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Reservations and the return to politics





The history of reservations in India shows it to have been an instrument of governance, a mechanism for social and political representation, rather than a way of achieving social justice. A return to the foundational moment of the modern Indian nation state to examine the conditions of possibility of political self-constitution that prevailed then will set us on the right track to an understanding

of the political role that reservations have played and continue to play in a polity that is divided.

Our paper was born out of a shared perception that the debate on reservations in particular and of caste in general could benefit from a reprise and re-evaluation of the political dimension of the question. The term political has other meanings which we will be invoking in what follows, but here we mean in particular those aspects that have a bearing on the formal, structural problems posed by the installation of a republic in a society divided by caste. By critically examining the prevailing range of opinions on this issue we want to broaden the scope of the debate beyond reservations to the more pervasive and complex problem of caste as such and in the process contribute to a re-grounding of the struggle against caste discrimination away from the confines of state policy into which it is repeatedly decoyed. We believe that this return to politics is mandated by the way in which recent developments have destabilised the assumption of an accomplished social contract and a democratic polity.

Our inquiry will draw sustenance from a reading of the ongoing struggle over reservations, although this essay is by no means an exhaustive commentary on this chain of events that has come to be known as Mandal II. Thus one of the issues that we need to address is how the “defence of privilege” in the current context is able to employ with impunity the language of universality. What are the origins of this naturalised equation of the register of democracy with the institutionalised dominance of a minority? How have the principles of universality been systematically resignified to suit the objective interests and historical capacities of the dominant caste/class formation?

In keeping with the spirit of constitutional provisions, the Indian state has, in its own domain, instituted over the years a number of measures to produce a representative community: the bureaucracy and the public sector enterprises today show the results of such intervention to a substantial if not a satisfactory extent. On the other hand the state has failed miserably in its self-ascribed role as the agent of a proactive programme of reconstituting the body politic in keeping with the modern democratic ideals inscribed into the constitution.

When it comes to tackling the social problem of caste discrimination and structural inequalities, the state has no doubt produced a number of legal provisions, but has refrained from undertaking the work of restructuring, of reforming its citizen-subjects in keeping with the commitment to end caste discrimination and oppression. On the contrary it would appear covertly to have firmed up and strengthened the normative, upper caste and Hindu formation of this subjectivity

Publicly caste has been subject to a policy of disavowal, rather than of direct action. In such a situation, reservations have become an important battleground for staging democratic conflicts, in spite of their relatively minor significance in transforming the subcontinent’s caste-based social order. In other words, even if reservations have had or are capable of having little overall impact on the condition of the beneficiary groups, its importance as a site of political conflict cannot be overlooked.

In a social order where civil society has insulated itself against incursions from political society to the extent of appearing to be a nation within the nation, it is not surprising that reservations – a provision that responds, in its own small way, to the fact of discrimination – have become the battleground where unresolved questions about India’s political identity are being raised again. We must see the battle over reservations as only the most visible site of contestation and renegotiation of the political covenant, behind which lie a whole host of localised, inchoate, mutually contradictory struggles imbued with confidence and energy and optimism in the face of despair, struggles that are reshaping the Indian polity at the base in ways that we are yet to come to grips with.

1 Beyond PolicyThe debates that erupted in the wake of the so-called Mandal II can be the starting point for a critical engagement with the prevailing discourse. They remain within an academic-bureaucratic framework where the question of the right policy measures is already assumed to be the shared ground on which to stage the debate. They have differences about what policies should be adopted, but rarely do they question the assumption that what we have here is basically a question of policy.

It is significant that the “political” moment in which government policy is being addressed and proposals made, is that of the anti-reservation protests. Consequently, the only subjective interests that make an appearance in the discussion are those of the anti- reservationists. It is their sentiments that are acknowledged, and their political challenge that is read as grievance that needs accommodation and redressal in the policy recommendations. The rest are assumed to be passively available for slotting into various objectively defined categories of relative deprivation and eligibility for measures of positive discrimination. Thus an entire range of contributions is marked by one shared presupposition: that there exists a coherent and hegemonic political subject who is interested simultaneously in maintaining the standards of merit and excellence naturally assumed to be of primary interest to a majority, and rendering social justice to the rest (assumed to be a “minority”) through policies of positive discrimination.

In keeping with this strict policy orientation, these arguments rarely pause to question the categories such as majority and minority that are fundamental to the very possibility of such an orientation. While some have noted that the “general category” itself functions as reservation for the upper castes (Ghosh in the same issue of EPW), the political significance of the fact that this “majority” which is fabricated by negation and represented symbolically by the 50 per cent limit on reservations, is an artificial majority without demographic or political foundation, is rarely discussed. In such a context, merely suggesting policy reform with the no doubt laudable aim of defusing potential social conflicts, may also end up ignoring or burying under the carpet real political challenges to the prevailing order with potentially far-reaching and genuinely democratic consequences.

Discrimination and DeprivationMany of the contributions to the recent debate do take up political dimensions of the situation by highlighting instances of discrimination based upon caste prejudices (S Deshpande, A Deshpande, J Ghosh and Thorat in the EPW special issue). This is a valuable contribution which demonstrates the reality of discrimination and marginalisation with the aid of statistical data and recourse to established criteria of backwardness and deprivation, such as region, gender, caste, etc, in combination. But this analysis is usually aborted and redirected towards policy by defining its goal as that of “demonstrating” that something is the case. But demonstrate to whom? Who is to be convinced of the need for reservations and what are the terms of that demand? Since the state has already declared that the Other Backward Classes (OBC) reservations will be introduced in educational institutions, it would appear that only the opponents of reservation are in need of being so convinced. Thus in a peculiar twist, policy recommendations seem to be addressed, not to the state, which seems to be already responding to these realities, but to the phantom majority whom the self-styled “Youth for Equality” and others claim to represent. Or, to put it differently, even though there is ample evidence that the state’s character has undergone significant change since the foundation of the republic, it is still addressed in its early, essentially managerial form: the one that is meant when people speak of the “idea of India”. Invariably, we note that the evidence of discrimination is usually channelled into an argument about deprivation: social divisions with structural consequences are translated into the language of a common measure of access to public goods, thus in a way disorienting the political analysis.

The shift from discrimination – which points to social divisions with structural consequences – to deprivation – a lack that may be compensated – is symptomatic of the policy approach. The policy approach does not examine social divisions or inquire into the consequences for an understanding of the Indian society/democracy. It attempts to find a solution to a crisis. The fundamental question is: how do the state and its advisors perceive the crisis generated by the struggle for reservations, and, by contrast, how might it be perceived from the point of view of a democracy to come?

One way of shifting the discussion about reservations away from its present impasse in a more productive direction is to always insist on a consideration of its other, electoral dimension – the reserved constituencies in Parliament – along with jobs and educational opportunities. This will make it abundantly clear that it is a representational mechanism, a way of making sure that at least in the domain of public employment, there is representation for the scheduled caste/scheduled tribe (SC-ST) populations. To ensure such representation is to preserve the idea of a society providing equal opportunity for all communities. Ignoring this leads to the misperception that through reservations, the beneficiary communities will be dissolved into the general population, of which the “general category” is the objective correlative. But in doing so one fails to appreciate the truth behind these phenomena: that there is no general population, that the general category is not a reflection of it but a substitute that conceals its absence.

Reservations are a means by which the state, governing a polity divided into many communities, tries, instead of dissolving the communities into one, to construct a supplementary community by representation which will mediate the relations between the many communities that actually exist and the projected community that will unite all into one.

Before and After IndependenceTo gain a better understanding of this problem we need to look at both the differences and similarities between the logic of reservations in independent India and of those which British India and the princely states had introduced well before independence, in response to the demands coming from various communities for adequate opportunities for their educated members in the institutions of colonial governance. The governments were under pressure to be more just (in their perception) in the distribution of public resources. Most communities thus spoke for themselves or spoke together in small groups. There it was quite openly a question of economic benefits, the communities were not asking for anything else, whereas in free India, the idea was to build a modern society, a new community with a completely overhauled political morphology. We should take note of two different logics that function behind the “solution” that reservations constitute. In the first instance, in the colonial state’s reckoning, reservations were an instrument of governance, a tool of pacification. British rule was not based on modern democratic principles. The British ruled over a congeries of communities rather than a people.

The free Indian state adopted parliamentary democracy thus opting for a decisive break with the pre-modern political structure of colonial rule. But for this it needed a people. There were several obstacles to the reconstitution or even for the re-imagining of this congeries of communities as a people. Of these obstacles, three are primary: Muslims, dalits and the tribal populations of the north-east. Muslim recalcitrance was eventually resolved by Partition. Although a significant population of Muslims remained in free India, their bargaining powers were at least for the time being severely curtailed by the fact of Pakistan’s emergence. There remained only the other two sections, which were written into the Constitution as SCs and STs, thus continuing another colonial provision, in a move that clearly recognises the difficulty, if not impossibility, of assuming that they are part of the “people”. Reservations for these sections thus served, in free India a completely different function: not of governance, but of achieving the ground-level requirements for founding a republic. This is discursively registered in the fact that after independence the term communal, which in colonial discourse referred to relations among both castes and religious groups, has come to be used exclusively for religious groups: in return for reservations, the castes had to give up their claim to being communities. These are then the two logics of reservations in India: one, a tool of governance; two, a means of political self-constitution.

Time Frame: Another symptom which is instructive to examine is the question of the time frame for reservations. Arguments repeatedly return to the question, “how long is this to go on?” It is an interesting question, for which the usual answers are not adequate. To say that there should be a time limit or that there should not, is not as significant as discerning, behind this formulation, the choice of interpretations offered and then seeing which one we tend to adopt. Thus the question can be elaborated in these two forms: The first, “You have enjoyed reservations for x years. How much longer do you want to have this privilege? Is it not time for you to stand on your own feet and take your chances with the rest?” This is an interpretation based on seeing reservation as a special provision which the beneficiaries are supposed to use, wisely, to lift themselves out of their misery. The second interpretation is this: You have kept us chained to the system of reservations for x years. Till today you have done nothing to transform the society in such a way as to render reservations redundant. How much longer are we to continue to depend on this meager provision as our only means to social betterment?Means to an EndWhen we examine the debate, it is clear that while there are sharp differences over the question, it is primarily a difference over means, not ends. Nobody really denies that there is a need for measures to end caste oppression and discrimination, it is only on the question of how this is to be done and whether reservations are the best way, that the differences arise. In other words there is, among all the positions represented in this debate, an overall agreement that reservations are a means to an end.

But are they really? How did we arrive at such an assumption? For instance when the government of the Madras presidency, in response to a petition by the non-brahmin movement, offered them reservations, was the government regarding this extension as a means to an end? It is clear that while for the non-brahmins themselves it was such a means (for some of them at least, it led to better employment opportunities), the government was not pursuing any social justice project for which reservations might be conceived as a means. In making the provision, the purpose of reservations – redistribution of public resources – would seem to have been already achieved. If the end is social justice, then reservations are more accurately defined as an interim measure, until the means are found and implemented to achieve that end.

2 A Foundational NecessityLet us briefly return to the moment when the provision of reservations was inscribed in the Constitution. Reservations for SC/STs were a foundational necessity for the republic to come into being. In civil society discourse this was usually, and still is, considered a full and final settlement of historical debt, after which caste would cease to be a political issue. Caste violence and other evidence of continuing caste discrimination and oppression thus came to be seen as a social rather than a political problem. On the one hand the state maintained a predominantly non-interventionist stance vis-à-vis communal relations (whether between religious groups or castes) reminiscent of the colonial stance; on the other, it managed to sustain for some time the illusion of a modern polity moving steadily towards completion of its democratic project. But the idea shared by the political class of the early decades and the intelligentsia, that they were authorised by a social contract, was not shared by a majority of the population.

In time the country witnessed the return of the unresolved question of separate electorates, or rather the unresolved political questions of which the separate electorates demand was a symptom, seemed to have found a new way of re-entering the political agenda. Caste groups began to mobilise with renewed energy, this time importantly, though not exclusively within the framework of the parliamentary democratic system. This politics named caste as a principal axis for the distribution of status, wealth and knowledge. Movements like the Dalit Panthers and the Dalit Sangarsh Samithi of the 1970s, and later the political parties such as Republican Party of India, Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party, Democratic Party of India, Rashtriya Janata Dal all call for a sharing of power, which they regard as having been on a caste basis. The idea of a “bahujan samaj” is new, and posits those who have been excluded/expropriated as the actual majority. The success of these newly emerging movements and political parties showed that the assumption of a unified and homogeneous polity was ill-founded. There was no singular political subject. The task of forging such a new community remains a task for the future.

A Political Instrument

The history of reservations as a political instrument in independent India can be divided into two broad phases. In the first phase reservations are restricted to the SC/STs and the common sense perception that these are measures of social justice prevails without much contestation. The apparent consensus over SC/ST reservations is in part a result of the fact that until the 1990s, reservations were quite effectively undermined in most institutions, their political bite “tamed” as it were. The positive (those few who seemed suitable for appointment) and negative (how reservations were openly evaded by institutions) means through which this was achieved is subject for a separate study. The second phase was precipitated by the widespread violence against dalits and the emergence of new groups into the political arena. In this phase reservations ceased to appear to be a mere instrument of state generosity, turning into an avenue of political struggle, and for the assertion of group interests. A population that was kept in check by the projects and schemes of an economy of needs now emerged into a subjective position of asserting interests

The grip of secular-nationalist hegemony was loosened, among other things by the new discourse on reservations which challenged the upper caste monopoly over the idea of public good and of the goods of the state. In this phase reservations cease to be a special provision for the most oppressed and marginalised and comes to be more widely employed as a means of bargaining in the political process. This marks the advent of new claims on power and an interest based politics that threw up a number of new political subjectivities as the general mode of politics in India, marking the erosion of the Congress- nationalist ideology which kept in place a whole range of illusions about India’s exceptionalism: its unique spiritual inclinations, its distaste for material goods, its hoary joint family tradition, its respect for community, its androgynous sexual identities, etc.

Thus reservations have moved from being an instrument of symbolic levelling prerequisite for political constitution to an active site of struggle among a host of communities newly awakened to the relation between their self-interest and the electoral process and other procedures of the state. To some extent this may appear to reinstate the field of discrete communities that prevailed under colonial rule. No doubt the impression is well-founded. But such a return may be the only way in which the unresolved political questions of the republic-to-come may be resolved, it may well be a restaging of the state-of-the-ground at independence in order to find a new way forward.

3 Affirmative Action?To gain further clarity on the political character of reservations, we might look briefly at the American concept of “affirmative action”. There is a tendency in the press as well as among scholarly contributions to the current debate, even those that are not deliberately seeking to dilute the Indian model into the American one, to write about reservations as an instance of affirmative action. It is curious that the American approach to “voluntarily” righting the historical wrongs of slavery has provided the universal concept – affirmative action – of which the Indian practice is now being seen as a particular instance. This in spite of the fact that reservations in India emerge out of a challenge to national sovereignty claims, predate affirmative action by several decades, embody altogether different political proposals and address the interests of a demographic majority. From the point of view of Indian history, affirmative action is like the Gandhian alternative to the Ambedkarian and constitutional provision of reservations.

For already in the colonial era, reservations were being introduced here and there in response to demands from various communities. While reservations responded to one kind of demand, the idea of separate electorates emerged as the solution for another not unrelated demand. While reservations and other kinds of state responsiveness to community demands proved adequate for a number of such castes and religious groups, others demanded more. As already noted above, in the end separate electorates proved to be just a stepping stone to a separate nation for the Muslims. It is against this background that we should see the constitutional provision of reservations for SCs and STs. Both groups were liable to move in a similar direction. The tribal populations of the north-east, whose identification with Indian nationalism was weak or non-existent had a good case for political autonomy.

The “scheduled castes”, composed of the erstwhile untouchable castes, posed a different more spiritually/ideologically rather than territorially subversive threat to the nationalist “idea of India”. Their recalcitrance could undermine the legitimacy of the nationalists’ claim to represent the Indian people at large. Their leaders had waged a sustained battle in the decades before independence, to ensure that the free nation would not perpetuate caste oppression and marginalisation. Their threat to secede from the “Hindu community” was a more frightening prospect because it threatened the


Economic & Political Weekly december 8, 2007 43

unacknowledged basis of the claim to national unity.

Constitutive NecessityFor all these reasons, it is clear as already stated, that reservations were a constitutive necessity for the new republic. The citizen of the Indian republic and the subject of politics come into being after and through the provision of reservations. The common humanity of “man” upon which democratic theory grounds its citizen figure had to be forged by these means before the republic could be founded. That is why reservations were part of the text of the Constitution. Affirmative action is an altogether different political gesture. There the already established American constitution is the aegis under which a relatively tame and non-justiciable measure is introduced for the amelioration of the conditions of a formerly enslaved population. In the affirmative action scenario, the political majority and its identity as a nation were not fundamentally under question – only its ability to respond to a social crisis.1

For the same reason, while the success or failure of affirmative action can and has to be evaluated statistically, the same cannot be said for reservations. Reservations in government employment and educational institutions are too feeble an instrument for achieving social justice, the number of opportunities involved are too minuscule compared to the size of the concerned populations. Their function is importantly political-constitutive and social-symbolic.

A simple question suffices to confirm the point. Who gave reservations to the untouchable castes? It would be a case of extreme presumption to say that it was the caste Hindus who “gave” reservations to them. It would also imply that the caste Hindus alone were the true and original signatories of the social contract on which the Indian republic is founded. A number of historical circumstances that we need not go into here made it possible for the white Americans to constitute themselves into a nation of equals excluding the African American slaves and the native Americans in the first instance. By the mid-20th century, when it was India’s turn to bind itself to a Constitution and parliamentary democracy, the model had evolved far beyond its 18th century origins and could no longer accommodate such aberrations without risking its legitimacy. Citizenship had to be universal in order to be real. Besides, neither the relations between caste Hindus and those who were excluded, nor the numbers of each of these contending sections were comparable to the American situation. There was no way to constitute a republic without creating the conditions – real or simulacral – for the emergence of bourgeois man.

To sum up: in America, the entry of blacks into the public domain as free citizens was not an event of the revolution, it was a post-revolution event. The social contract was not renegotiated, it simply acquired a supplementary spirit of inclusion which it was up to civil society to implement. In India on the contrary reservations were not extended to a particular community by an already revolutionary state, rather reservations were the foundation, the shaky (and as it turned out deceitful) foundation, upon which the new state was erected. Those who were thus pacified by reservations were not a minority, it was the ones who “conceded” this provision that were a minority, and they knew very well that under the circumstances they were getting themselves a damn good bargain. In the first instance, therefore, reservations were a mechanism for creating the appearance of a homogeneous body politic, and not a humanitarian act by an established political order towards an excluded minority.

Despite these origins, in the context of the 1950s and 1960s reservations also served to quickly cover up the scandal of an un-emancipated population being drawn, without their consent, into a drama of democracy in which they had no speaking parts.

 The Subject of the Republic: To move into the political domain is to acknowledge that caste is not a problem of dalits or OBCs alone, but a political question pertinent to the republic as a whole. It is a question of who the “subject” of the Indian republic is. This subject cannot be assumed to have been already forged. Yet, policy-related approaches are characterised precisely by this assumption, that there is a modern democratic political subject, and that the beneficiaries of reservations are an aberrant minority who must be incorporated into this subject. Two issues follow: first, the dalit and caste movements offer a critique of the assumed citizen of India by describing him as secular national and upper caste/class. Second, it is not a question of helping the dalit to be rid of caste, as if the dalit alone is stuck with it and the rest of us are free. The political approach imposes upon us this criterion of emancipation/revolution: the polity as a whole is in need of emancipation, not just a section of it. And until this task remains incomplete, the trappings of democracy can only contribute to the perpetuation of a simulacrum, beneath which the old order persists and reproduces itself in new ways.

On the other hand, there are unmistakable signs that the Indian state’s managerial programme of social change has unraveled, and that today, the democratic apparatus is the site of a complex struggle of group interests. Classical Marxist political theory treats Parliament as a battleground of class interests. And in adopting the parliamentary democratic model, India also opted for the accompanying normative discourse which saw the polity as united by political sovereignty (in the liberal view) and divided by class interests (the left view). It is important to note that there was no attempt to actually reconstruct the polity in keeping with the declared political ideals of the battle for independence to fit into the new political furniture: it was simply assumed that the furniture would by itself remake the inhabitants. And where there was evidence to the contrary, civil society discourse, in slavish reliance upon borrowed abstractions, imposed a prohibition: caste was to be eliminated by not referring to it. It was the crudest of disavowals, bound to produce compensatory symptoms all over the place.

If we examine the parliamentary discourse of recent times we see that indeed it is a battleground, but the terms in the conflict are not classes as defined in the western theory of democracy, but castes and religious communities in addition to class tendencies. The advantage in adopting this analysis of the parliamentary discourse is that it eliminates the pathologisation that caste, religious identities, gender and sexuality issues have been subjected to by the normative theories of democracy and allows a host of forces engaged in the political dynamic to show forth.

5  Economic Criteria It is well known that one of the primary axes of differences over the issue of reservations has to do with whether the criteria for qualifying for them should be social or economic or a combination of both. The idea of providing for reservations based on economic criteria is a curious one which has been endorsed by many people. There is no instance of positive discrimination anywhere in the world which is based on economic criteria, for the simple reason that a state which intervenes in the gap between rich and poor is usually a welfare state or a socialist state whose goals are different from the goals for which reservations are meant. The poor are not a marginalised community but an economic class. The politics of class struggle is different from the conflicts that arise when an entire community is involved. If the idea of reservations based on economic criteria has arisen in the Indian context, it is only because of the existence of reservations, an attempt to redirect its benefits according to a different logic. Otherwise, any proposal of reservations based on economic criteria would immediately reveal itself to be a most peculiar proposition. It would imply that the rich spoke to the poor across a barrier of community.

Thus, while deprivation is, in India, an index of caste discrimination, the reverse cannot be claimed. One cannot address discrimination by addressing deprivation. The logic of reservations is entirely different from that of economic welfare measures. The crux of the matter is a differentiation between quantitative or measurable and qualitative or historical/cultural factors. This can also be posed as a question of the “one” and the many, or as already mentioned above, as a choice between a paradigm of deprivation and one of discrimination. Community is that elusive entity to which these determinations apply. Let us proceed to apply them. If there is one community, then within that community what would count as an indicator of social distress or disadvantage to be remedied would be economic, i e, that which can be brought under a common measure. If on the other hand there are many communities, and their separate existence is taken as the starting point, then the application of a common measure is out of the question. A single community – such as a homogeneous national community – would take account of the distress of its own members and seek to redress it. It would not then be a matter of providing for reservations, but of acting to relieve distress with effective measures. If then, there are reservations in a nation state, we can read this as a sign that there is no unified community that coincides with the national population.

Reservations are a way of providing for those whom the state would like to include among those who are governed by it, but whom the dominant community does not recognise as a part of itself. Mistrust is at the heart of it, there is no bridge of sympathy between the two communities. Where there is one community, the state is with the community, they exist in tandem. The state is the state of the community. But where there are many communities, the state is an arbiter between communities. While its overall character may be derived from a bond with the dominant community, it is not in a position to serve it alone, thanks to the compulsions of the political order, which exceed the bounds of this social bond. For the state, it is imperative that there be, however illusory, a community effect that incorporates all. Thus the community that the state represents is necessarily larger than the “nation” and composed of inorganic material, rather than the organically linked members of an ethnic or religious group. It is the attempt of the state to try and bring all communities under the sway of a common measure.

Thus the discourse of backwardness bears witness to the state’s will to integrate the communities: to be backward is to be related to the forward in a quantifiable and remediable manner. Already in the discourse of backwardness, therefore, an economic criterion has been introduced. A dialectic of qualitative and quantitative criteria thus ensues: the purely quantitative is not a satisfactory response to the fact of qualitative/historical differences reinforced by the continued strength of community barriers. The people assert the importance of qualitative differences, the reality of many communities because objective circumstances –the experience of the visible and invisible barriers of caste – force it upon them. However, the state in its response, while acknowledging qualitative differences, tries to contain the assertion by giving it a minimal quantitative legibility. The state asserts the will of the as-yet-elusive “one” of political community against the people’s insistence that in reality it is a terrain of the many.

Discrimination and EducationThe neglect of the historical fact of discrimination also has its impact upon our very understanding of what education is all about. A job-oriented conception of the educational system has today become so naturalised that education for citizenship, which is one of the important ideological means for reconstituting the social order, has been all but forgotten. The average student from a middle class family today typically moves from the embrace of the family directly into the embrace of the capitalist firm without any subjective reconstruction as citizen and member of national community. This absence of subjective reform was all too evident in the discourse of the anti-reservation agitators: while they employed familiar universalist terms like “equality”, their meaning did not depend at all on a consideration of the community as a whole. It was not the equality of all citizens that the term designated, but an abstract equality that could be achieved without any reference to social realities, by simply preserving all the illusions fostered by the “general category”. This is nothing but abuse of the language of universalism and democracy

In its efforts to represent the situation that it inherits in this manner, the state struggles to hold on to its ready-made terms while being forced by the events in the situation to alter these terms, to adopt new ones, to corrupt its pure discourse of abstract democracy in response to the reality that confronts it: this is the reality that Partha Chatterjee (2004) has defined as political society. From the other side, the struggles for and over reservations are struggles to reconstruct the national citizen subject and reconfigure the state, and it is imperative that we represent them as such. They articulate a politics that exceeds the formal modernity of the state, and make claims on a future democracy. This is the fundamental process that we are witnessing today, and we need to figure out a way of thinking about it that does not acquiesce in the illusion of a democracy fully formed even as we seek to preserve and extend those aspects of the present situation which have the potential to generate the momentum for a renewal of the struggle for equality and freedom.

Reservations are the means by which the illusion of a national majority was created, thus meeting one of the requirements for the claim to the status of a nation state. Reservations are the padding with which the bent shoulders of the oppressed were dressed up in order to make them look like members of the liberal-humanist universal community of Man, to deceive the gaze of democracy. From the beginning it appears that there was no intention to address this particular malaise, except by prohibiting its mention. Thus if India exists as a modern nation state today, it is thanks to the optical illusion that reservations helped to create of a national community where none existed.

As we said earlier, when the task of implementing the Indian revolution was entrusted to technocrats and managers at the outset, the idea was that the Indian polity, predominantly rural, illiterate, poor and locked into pre-modern social hierarchies was a passive human mass that would await its emancipation by the deployment of scientific knowledge and technology. As far as political-ideological conflicts were concerned, there seemed to be only one, a conflict between the capitalist and socialist paths to modernisation, which was a stand-off in which the vast majority of the people had neither the competence nor the inclination to take sides. Not much importance was given to the already existing divisions within the social as potential grounds for the emergence of political interests.

New Game of Interests: This is where the second phase of the politics of reservation comes to the fore. In this phase, it is no longer a question of extending the constitutional provisions to new groups in accordance with the same constitutive logic that prevailed in the first instance. Now it is a new game of interests. Parliament, for the first time, began to be occupied by those who, in the earlier phase, were regarded as having no speaking parts in this drama of democracy; it became a battleground of a multitude of interests. These were not interests in the classical Marxist sense of class interests, which is probably why they have not been recognised as such by political commentators. Today reservations serve more as a means for the expression of class/caste interests. If this is correct, it becomes all the more difficult to sustain the illusion of a neutral political subject who arbitrates claims for reservation. These claims, if they are such, are no longer addressed to anyone. They are translated into policy only through gaining and exercising political power. Hence the impression, real or illusory, that today Parliament stands on one side, responding to the message from the ground with pacificatory measures, while civil society (including its non-resident Indian wing), the judiciary and corporate capital are huddled together on the other side, backed by an increasingly strident media. As such, the current politics of reservations need not be assumed to be an unquestionably progressive development.

It is possible that there will be many difficulties and perhaps also some negative consequences arising out of these and other measures. But what is clear is that the process of which these are the results is a democratic process of the clarification, elaboration and consolidation of group interests, and at another plane, of the emergence of group interests as the ground of political struggle from out of the consensuality-effect produced by the post-independence regimes. It means that if there is to be a social contract at all, it will have to be negotiated anew, and that in this new round of negotiations, many more interests will be represented and will have the opportunity to voice their concerns than was conceivable in the first instance.

This is the reason why it is important that we understand the politics of this second phase, not as a politics of caste assertion, or even as an identity politics, but as a politics in which castes are asserting their right to power. This new politics demands a retooling of the normative subjectivity of formal democracy. It involves critical reformations of the institutions of public and private life, and requires altogether new frameworks for the accountability of the government to the people. There may be no quick or easy answers – but there is definitely a clear sense of a new challenge to established power, and new dreams that may only be glimpsed in the grain of the new struggles.