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Lessons from the new intolerance

Harish Khare

Whether or not the IIMs and IITs are forced to open their doors a little wider, the new fashionable intolerance exhibited in these last few days should be a sobering experience for all of us.

THESE LAST few days have witnessed a fascinating battle for the control of the public discourse. A handful of newspapers and a couple of English language television channels have done their best to stoke a 1990-type hysteria over the proposed new reservation regime in Central educational institutions. Television crews have been despatched to find voices of "merit" that are aghast at the very idea that institutes of management, presumed bastion of merit and competition, are now sought to be pried open to admit children of the lesser gods. Captains of industry are on record as to how a few hundred seats in management schools will erode India's competitiveness in this age of globalisation.

A twist has been given to the controversy by casting Union Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh as the villain of the piece. All this in the belief that if enough hype is created, the decent man, Manmohan Singh, will intervene and put an end to this "mischief" afoot. Even the nice and sincere gentlemen in the Election Commission allowed themselves to be taken in by this elite media noise.

There is little chance of resurrecting the 1990-type hysteria. The reason is simple. The 1990 agitation could be sustained because the largest political party, Congress, lent its support to the anti-Mandal agitation. Rajiv Gandhi's Congress was peeved at the Raja of Manda making it to the Prime Minister's chair. When the V.P. Singh Government opted for the Mandal report, the Congress brought into play all its muscle power to create an illusion of a massive backlash against the reservation regime. Those self-immolations were all paid for by a cynical political party. The V.P. Singh Government had to go not because of the anti-Mandal agitation but because of the intractable intrigues within the Janata Dal. But in popular historical perception, "Mandal" is deemed the cause of Mr. Singh's downfall. Two years later, the same Congress took credit for implementing the Mandal scheme.

2006 is not 1990. The Mandal initiative has helped to change the face of the Indian polity and society. The grammar of entitlement has become part of the language of Indian politics. There can be a debate on how to go about it but all political parties accept the logic and reality of the Constitution (93rd Amendment) Act, 2005. As and when the Human Resource Development Ministry comes up with a Bill commensurate with the 93rd Amendment, Parliament and the country will get to debate the issue anew.

But the 2006 controversy has only reminded one and all of how entrenched social prejudices remain and how deep runs the hostility to change in areas where it matters the most. Suddenly it seems fashionable to speak of "them" who now dare want to enter the holy portals of management and technology institutes.

All political systems witness a continuous struggle over societal resources, according to the accepted rules of the game. In India these rules are prescribed in the Constitution but are always reinterpreted according to the distribution of power. As it were, power — political and electoral — has passed into the hands of the less socially and educationally advanced groups. And it is only a matter of time before the logic of democracy and numbers asserts itself in every sphere of social activity.

Today it is the IIMs and IITs that are sought to meet the demands of social justice, tomorrow it will be the private sector that will be called upon to broad-base its mostly caste-based personnel structures. Those who demand and get, and prosper from the state's protection cannot remain oblivious to its obligation to engineer some kind of equity.

The crux of our present day dilemma was foreseen many years ago by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. In the last sitting of the Constituent Assembly, he noted: "We are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics, we will be recognising the principle of one man-one vote and one vote-one value. In our social and economic life, we shall by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man-one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earlier possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this assembly has so laboriously built up."

Dr. Ambedkar, social justice, egalitarianism, and equity seem obsolete to the influential sections of the Indian society. Our discourse-manufacturers have worked themselves into a comfortable delusion that the "market" has made India a vast level-playing field and therefore any suggestion of any kind of affirmative action is a violation of some sacred mantra. "Reservation" is deemed one of those devious stratagems these undesirable politicians are forever devising just to keep themselves in power. It is taken as an affront to a new India that thinks of itself as a partner in a cosmopolitan march to prosperity. The unstated claim is that the market has cured India of all its social inequalities and inequities.

Power of the market

The assumption is that the 300-million strong consumerist middle class has sorted out its caste stratifications and is now uniformly and unanimously worshipping on the altar of merit and competence. The curative power of market has melted away social distinctions and disadvantages. Politics and politicians have failed India and they should not be allowed to dispel the market magic. This middle class, the assumption goes, is capable of propelling India into becoming a super economic power and is smart enough to engage with the global economy on competitive terms. In any case, this middle class need not be hobbled by the burden of the rest of the 700 million and their deprivations.

In the midst of the market euphoria, there is a strong reluctance to see, let alone acknowledge, inequalities. Take for instance the controversy a few months ago over the so-called "Muslim headcount" in the armed forces. The voices that raised a din on the Muslim headcount are, more or less, the same kicking up a shindy on "reservation." Last year, for example, only 11 Muslim candidates could make the grade out of the 422 men and women selected for the IAS, IFS, IPS and other Central services. Of these 11, eight made it in the category of Other Backward Classes (OBC). No one wants to acknowledge the near-systemic marginalisation of the largest minority in the country. Yet any attempt to even catalogue discrimination and disadvantages faced by the minorities is immediately dubbed anti-merit, anti-progress, and anti-national. As long as a problem is not acknowledged, there will be no obligation to find a solution.

But precisely because the new economy is creating new inequalities in our society, the Indian state and its political instruments are duty-bound to find ways of institutionalising some kind of fairness. This duty has become even more pronounced now that the state has been forced to retreat from many areas of economic activity. If the politicians were not to address themselves to the aspirations and dreams of the socially disadvantageous groups, the polity and economy would not experience the peace to enjoy the fruits of the eight per cent economic growth. As it is, vast chunks of the country have already come under the naxalite sway, amenable neither to the state's coercion nor to the lure of the market.

The 2006 reservation controversy will not get resolved easily. Whether or not the IIMs and IITs are forced to open their doors a little wider, the new fashionable intolerance exhibited in these last few days should be a sobering experience for all of us. The Constitution is not a convenient document but a compact that the people of India made among themselves. That compact is premised on the promise of an egalitarian social order. The new intolerance is at odds with that promise. Promoters and patrons of the new economy need to realise the implications of this new intolerance.

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