RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat
RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s sudden enthusiasm for reservations highlights the importance the supposedly social welfare organisation attaches to electoral politics and to the numerical strength of Dalits and Adivasis. It is another instance of the right action being taken for the wrong reasons, and a conceptually useful tool being perverted to serve the interests not of the victims but of the perpetrators of injustice.

Whatever the RSS joint general secretary, Dattatreya Hosabale, had to say at the end of the recent three-day All India Coordination Committee meeting in Pushkar must be assessed in light of this history of doublespeak. It’s like the airport restaurant manageress at Houston in what was then the Deep South of the United States, ordering Gaganvihari Lallubhai Mehta, India’s ambassador to Washington from 1952 to 1958, and his aide to leave the main restaurant and banishing them to a separate room because she would not serve “niggers”.

Then, under pressure from the State Department, she changed her story and declared she had at once recognised the two Indians as VIPs and bestowed on them the privilege of a private dining room. No one can object when the RSS dignitary says that “water sources, temple and cemeteries should be available to everyone.” But should such a truism need to be articulated at all? Does the very fact of such a pious platitude being voiced not at once point to the primitive nature of social interactions that successive governments–including the present regime–have done nothing to remove or rectify? “On the issue of reservation,” said Mr Hosabale “they will be needed till the time there is untouchability, economic need, and its beneficiaries feel they require it.” Who are the beneficiaries? Recipients who corner privileges to create what has been called “a creamy layer” among Dalits and Adivasis or political managers who distribute favours in return for votes?

Mr Hosabale’s remarks must be seen in the context of the suggestion made only last month by the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, that there should be a debate on reservation. Mr Bhagwat proposed a constitution-backed guarantee to give India’s socially marginalized sections access to educational institutions, jobs and, even, legislatures. This seemed in line with the RSS’s overall position that the present system of quotas cannot be permanent. It has been poorly implemented and used as a political tool, creating ill-will among Hindus, and needs to be corrected by Hindu society itself. In a resolution adopted in its Akhil Bharat Pratinidhi Sabha meeting in 1981, the RSS suggested continuing with quotas “for the present” to bring “all these brethren of ours” (the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes) who have remained backward in educational, social and economic fields over the centuries at par with the rest of society.”

The resolution went on to argue, “Reservation has, because of its wrong implementation, become a tool of power politics and election-tactics instead of serving the purpose for which it was framed. And this has resulted in generating mutual ill-will and conflict in our society in several parts of the country.” Of course, it has. But was it ever intended to be otherwise except by idealists like B.R. Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru? Special provisions that were initially intended for only ten years would not otherwise have been extended decade after decade until they appear to have become a permanent feature of the national architecture.

The ABPS “agreed with the Prime Minister’s viewpoint that reservation cannot be a permanent arrangement, that these crutches will have to be done away with as soon as possible, and that because of this arrangement merit and efficiency should not be allowed to be adversely affected.” That’s the nitty-gritty. Reservations must be abolished. That’s what Mr Bhagwat was saying at the summit on Shiksha Mein Bhartiyeta (Indian Nationalism in Education) at New Delhi’s Pusa Institute on August 17. It wasn’t an off-the-cuff remark but provided an inkling of RSS thinking. The failure is that it doesn’t stress the equality of opportunity and freedom from discrimination that alone can create a level playing field for all groups.

It is a disgrace that India should squander scarce resources in launching space satellites and reaching for the moon when diet and medicare are so poor that the average Dalit female can expect to die 14 years before other Indian women whose longevity is poor enough by international standards. It is shocking that a Dalit man’s corpse should be hoist across the Palar river in Tamil Nadu dangling 20 ft in the air to avoid polluting high-caste territory. It is outrageous that covenants and constitutional provisions should be flouted to drag Kashmiri Muslims and Ladakhis into the direct control of a central government that cannot provide the basic necessities of life or guarantee human dignity to Dalits and Adivasis who together comprise about 25 per cent of India’s 1.3 billion-strong population. Like Muslims, they have become even more vulnerable to mob lynching because of the current politically-inspired obsession with beef. Caste-based crimes have registered a 25 per cent rise since the NDA came to power.

Caste is a fact of life wherever Indians can be found. That is what Mr Bhagwat should bear in mind if he really wants to create goodwill in a fragmented nation. Leaving aside the self-serving nonsense of pious platitudes, Mr Bhagwat’s ambidextrous speech seemed to court both sides of the reservation debate in a seemingly magnanimous display of fairness. He recommended a harmonious dialogue, saying "Those who favour reservation should speak keeping in mind the interests of those who are against it, and similarly those who oppose it should do the vice-versa." Mr Bhagat is too seasoned a politician not to know that his recipe for an impeccable Oxford Union debate is irrelevant to the cancer that is eating into India’s body politic. Any practical administrator must think both of the age-old social ills that quotas were expected to remove, and of the abuses that often make the cure seem worse than the disease.

Social analysts point out that reservation has created a vested interest in backwardness. It has given birth to what is called the “brahmanisation” of Dalits which is why more and more groups are clamouring to be listed as Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe. Newly-invented additional categories confirm the hankering for quotas. Special benefits have deteriorated into unabashed bribery to win votes. If any politician truly wants to improve the Dalit plight–which seems unlikely–he or she will stop mentioning reservation and focus only on education, opportunity and income. They are the three unfailing pre-requisites of a democratically egalitarian society. They are what RSS stalwarts should invest their huge resources in to create a more ethical society by shedding the blinkers of Hindu orthodoxy.

The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.

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