course that the initiatives he advocated would eventually take. Today, a half-century later, affirmative action in the Indian context can be labeled only a colossal failure. The principal beneficiaries of the policies have been the elites among the lower castes; particularly in rural areas, discrimination against the lower castes continues unabated. Moreover, India's affirmative action policies have made caste identities more salient when the intent was to diminish stratification by caste. Though advances have been made in the political representation of the lower castes, in many ways India today is a society more riven by casteism than it was just a few decades ago. The country's extreme policies of caste preferences are the culprit.

The greatest impediment to the integration of the lower castes into the national polity has been the ethnic spoils system into which the Indian affirmative action regime has devolved. The most extensive program of quotas in the world, the Indian system has encouraged the view that social problems should be solved not by changing people's minds or attitudes, but by encouraging elites to grapple for political power and representation. By promoting an open competition for resources, the Indian government has encouraged longstanding caste and ethnic differences to become more entrenched. Instead of achieving social justice, India's affirmative action policies have resulted in a fractured polity, an increasingly morally dubious system of "reservations," and the strangle hold of corrupt, divisive, identity-oriented politicians on the political process.

Getting Beyond Caste

Harry Blackmun once wrote in a US Supreme Court opinion that "to get beyond race, we first must take race into account." India's affirmative action policies were fashioned in a similar spirit. The Indian Constitution of 1950 officially abolished untouchability and casteism, but the government soon instituted a policy that reserved jobs and educational opportunities for those of the traditionally oppressed lowest castes. In the early 1950s the state reserved 22. …