The Failure of the Reservation System: Missing its Principal Objective

Reservations for seats in government jobs and educational institutions has been a contentious and important political issue in India. Before every major national or state assembly election, the country witnesses demands for more reservations for the backward classes or minorities. The provision of reservations has been deeply entrenched in the lives of Indians. This article aims to analyse the concept of reservations and gauge its failure. Have reservations been effective and successful in solving the problem they’re aimed at? Is there a better alternative option to achieve social upliftment? The answer to the former question is a firm negative, considering the status of class antagonisms and the implications of reservations in India. At the same time, addressing the second question, there is a viable alternative to reservations for achieving the aim of upliftment of backward classes.

The rationale behind reserving seats for backward classes in government jobs and colleges has been to uplift the communities who have been victims of historical oppression due to their caste identity. Hence, the ultimate aim of providing reservations is to uplift the backward class communities to a status of equals with the general class in society. The goal is to undo the years of oppression and their resultant devastating social and economic condition. It is clear, however, that reservation has not been able to adequately achieve its goal. It has provided economic upliftment to a few from backward communities, not the entire community, that too at the cost of fuelling the antagonisms between the general and backward classes. Not only that, but the reservation system has also given rise to a culture of communities posing themselves as oppressed or minorities for demanding reservation. Moreover, the vicious politics around reservations, of appeasing the backward or oppressed classes for vote banks, has plagued Indian politics since its inception. Some individuals and their families from backward communities have benefited from reserved seats; however, in seventy years, the larger goal of uplifting historically oppressed communities hasn’t been realised. 

The most striking evidence to attest to the failure of the reservation system is the fact that it hasn’t been abolished yet or that quotas haven’t been reduced since its inception. The consistent increase in quotas, and demands for newer ones, indicates that the system has failed to make significant progress. If reservations had been instrumental in bringing change and striving towards social equality, ideally, India should have witnessed a reduction in the percentage of quotas or an end to the entire system by now. One may object that achieving the aim of reservations requires a longer time frame; to which there are two responses. One, the demands of increasing reservation quotas and the hostility between general and reserved classes in the status quo are strong reasons to claim that reservations have not made any significant impact on the social status of backward communities. Second, regardless of one’s belief in reservations, it is worth considering an alternate route to establishing social equality, which this article proposes in the end. 

I will consider H.J. Khandekar’s, a Dalit member of the Constituent Assembly, defense of reservation to represent the most popular and common argument made for reservations: providing upliftment to communities that have faced historical oppression and are, hence, socially backward and prejudiced towards. Ramachandra Guha notes in this book “India After Gandhi” that Khandekar “eloquently defended the extension of reservation to jobs in government.” (94) Referring to the recent recruitment to the Indian Administrative Service, Khandekar pointed out that the Harijan interviewees were found unsuitable for the posts because of their poor grades. Addressing his upper-caste colleagues in the Constituent Assembly, he argued that

“You are responsible for our being unfit today. You engaged in your service to serve your own ends and suppressed us to such an extent that neither our minds nor our bodies and nor even our hearts work, nor are we able to march forward. You have reduced us to such a position and then you say that we are not fit and that we have not secured the requisite marks. How can we secure them?”

There is no merit in objecting to or rejecting Khandekar’s claims. He is positing simple facts that are important social realities of India back then in 1949, and even today to some extent. His claims are also the basis of the arguments commonly made for reservation today. However, what the defenders of reservation have gotten wrong is the idea of reserved seats in government institutions as a means to end oppression and uplift backward classes. The method to provide seats to people based on their caste and social profile does not pose them as true equals to their counterparts from general categories, or at least they may not be perceived as equals by others. Colleagues from general categories, or classes that have historically been the oppressors, will accord true respect and consideration for the reserved categories when they perceive them as equals. 

The primary reason behind the oppression of backward communities was that they were deemed to be unworthy and incapable of performing tasks and jobs that their oppressors did. Considering this rationale of oppression, reserving seats in institutions will not generate a feeling of empathy and genuine respect for people occupying reserved seats. A person from the general category has to work harder for the same opportunity. People occupying reserved seats, who didn’t undergo an equal examination and have gotten a seat or job as a result of their caste, not merit, will not be considered as a true equal by general categories. Contradictingly, this practice of reservation fuels the antagonism and hatred for the reserved classes rather than bridging the gap of inequality. 

Addressing the principal reason behind historical oppression and changing the perception of backward classes as inferior, it is more logical and constructive for a person, from a backward class, to achieve a job or a seat in an educational institution based on his merit. In an office or educational environment, general categories would consider people from backward classes as true equals when they acquire that position as a result of their merit; this would help transform the perception of backward classes as inferior and uplift them to a status of equals with their oppressors. At this point, most people will rightly point out that people from reserved categories do not have the facilities of quality education to achieve the qualifications that an entrance exam or government job requires. Interestingly, this realisation of the poor status of education facilities for the backward classes is a moment to rejoice because it picks up the exact problem we need to solve: provide quality education to the backward classes. 

The effective way to solve the problem of social backwardness is to focus on strengthening government educational infrastructure and improving the quality of education. Providing quality education may act as the single most effective tool to uplifting reserved classes to an equal status with their counterparts and progress towards resolving social backwardness. It would enable students from the reserved categories to be equally competitive and proficient in appearing for competitive exams and applying for government jobs as a general category person. Through this alternative to reservations, people from reserved categories will not only uplift themselves economically but also further their individual or family’s endeavor. Reserved class communities would secure an equal status as general categories in the society as people from the entire community will be able to acquire seats in government institutions, and private ones. 

The government should focus on solving the root problems like poor education and the resulting unemployment, rather than churning out reservations for fulfilling political goals. At the same time, it is idealistic to expect the governments to take initiative on choosing the harder route to provide social justice and bridge the gap between different communities. Reforming the education system is a monumental task in India due to the monetary investment, bureaucratic effort, and political will it demands. Hence, people from reserved communities need to raise their voices and demand the government to provide them quality education. People need to take this initiative for the larger interest of their community which is in a terrible social and economic situation due to historical oppression. Demanding education, in itself, is a right one is entitled to, and, in this case, education can transform the future of backward communities in India by empowering them to attain a quality college education or government job. Providing reserved seats neither resolves the social injustice or perceptions of backward categories nor does it enable them to emancipate themselves from the restraints of society. It only allows a handful of people from backward classes to obtain economic security. It proves ineffective in achieving the larger goal of improving the condition of lives across the backward classes.

Aman Khullar is a second-Year Student of Political Science and Economics at Ashoka University

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