For nearly half a century, group or racial preferences have been America's prescribed remedy for racism and other -isms standing in the way of social equality. But anyone wishing to study the unintended side-effects of this medicine on the body politic need only look at India. There reactionary groups are trying to co-opt a women's quota bill, not to create an egalitarian utopia, but its opposite.
India's ruling secular Congress party has joined hands with Hindu nationalist parties on a bill to guarantee 33 percent seats in the parliament and state legislatures to women. This is on top of a similar quota that women enjoy at the local or panchayat level. The bill sailed through the upper house but has met stiff resistance by India's lower-caste parties. Why? Because it threatens their monopoly on the country's quota regime.
Just as racism is the bane of America, caste is the bane of India; its rigid strictures for centuries sustained a stratified society where birth is destiny. Although caste has declined in India's large, cosmopolitan cities, elsewhere this system still restricts social mobility for the country's 100 million dalits (untouchables). They are not only consigned to demeaning jobs but they're not even allowed to pray in the same temples as upper castes.
But the scheme that India's founders devised to eradicate the caste system has actually deepened the country's caste divide, and created several more. The women's quota bill is only the latest development in the competition for victimhood status that has pitted every group with any grievance, real or imagined, against every other.
India's founders began on the right track, constitutionally banning untouchability in 1950 and, just as in America, guaranteeing equal treatment under the law for everyone regardless of caste, sex, religion or race. But then came the fatal leap. They created a list or "schedule" of all the dalit sub-castes deserving preferential treatment and handed them 17.5 percent of the seats in the parliament and state legislatures. They also gave them 22.5 percent of all public-sector jobs and guaranteed spots in public or publicly funded universities.
The scheme was supposed to last 10 years. Instead it assumed a life of its own, making scheduled-caste status a bigger driver of success than individual merit (at least before liberalization opened opportunities in the private sector).
The tipping point came in the late 1980s when the government's Mandal Commission, the body charged with examining the plight of the poor and disenfranchised, concluded in its final report that the original list of scheduled castes was too short. It recommended a new, catch-all category called Other Backward Classes covering over half the population and called for reserving 49.5 percent government jobs and university seats for these groups
The report caused an uproar. Hindu students from nonscheduled castes, particularly from modest backgrounds, exploded into riots. Already rubbed raw from the existing quota regime which allowed academically inferior, scheduled-caste candidates to breeze into the best universities and land secure government jobs while they struggled, they took to the streets. A few immolated themselves, one big reason why the government collapsed in November 1990. But the quota system survived, and post-riot governments have slowly expanded it.
Quotas have become a fact of life in India because they are the major currency with which Indian politicians buy votes. In a few states with their own quotas, almost 70 percent of government jobs and university seats go to the reserved castes.
The major political resistance to the quota regime during the Mandal riots came from Hindu nationalist parties—but that was before they found a way to make it work for them. In some states like Rajasthan they have actually instituted quotas for the poor "forward castes"—code for upper-caste Hindus.
And these parties wholeheartedly back the latest women's quota bill because it will simultaneously allow them to: establish their progressive bona fides; once again stick it to Muslims, arguably the only genuinely disenfranchised minority without its own legislative quota; and consolidate their power base in parliament since the women elected are likely to be relatively well-off Hindus.
A tragi-comic note in this drama is Raj Thackeray, an ultra-nativist, Hindu politician from Mumbai who wants to chase all out-of-state residents out of his city. He is warning the lower-caste leaders to show respect for women by supporting this bill or else "they will be given a lesson on it."
Protests have broken out in the country, with Muslim and lower-caste women opposing it as currently written and urbane, city feminists demanding its immediate passage. But the lower-caste parties' only objection is that the quota bill doesn't contain a sub-quota for lower-caste women. In other words, the debate in India is no longer about using quotas to redistribute opportunity—it is about redistributing the quotas themselves. No politician or party is opposing this bill on principle.
It would be tempting to blame the abuse of quotas on the degraded state of Indian politics. But, in reality, India is demonstrating the reductio ad absurdum logic of quotas.
Progressives in India—as in America—believe that equal protection of individual rights is insufficient to create equality because it does nothing to address private discrimination. Protecting the property rights of persecuted castes is hardly enough if they can't get jobs in the first place. Hence, in their view, government has to give persecuted groups a leg up to equalize opportunity.
But this turns the system into a zero-sum game, triggering a race for the spoils in which powerful groups can seize the advantage. Because quotas or preferences don't originally apply to them, they become the new aggrieved—victims of "reverse discrimination." And it is easy for them to mobilize this sentiment into a political movement precisely because they are powerful.
India's lesson is that abrogating individual rights through group preferences or quotas institutionalizes the very divisions that these policies are supposed to erase. Human prejudice can't be legislated away. That requires social activism to coax, cajole and shame people out of their intolerance. There are no short cuts.
Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at the Reason Foundation and a Forbes columnist. This column originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal