Caste consciousness is a part of our everyday lives; its universality renders it normal. However hard we may delude ourselves, we are all scarred by it. Cultural attitudes about caste that have evolved over the ages are internalised by individuals as unquestioned facts. A plainly irrational, wicked belief in Dalit inferiority is embedded in our culture. A common perception is that Dalits are being treated fairly and if they continue to be at the bottom of the hierarchy, it is on account of their inherent inferiority.
Most of us would like to believe we have transcended caste bias and are normally correct in our dealings with Dalits. But the subterranean volcano of prejudice erupts in case the Dalit breaches the invisible caste wall by asking for your daughter’s hand in marriage, or seeks employment in your house as a cook, or aspires to be a priest in the neighbourhood temple. Then, he is shown his rightful place — that of a pariah. A Dalit who aspires to rise above his ordained subaltern status is exposed to deep psychological injury through an assault on his selfrespect and dignity. How often has one heard the heartless comment, “For an SC, he’s quite smart,” or the deeply hurtful, “You don’t look or behave like an SC.” BR Ambedkar was prescient when he observed: “On 26 January 1950, we will be entering into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality, and in social and economic life, we will have inequality.”
The raison d’être for reservation for SCs/STs was not merely economic (indeed, poverty existed across the castes and communities), but it was untouchability and all its painful consequences. Through the various Constitutional provisions for the SCs/STs, our founding fathers wished to eradicate social stigmatisation from the social milieu. The reservation controversy of the day is about the most victimised section of our society claiming jobs and promotions in government proportionate to their number in the population — an unexceptionable proposition.
Even in the limited sphere where the SCs/STs are beneficiaries of affirmative action, the statistics of Dalits in the various tiers of the hierarchy is a damning indictment of the system. For example, as of March 2011, out of 149 secretary-level posts in the Centre, there was not a single SC officer. Within Group A services, despite reservations since 1955, there are only 11.1 percent SCs and 4.6 percent STs, much below the mandated quota. Out of all Central government employees, 17 percent are SCs and 7.4 percent are STs — a misleading figure, however, as SCs and STs constitute 45.5 percent of the safai karamcharis (sweepers) employed by the government, in keeping with the centuriesold practice of assigning the lowest jobs to the dispossessed.
NO BODY SEEMS threatened by the fact that Dalits have a disproportionate share of thesafai karamchari jobs. In fact, the heartless resentment against reservation become more worrying when one considers that reservation is restricted to only a fraction of the millions of jobs available where Dalits are marginalised due to their socio-economic condition.
Our founding fathers recognised that social and economic justice would remain a pipedream so long as the lot of the SCs/STs was not improved drastically. Hence, there are provisions such as Article 46 under the Directive Principles, which enjoins upon the State “to promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and, in particular, of the SCs and STs, and to protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation”. As interpreter and protector of the Constitution, the courts cannot escape engaging proactively in this solemn commitment.
Two Supreme Court judgments, in essence, represent the apex court’s philosophy on the contentious issue of reservation. In the M Nagaraj vs Union of India judgment of 2006, the court directed that each case of reservation in appointment and promotion would have to be justified on the grounds of backwardness and inadequacy of representation, also taking into account the requirements of efficiency. In another landmark judgment of April 2012, in the UP Power Corporation vs Rajesh Kumar case, the Supreme Court struck down reservations in promotions on the grounds that the criteria laid down in the Nagaraj case had not been complied with. These judgments are problematic and raise more questions than they answer.