Rallies for quotas cannot be a forward march

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FarmerOne can’t take liberties with the national anthem, but the line ‘Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, Maratha’ would need only a bit of tweaking to compose an anthem for reservations in government jobs. It
would go “Haryana, Gujarat, Maratha” to symbolise agitations by the Jats, the Patels and the Marathas, though they did not occur in that chronological order.

What is so exciting about government jobs that thousands of people who are not the poorest of the poor are willing to heed the call of their leaders to spend all day in the scorching sun, marching into the national consciousness with a wish and a prayer: give my caste or community a quota?

Experts say it is a result of agrarian distress, especially since the younger generation sees no merit in slogging in the fields just for a subsistence living. They want to be part of India’s much-vaunted success. Those of us who knew Patels as only successful people – so successful in the US that motels run by them are called ‘patels’ – had to sit up and take notice when the Gujarat model turned out to be deeply flawed. Then we saw Jats, with their muscle power and SUVS, conducting a violent agitation for a share of jobs given to the Scheduled Castes, reviled and deprived for generations due to the caste system. And in September it has been the Marathas, whom we thought of as a warrior class, shouting from the rooftops and streets that they too are feeling marginalised.

The question still nags: what’s so great about a government job? It’s true that it sets you up for a lifetime of financial security, but it no longer comes with a pension attached. Do government jobs really get you respect in society? A lot of people regard with contempt and fear the wielders of public power, who can deny you a licence, an FIR or a passport with a snide remark that hints of bribery. Even honest officials are regarded with suspicion, and there is no proof that they would mark themselves high on a happiness index. They are transferred at will and have to often bow before politicians, whereas they start their careers after clearing a competitive exam that marks them out as the best and the brightest in the country.

Besides, those who have got their jobs through quotas face a lot of resentment from youngsters who have been taught in school that merit and hard work will help you realise your dreams. It may be unfair to the historically deprived, but society at large is not exactly happy at the fact that even promotions come easier to them than to others from the general category. Reservations have gone on too long, and the government should have developed other ways of helping the traditionally oppressed to find their feet.

The Dalits have in fact come out with a far more innovative demand. After the flogging incident at Una, they have been saying they will no longer perform tasks like skinning dead cattle and instead want land to be given so that they can sustain themselves. This is a bit ironic, considering that farmers who do have land do not regard it as a means of viable livelihood. As for the Marathas, perhaps their patience has run out with the BJP, as it has proved no better than the National Congress Party (NCP), despite having ‘strongman’ Sharad Pawar at its helm. Agitators have been saying that only 200 Maratha families have prospered in free India, leaving the rest to their own devices.

In all this, where is the concept of meritocracy? Have we lost faith that our country will allow each person to rise to her true
potential, whatever level of financial reward that might bring? If so, it’s a sad juncture in our history.