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A Never-Ending Debate

Sushila Ramaswamy

By Ashwini Deshpande
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2013, pp. x 218, Rs. 195.00


It is often stated that caste is class in India and that considerations of caste is more important than religion. It is for this reason that Ashwini Deshpande’s work deserves attention as she has researched extensively on caste and the policy of reservations in India. She considers the policy of Affirmative Action as ‘de-segregating the elite to make it more representative of society as a whole’ and in different countries the target groups and the exact sphere of intervention varies. But the basic idea underlying Affirmative Action is to provide a mechanism to enable members of a group, who would otherwise be under-represented, relative to their share in the population, in elite positions. She points out that the elite plays an important role in the decision making apparatus and exerts a strong influence on ideas and belief systems in various spheres—government, bureaucracy, educational institutions and business and it is obvious that groups that are left out of this process resent being left out.  The consequence of this resentment could be social unrest undermining the social fabric and economic health of the country. An important reason for Affirmative Action in favour of groups that are not only disadvantaged but also stigmatized and hence discriminated against is that in the absence of Affirmative Action, members of these groups are competing in a highly unequal playing field.  Deshpande states that there would be no need for Affirmative Action if the market could accurately gauge the ability of everyone and reward commensurately thereby creating pure meritocracy with equal opportunity for all from birth. To the argument that Affirmative Action stigmatizes the recipients Deshpande offers two answers: first that stigma exists independent of Affirmative Action. The latter is needed to counter the discrimination that is the result of the stigma. Second, by focusing on the drop-outs from the beneficiary groups, the critics of Affirmative Action divert attention from the large number of successes. Deshpande dismisses the major concern that Affirmative Action is anti merit as it disallows individuals from privileged groups, more able and intelligent and possibly poor (upper castes or poor whites) with individuals from disadvantaged groups, less capable and possibly richer as a myth rather than reality.   Deshpande traces the evolution of preferential treatment in colonial India taking note of the views of Gandhi, Ambedkar, Phule, Naicker and others. She does not mention the Maharaja of Kolhapur who introduced reservations for ...

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