Affirmative Action in the United States and India: A Comparative Perspective

By Thomas E. Weisskopf | Go to book overview

Introduction

The US and India are in many obvious ways very different; but in some important respects the two nations are similar. Both have functioning democratic electoral systems and are constitutionally committed to preserving civil liberties and individual rights. Both have large, multicultural populations including significant minority groups with a long history of deprivation and disadvantage, whose members are quite disproportionately under-represented in the upper socio-economic strata of the society. And both nations have sought to address the needs of these under-represented ethnic groups via certain forms of positive discrimination, labeled "affirmative action" in the US and "reservation policies" in India.

The policies of positive discrimination in favor of under-represented ethnic groups, enacted initially with strong public support, have proven increasingly controversial in both India and the US. In each country the debate over these policies has become sharper, as participants wrestle with the inherent tension between the individual right to equal treatment and the societal goal of overcoming profound inequalities of opportunity. And in each country the issue of positive discrimination looms large in the political arena and in the judicial system.

These similar circumstances suggest that much can be learned from comparative analysis of affirmative action in the US and reservation policies in India. There have indeed been quite a few such comparative studies published in recent decades. 1 For the most part these studies address the origins and the development of positive discrimination policies in each country, focusing on the political and judicial context in which the policies have taken shape over the years. Much less attention has been paid to assessing the consequences of positive discrimination policies. This is not surprising, for these consequences are multifaceted and generally very difficult to measure. Yet it is surely a matter of considerable importance to evaluate whether affirmative action policies in the US and reservation policies in India have in fact been achieving their objectives, or whether they have made matters worse-as the critics claim.

My approach to the analysis of positive discrimination policies is a pragmatic one, which recognizes that such policies are likely to have some good

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