Problems of generalization
  Bhagat Oinam and D.A.Sadokpam

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INDIA’S reservation policy presupposes a social fact – that of centuries of oppression of one group by another. It assumes, in other words, a determinate but constant unchanging ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’. The ‘constant’ is created by the Brahmanical social order, and is perpetuated through a hereditarily determined identity. While some form of conflict, yielding categories of ‘exploiter’ and the ‘exploited’, the ‘dominant’ and the ‘subservient’ exist in all societies, in India these terms are defined in relation to the caste order. The caste system is accorded a special position, and its unique structure, located in scripture and tradition, is seen as justifying and reproducing such constant identities that are responsible for fostering continuous social tension and dominance.

While the fact of caste based discrimination cannot be denied in India, the problem emerges when we try to extend the ‘constant’ to a more general plane, thereby overlooking the different forms of social relations and conflicts that are found in various parts of the country. The problem with the country’s reservation policy is that it over-generalizes a theoretical framework to achieve quick practical results. When, for instance, the social reality of Northeast India is understood in the light of some general conceptions of the social practices of the Hindu Brahmanic society, what emerges is a deeply flawed conception of the region. This conception, over time, has become a source of generalization on the one hand, and ethnic conflict on the other.

The paper neither has any quarrel with the theories on caste nor with representations that speak of the uniqueness of caste-based discrimination. But it has serious difficulties with two major propositions drawn from caste related studies. The first problem relates to the assumptions that social justice can be ensured by economic enhancement of the lower castes through unconditional positive discrimination. The second arises from the attempt to extend caste, as a social fact, to every society where Hindu religious faiths are in practice.

Emancipating the socially underprivileged and the marginalized as a move towards social justice is an important value and concern. And it is also a well-argued position that social emancipation is to be brought about, in addition to social recognition, by economic empowerment. But economic empowerment has its own logic. One of the biggest question is: how much of economic empowerment of a group will filter to the lowest rank of the underprivileged within the group. This is a big question that cannot be easily answered. The ultimate goal of social justice is to ensure that the least privileged and the least deprived within a marginalized group possess equal chance and capability to compete with the rest of the already privileged.

Though self-identity of an individual is singularly and internally conceived, the ‘collective’ associated with the individual cannot be denied. Each one of us is born in a particular community, shaped by the values that the community nurtures and governed by the dictates of ‘ought’ that the community marks down. While we claim to be free, we are often tied down by the values of the community. Most of the identifications and directives are governed at an ideational plane and cannot be defined or measured quantitatively. Caste identification is one such case.

But social identification that operates largely in the ideational plane is also closely linked with economic condition, where at times, the latter either influences or determines the former. Economic identification is different from those identifications which are ideational. The relationship between the two is complex, and unless clearly delineated could create confusion. The country’s reservation policy, we believe, emerges out of a deep flaw in understanding the complex relationship between the conceptions of the ‘cultural/social’ and the ‘economic’. The big question on ‘filtering down to the least privileged’ as raised earlier pertains to this.

While the economic status is measurable, social status cannot be measured and remains at an ideational plane. The two, of course, are not exclusive. Economic empowerment is closely related to social emancipation, yet the relationship between the two is not proportionate. The social connotation that a particular caste carries is equally applicable, without exception, to all members of the caste. The same cannot be said of economic possessions or economic status of the members of the caste.

The status in term of possession of wealth will vary from one individual member to another. If empowerment of the caste is to be made primarily through reservation of jobs, which amounts to increasing the buying capacity of an individual member, it is an individual affair. Consequently, if social upliftment of the underprivileged caste is to be enforced through reservation in jobs, there have to be certain measurable economic criteria fulfilling which it can be said that one has reached a certain economic status from where one can meaningfully compete with the upper castes.

Economic empowerment as a blanket concept means little as it does not provide a homogenous identification as can be made of social and cultural terms. Upward mobility of a group, collectively, in totality, makes little sense when economic empowerment is considered as the prime mover. As a process, it is the individuals who will move upwards as particular instances, and not the group as a whole at one go.

Though social upliftment is a just ethical goal, the procedure of upliftment raises a range of difficulties, especially when economic enhancement is related unconditionally with social emancipation. The second problem adds a few more difficulties in addressing the issue of empowerment and social upliftment. It, unlike the first, deals not with the issue of implementation but with the conception of the social fact: of caste and caste-based discrimination.

The second problem posed by the reservation policy arises from the belief that caste is a basic social fact that exists throughout India. A nation-wide policy that assumes not just caste distinctions but a structure of caste based discrimination poses serious difficulties. This becomes evident when we turn to Northeast India. Take the case of Manipur where the category of ‘Scheduled Caste’ has been listed from among the Meitei community.

The stereotyping of the Meitei (Hindu) society in the image of mainland Hindu ethos and practices has manufactured two non-existent castes of the ‘constant exploiter’ and the ‘constant exploited’. While Hinduised Meiteis have been identified with the former, all other non-Hindu communities are shown as ‘exploited’. Such is the handiwork of those who harp on the ‘politics of divide’ and benefit from it; and endorsed by the ‘ignorant other’ who is happy to own up anything that comes closer to the imagined pan-Indian vision. What has been presupposed quite wrongly is that the ‘constant’ assumed in caste based Hindu community exist uniformly in all the regions where Hindu faiths are practised.

The Northeast seems to have an altogether different social experience and dynamics. The presupposition that caste discrimination exists in all parts of India for centuries has had its share of discomfiture with social analysts and academics in the Northeast. A closer scrutiny of the socio-economic history reveals a dynamics quite different from the type of caste based discrimination that has existed in mainland India. The notion of ‘caste’ and ‘tribe’ in the Northeast needs an objective inquiry to correct the pervasive concept of discrimination in the Indian context.

The flaw in manufacturing ‘Scheduled Caste’ in the Northeast comes not out of an inclusive imagination, but from the misrepresentation of social facts. Caste division, particularly in Assam and Manipur, though they follow the Brahmin and the non-Brahmin demarcation, are very different from the rest of the country both in their structure as well as their operation. For instance, the Meiteis of Manipur comprise of (i) the Meitei Bamons (Manipuri Brahmins), (ii) the Manipuri Meiteis (‘Kshtriyas’ as well as the followers of pre-Hindu Sanamahi faith), and (iii) the Meitei Pangals (Manipuri Muslims). The Meitei Brahmins, mostly descendents from Nabadwip, Vrindavan, Ujjain and Kanauj since the 15th century were upper caste Brahmins, and were employed by the Meitei king to look after Hindu temples and act as royal scribes and astrologers. Since they were allowed to marry Meitei women, they slowly merged into the Meitei society (Parrat 1980). Even when the Ramandi Hindu sect was declared the state religion, and Hindu caste structure was superimposed assigning Kshatriya status to all the Meiteis, Hindu caste ethos failed to fully bloom. The conferred Hindus gotra has failed to dissociate the Meiteis from their identification with clan lineages, and the two are simultaneously retained.

The notion of ‘purity and pollution’ was brought into play as an operational device to maintain Brahmanic caste hierarchy. However, this could not succeed in totality since it was not a merger of a pre-Hindu social order into a strong Hindu system as has been witnessed in many hill districts of Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal, where local pre-Hindu deities find place in the larger Hindu narration. The trend was just the opposite in the case of the Northeast, where the Hindu world order merged into a larger non-Hindu social (within geographical boundary) and belief system. So it is wholly inappropriate to see and posit a structure of caste based exploitation in the Northeast that is borrowed from the mainland Hindu ethos.

We choose to introduce the notion of ‘caste like structure’ for societies that have, to some extent, incorporated/superimposed elements of the Hindu caste structure into the pre-Hindu social set up between the 17th and 18th century in the region. There is conglomeration as well as juxtaposition of social and cultural practices of both the religious traditions within one social milieu. This is witnessed equally in Assam and Manipur. While on the one hand, caste enters into the social system of the Assamese and Meitei societies, pre-Hindu culture ethos and religious practices still do not lose complete space for operation within the social practices. The practice of Bihu among the Assamese and Lai Haraoba among the Meiteis are some instances of this.

Not only caste, but also the category of ‘Scheduled Tribe’ is equally problematic in the form that has been applied in Manipur. The Lois of Manipur, for instance, find it difficult to justify themselves being called either a tribe or a caste. They were originally clans and tribes subdued by the Meitei kings for civil, religious and criminal offences, or captured in war or rebellion against the monarch (Ratan Kumar 2001). They, unlike the Meitei Hindu converts, continue to follow the pre-Hindu religious faith including the food habit. Since they do not fall under the Hindu religious fold and their village structure is closely similar to the tribes like Nagas and the Kukis, it is difficult to club them with either of the groups. The reason behind highlighting these instances is to show: one, the difficulty in homogenising the categories, ‘Scheduled Tribe’ and ‘Scheduled Caste’ and presenting them as being mutually exclusive; and two, generalising a social fact (concept) based on a given social reality and applying it to all other related social realities.

Relating to the problem of ‘over-generalization’, the fallouts of the reservation policy have been extremely detrimental to inter-community relationship. Reservation on caste and ethnic lines is leading towards the creation and consolidation of ethnic divides. Some social forces harp on conflict, for instance, by projecting the Meiteis (Hindus particularly) as ‘constant oppressor’. The formulation finds audience even among sincere pro-dalit and pro-tribal activists and scholars in the rest of the country, who mistakenly visualise an identical structure of caste dominance and oppression in Hindu societies like Assamese and Manipuri. This is due to a preconceived theoretical framework that Hindu society is always exploitative and oppressive. The process of legitimising the propaganda itself fetches moral support from the rest of the world but creates a platform for political and economic packages.

The construction of administrative divisions between the ‘privileged’ and the ‘underprivileged’, through the metaphor of the foundational ‘constant oppressor’ and ‘constant oppressed’, has led to covert tension between the Meiteis and other communities in the state. The new rivalries built need to be viewed against the background that no community in the Northeast was a constant oppressor or victor in the inter-ethnic rivalry. If head-hunting was the sign of ‘bravery’ and ‘conquest of the nearest other’, each tribe/ethnic community succeeded in hunting down the other at one time or the other. Players were all variables.

A recent illustration of this conflict can be seen among the lois of Manipur on the question of whom among them should be clubbed as ‘Scheduled Caste’, The residents of Kakching, who were traditional lois under the Manipuri king, got themselves identified as ‘Scheduled Caste’, This led to a long drawn legal battle with other lois (of Sekmai, Khurkhul, Andro, Leimram, etc.) who did not want those from Kakching to join the category out of fear that the new entrants would snatch away their destined jobs. What is witnessed in the entire episode is that instead of economic empowerment of the deserving individuals among the underprivileged, it has become a site of contention for accumulating the maximum benefit among individuals on community/ethnic line.

The mockery of the reservation policy came to light when Meiteis decided to join the club of the ‘new underprivileged’, the OBC. All the Meiteis, including the Manipuri Brahmins and the feudal lords, have now been included in the new category. In 1991 when the Mandal Commission Report was on its way to implementation, a statewide debate took place in the entire valley of Manipur to discuss the entry of Meiteis as a backward class. One of the arguments was that Meiteis should join OBC under the ‘economic backwardness clause’. The sole reason for which majority of the younger generation (mostly middle class) wanted social downgrading was to avail of job security under the reservation policy. Such cases of social downgrading to avail reservation benefits are not a lone case in Manipur; they have become a trend in the entire country. This should be seen as a serious fallout of the reservation policy.

Despite various changes modernity has brought, social systems in the Northeast have still remained largely egalitarian and tribal in outlook. The degree of disparity is not as high as is found in other parts of the country. Political grievances are more pragmatic and are matters determined by degrees of aspiration, which of course, is not totally unjustified. The aversion created by the reservation policy enforcing division along the lines of caste or tribe is not a healthy development. Reservation of jobs, if at all is a means for social and individual emancipation, must give way to new innovations. New ways must be found to reach the goal of emancipation without creating disenchantment with others.

One way would be to localise reservation policy, making it area-specific. Community based reservation should be avoided; instead criteria should be individual centred. Area based reservation is not identical with community based reservation even though it may turn out in many cases that a particular area is inhabited dominantly or exclusively by one community. Within the specific ‘reserved’ area, individual based criteria can still operate.

More than these, the upliftment of communities and individuals must go beyond the prism of reservation of government jobs. Priority should be given to areas that are crucial, such as development of infrastructure and compulsory free education for the underprivileged. By attending to these basic necessities, marginalized groups will be empowered to compete fairly with those who are already privileged. Mere reservation of jobs will not help. After more than fifty years, it is high time to examine the success and failure of the reservation policy: in terms of empowerment of the marginalized, equal and wider distribution of the reservation benefits to every section of the underprivileged, and finally, efficiency and productivity in the government sectors where reservation policy is implemented.

The widening gap between the public and private sectors is clearly visible as of today. The fact that the private sector is performing far better than the public should be a good enough reason to re-scrutinize the reservation of jobs. It needs to be seen if the failure results from flaws in the conception of the policy or in its implementation. So instead of proposing reservation in the private sector, government should think of alternative frameworks for social and economic upliftment. Areas where government should focus its attention are already enshrined in the Directive Principles of the Constitution. All that is needed is to take the Directive Principles a little more seriously.


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