Ensuring liberalization: economic and social


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SEVERAL events during the last couple of years have left Dalits with familiar doubts about their place in Indian society. First, there was a ‘national debate’ on job reservations in the private sector, which continues. Through the 2004 Lok Sabha elections the people made it amply clear that they did not share, in fact resented, the euphoria that India (was) shining. Partly in response, however haphazardly, the new government broached the issue of quotas in the private sector. In doing so it at least displayed some empathy with Dalits and tribals and sought to integrate them into the fast expanding private sector. However, the debate on the subject led to two unfortunate but wholly foreseen outcomes. First, the organised private sector has made it clear that it would not embrace any socially redeeming policies in its hiring practices. Second, and a more deleterious outcome is that what was hoped to be a debate to help Dalits has been transformed into a debate on ‘merit’, in which the age-old negative stereotypes on the community are advanced to perpetuate exclusion.

Once again, the government has declined to extend reservations to the armed forces. While merit was the excuse to deny Dalits a place in the private sector, national unity and integrity came handy in the case of armed forces. It is ironical on many grounds. A country like the United States actively recruits minorities into its services and does not consider it a threat to social cohesion. In India, on the other hand, a policy to benefit weaker sections has been sacrificed for social cohesion that does not exist.

On 12 August 2005, the Supreme Court declared that the state could not impose reservations on private unaided professional colleges. Incidentally, the judgment recalls with a touch of irony the ‘good old times’ when ‘education used to be charity or philanthropy’ but fails to mention that lower castes and Dalits were denied that charity even in those good old times. Clearly the times, both old and new, don’t seem to hold much for the disadvantaged.

In the good old times it was the Manusmriti, in colonial times it was the martial-race argument (with regard to recruitment in the British India army), and now it is meritocracy in the modern period – all are justified in their time by society, state and judiciary – with one common result: exclusion of Dalits from the mainstream.

Though the exclusion of Dalits is real, one needs to take into account the progress made since independence. However, be it employment or access to education, the fact that reservations are required in this time and age is a sad commentary on the state of the community. There can be little dispute with basic facts, though. First, Dalits find themselves at the bottom of most human development indicators. Even the government has admitted this. Second, their social and economic backwardness is clearly related to their religion-sanctioned exclusion from all walks of public life. Third, discrimination is not a thing of the past but an everyday reality.


With independence and the adoption of a modern constitution, the situation has fundamentally changed. Unlike in the past, nobody can now openly justify the discrimination suffered by Dalits. Moreover, the government is mandated by the constitution to end discrimination. But even 55 years on, the situation for the Dalits remains equally dismal in the rural areas and the ‘progress’ the community has made remains confined to a tiny section that acquired mobility due entirely to jobs in the government.

What, then, explains the sorry state? There is no dearth of rules and programmes, or budgetary allocations designed for Dalit welfare, but their impact remains marginal. This paper reasons that Dalit welfare has been treated narrowly as a matter of economic upliftment in the hope that economic development would pave the way for social equality. It also draws inspiration from old concepts like ‘state-society dichotomy’ and Gunnar Myrdal’s ‘soft state’, though they were never treated as operative realities in India and their relevance for social policy cannot be overestimated even today.


In 1950 the Indian nation agreed – in a fit of absent-mindedness, as it were – to the creation of a modern constitution based on universal values. But it was never treated as a settled fact. Religious extremists attacked it as it was not based on Manusmriti; communists and socialists thought it was not radical enough; and most others felt it was not sufficiently ‘Indian’ because it drew inspiration from ideals and models developed elsewhere, especially in the West.

No doubt, it has become a fait accompli and nothing more. A case in point is the argument by Hindutva groups that the Ayodhya case is related to ‘faith’ and the courts should not have jurisdiction over their claims. The argument has not gained any currency, though, but those who have resorted to that school of thought cannot be dismissed as inconsequential. In other words, the predominant sentiment is that whatever values the constitution espouses do not have to be honoured if they are not in conformity with traditional values.

Similarly, opposition to Dalits and their development is premised on a tradition which freezes their socio-economic place at the bottom. In most caste-related conflicts, as a result, non-Dalits use tradition-sanctioned caste hierarchy, not constitution- mandated equality, as justification to continue discrimination against the community. It is naive to expect that functionaries charged to implement welfare provisions are unaffected by tradition. But the trouble is there is no such realisation while approaching the subject. Harriss-White writes, while emphasising that Myrdal’s ‘soft’ state has become softer, ‘State capacity has become increasingly dependent on the private social identities of the personnel who happen to occupy positions in the local State.’1


In August 2000, President K.R. Narayanan constituted a committee of governors2 to review welfare programmes designed to help SC/STs, highlight constraints and bottlenecks, and make recommendations. The committee made several recommendations but did not address the question of how – or whether – societal prejudice could be a factor explaining failure of welfare programmes. However, this is not to criticise the committee which did a good job with regard to administrative aspects, its mandate, but to highlight that the Dalit problem cannot be treated merely as an administrative issue. Moreover, unlike in reviewing the success of schemes like the Special Component Plan, which can be quantified, something the governors committee did well, how does one factor in social prejudice, except by rejecting it as extraneous or irrelevant?

Extraneous or irrelevant it is not. Therefore, Dalits are victims of not only the problems of governance per se but also of social prejudice. While reforming governance is a continuing process, the social aspects need immediate attention. The failure to do so has resulted in the emasculation of the state, in a functional sense, insofar as Dalits are concerned.

The original proactive welfare state was reduced to mouthing political slogans by the early 1980s but, since 1991, even those slogans have been discarded as inconvenient. ‘Populism’ and ‘vote-bank politics’ are adjectives now used to delegitimise any socially redeeming initiatives and arguments. The absence of any serious debate had deleterious consequences and Amartya Sen very aptly sounds the warning, ‘Silence is a powerful enemy of social justice.’3 To that extent, the state’s will to be proactive is severely limited. This process does not only affect the economic development of the Dalits but is evident even in protecting their human rights. Most atrocity cases end up in acquittal because the civil and police administration lacks the capacity to ensure rule-based governance as well as the conviction of those who perpetuate violence on the community. This has become a pattern leading to the erosion of Dalits’ confidence in the state. Overall, a hostile society and an indifferent state are unlikely to produce a conducive environment where Dalits would be able to improve their social and economic conditions.


There is something deceptive about the terminology of liberalization. Liberalization in the present context only means ‘economic’ liberalization. Even the seemingly neutral usage, ‘economic reforms’ hides more than it reveals. In popular perception liberalization may be associated with ‘liberalism’ but it does not contain any liberal elements of individual liberty – tolerance, rule of law, equality, and so on. And they cannot be taken for granted in a country in which caste and communal divisions and discrimination are a rule, not an exception. The trouble with India is that at the time of independence, as Ambedkar mentioned, political democracy did not ensure social democracy; now in the days of economic liberalization, a parallel process is missing to free the society from obscurantism, narrow mindedness and caste prejudice – the inhuman features of society that keep Dalits in poverty and denial.


Negligence or unwillingness to reform society was responsible for the failure of the earlier system insofar as helping Dalits to stand on their feet. Now the country has embarked on a new economic course without paying any attention to social reform. The results cannot be different. The Dalits’ apprehension of being left behind is turning into despondency. Can the Dalit problem be solved by mere macro-economic changes without looking into its social and political aspects as well?

The vibrant civil society that India is rightly proud of mostly spends its energies on ‘other’ issues such as environment and civil liberties. Notwithstanding the importance of these issues, their resolution howsoever understood, has limited relevance to the Dalits. First, most civil society groups are top-down in their structure as well as outlook and an age-old issue like caste discrimination tends to be ignored. In any case, it proved to be much more resilient to change even under the combined onslaught of Ambedkar and Gandhi, and lesser mortals with limited vision and capabilities could not hope to eradicate it. So, it remains an existential reality. Second, most civil society groups target the state, or the development model and not the society, the reason for the Dalits’ backwardness. It is no secret, either, that very few Dalits find their voices heard in the civil society deliberations, though there may be many Dalits as flag-bearers in these groups.


However, the role of civil society in Dalit emancipation is indispensable and, in fact, its silence during the last five decades has led to further worsening of the situation. According to Amartya Sen who clearly identifies the problem:

‘The right to comprehensive participation in democratic politics can be the basis of social and political use of "voice" – through arguments and agitations – to advance the cause of equality in different spheres of life. India’s democratic practice has been less than vigorous in some of these issues, and these lacunae are among the major inadequacies in the use of democracy in India today. The future of stratifications related to class, caste, gender and other barriers will depend critically on how they are addressed in political engagement and participatory social actions in the country. Despite the frustration with democracy expressed by many people, disappointed particularly by the slow progress against societal inequality, what is really needed is a more vigorous practice of democracy, rather than the absence of it.’4

Sen’s prescription is important for several reasons. For a start, stratification has seldom been regarded as a problem. Here one needs to make a distinction between state action by way of legislative debates and through administrative measures – and response of the civil society. Moreover, unlike gender or class inequality which attracts some attention, caste discrimination has fewer takers. Even more perverse has been the use of the language of social justice to further the cause of OBCs, which is economic advancement. That the OBCs are economically backward cannot be denied, but to equate them with the SC/STs as victims of caste discrimination, though possibly valid in a historical context, does not hold in contemporary India. Being the middle castes, they compete with those above them in caste hierarchy but refuse to accord equality to those below them, the Dalits. The history of more than a century of the so-called ‘anti-caste’ movements led by the OBCs is reflective of this contradiction.

Two, it is vitally important to create an environment in which stratification of any sort – be it based on class, caste, or gender – does not enjoy legitimacy. It is not enough for a civil society group, for example, to argue that its main concern is only gender equality. Such a segmented approach, the bane of most civil society activism, cannot help if it remains oblivious to universal values. The third reason why Sen’s viewpoint deserves national attention is the need to imbibe universal values. ‘Economic liberalization’ is good in a narrow sense of promoting competition or encouraging private sector development, but falls far short of a blueprint for national development if it were to be implemented, as is now the case, in isolation of social realities.

A true liberalization of society is the antidote to most problems of stratification and the resultant economic deprivation. This is not just a Dalit agenda and needs to be seen in the context of universal values of rule of law, equality, justice and a sense of fair play.



* The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of RGICS or its Governing Council.

1. Barbara Harriss-White, India Working: Essays on Society and Economy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 246.

2. Chaired by P.C. Alexander, then Governor of Maharashtra, the committee included other governors – M.M. Jacob (Meghalaya), Justice S.S. Kang (Kerala), V.S. Rama Devi (Karnataka), Suraj Bhan (Himachal Pradesh), M.M. Rajendran (Orissa), and Babu Paramanand (Haryana). It submitted its report to the President on 28 April 2001.

3. Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (London: Allen Lane, 2005), p. 39.

4. Sen, op cit., p. 36.