India's Government by Quota

The affirmative-action plan to eliminate caste discrimination was supposed to last 10 years. Instead it has become a permanent, and divisive, fact of life.


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

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  1. Already rubbed raw from the existing quota regime which allowed academically inferior, scheduled-caste candidates to breeze into the best universities

    We resent this obvious and mean-spirited slur.

    1. +5

  2. Plus, of course, by legislating a group of scheduled classes, you turn castes into legally recognized categories that have to matter to people.

    1. Exactly. If they’re goal is ‘equality’, India should get rid of castes instead of legitamizing them.

  3. And by having groups of scheduled classes, the original intent of banning castes is moot; you’ve created new castes.

  4. Human prejudice can’t be legislated away.

    What? But, but legislation supersedes the supply and demand, just look at the health care bill!

    I mean, I thought a carefully crafted law could override Newton’s Laws of motion as well as gravity itself!

    Government is the only higher power in this world, and since we are government, that makes us gods!

    1. I have just legislated a Big Mac for you … you really learned well at those public schools !

      1. you really learned well at those public schools

        Good! I learned good! I learned real good!
        I learned that laws can solve everything.
        I also learned to put aside that silly notion that government protects rights. That would mean that the rights existed before government.
        Government is the SOURCE of our rights.
        All things come from laws and from government, because my public school teacher said so.

        See how good I learned?

        1. Outstanding SON !

          Yes the government can and have solved everything !

          Looks like that free education paid by bigoted White/asian tea-baggers racist red-necks !

          1. worked very well !

  5. I say, castes today, castes tomorrow, castes forever.

  6. Can anyone explain how it is just fine to profile people for special selection based on nothing more than their skin tone when it comes to college admissions, job hiring/promotions etc, but when we use race for profiling anything else that is somehow racist and bigoted.

    So let me get this straight. Selecting people for jobs and colleges by their skin color perfectly acceptable and demanded by certain groups. Selecting them for anything else based on their skin color totally unacceptable. Talk about playing both sides of the fucking race card!

    1. You racist.

      1. no he is not

        1. You are also racist. And sexist.

          1. no I’m not, just realist.

            If an employer feel like he want to hire an Asian, black or whatever,only women or married man it is simply his right and I see nothing wrong with that.

            The absence of legal discrimination is sufficient for me, you cannot legislated the end of idiocy … or how on earth Arlan Specter is still in the Senate ?

          2. I went to a chinese restaurant, the cook and the waiters were all asian … are those people RACIST ?

            I must write a law requiring the Hiring of Blacks and Whites in Chinese restaurants, we must stop this awful form of racism !

    2. Pablo

      And the hypocracy of the far left lives large.

  7. Thomas Sowell has a book-length treatment of this: Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study. It’s the same everywhere: Quotas are pitched as temporary, and end up permanent. They’re supposed to improve race relations, and end up pitting every group against every other.

    1. Whenever anyone in government says something is temporary, you know they are a liar. Heck, if their lips are moving it’s probably an indication that they are full of shit.

  8. Clearly the only solution is to have one world government. Then we can have the right people in charge.

    1. If only we could just find those people… Everything would work.

      1. George W Bush, Bill Clinton and the other former President Bush are available. We could call them the Three Wise Men. Just look how well they have done with New Orleans and Haiti, they could do the same for the rest of the world 🙂

        1. I will say this, I like Presidents Bush, Clinton & Junior a hell of a lot more now that their power is limited to pimping for voluntary charitable donations. That’s doing honest good works… If only they could have been prevented from exercising control over everything else by force for the last 30 years instead.

    2. “Clearly the only solution is to have one world government. Then we can have the right people in charge.”

      And Mr. 666 is on his way…

      1. pipe down jimmy…don’t go all ‘Revere-ian’ on me now…not now.

  9. This is what happens when you give minorities rights. The third worlders should be glad they’re here and quit getting uppity.

  10. I love the irony that:
    a) The US Department of Energy is advertising on Reason in a sidebar to this article
    b) The US Department of Energy has not attempted to target this ad whatsoever, since I am reading this from Toronto, Canada – every other ad on the site is clearly targeted toward Canadians

  11. Capitalism has always been more fair to minorities than government. It’s a little-known fact (because most schoolteachers are leftists) that Government imposed the Jim Crow laws, often over the protests of supposedly greedy and evil businessmen:

  12. Just as racism is the bane of America

    Please go kill yourself, you fucking cunt! I bet you don’t dare to say anythings like Obama is racist or all countries have racism problems too.

    This is for you, cunt!
    ..\…………….. /

  13. Some years back when I was teaching English in Poland, I had a student who owned a large private law firm.

    Apropos of something or other, I had occasion to teach “affirmative action.”

    When he grasped it, he laughed in my face.

    “That’s what they did during the communist years!” he said. “A certain number of places in university had to go to the children of proletarians and peasants. It didn’t work. It deepend the class distinctions.”

    Seems things really are the same all over.

  14. I mean, er, awesome thoughts, Liz – I need some time to think about this!

  15. I mean, er, awesome thoughts, Liz – I need some time to think about this!

  16. I mean, er, awesome thoughts, Liz – I need some time to think about this!

  17. I mean, er, awesome thoughts, Liz – I need some time to think about this!

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  19. Intelligence agents arrested the president of Venezuela’s only remaining independent television station on Thursday, leading to concerns that freedom of speech …

  20. Intelligence agents arrested the president of Venezuela’s only remaining independent television station on Thursday, leading to concerns that freedom of speech …

  21. There reactionary groups are trying to co-opt a women’s quota bill, not to create an egalitarian utopia, but its opposite.

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  24. Shikha Dalmia is wrong.
    British gave Independence to 300 million India’s Untouchables in 1932 Round Table Conference.
    Bania Gandhi bullied Ambedkar and begged British to not implement

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