Affirmative Action

Cautionary tales : affirmative action in India, Part 1


The  sectarian strife that has been raging for two months in the north eastern state of Manipur was triggered in part by one ethnic community seeking  admission to India’s formidable affirmative action programme known as Reservation by Indians. The Meitei ethnic group, which forms about the 60% of the state’s population wants legal recognition as a Scheduled Tribe (ST), arguing that it used to be listed as such under the colonial system. Such recognition would confer immense economic and political advantages as STs are eligible to access reserved places in the civil service, educational institutions and both state legislatures and central government. The minority Kuki and Naga groups who already have ST status fear further dominance by the Meiteis and are therefore against this claim. Being eligible for reservation in India is a deadly serious business: battles, riots, self-immolations, suicides are frequent occurrences.

I dont even know where to start explaining the complexity and scale of India’s affirmative action programme. Millennia of discrimination under the caste system made for very obvious and desperate victim groups : foremost, the ones outside the caste system (the dalits or untouchables, the myriad tribal groups, known as the adivasis , who range from exotic isolated Andaman tribes to Sino-Tibetan ones in the Himalayan foothills) and then, the tens of thousands of the lowest castes , known as the Other Backward Castes (OBCs) who in fact form a substantial portion of India’s population (42%!). The Brahmins, mercantile castes (Vaishyas) and the warrior or ruling castes (Kshatriyas) which are known as the forward castes( this archaic terminology is commonly accepted in India) are the minority in India. Let’s now add the religious minorities to the mix. The 2021 PEW research survey on religion is a wonderful resource, just bear in mind that General Category is another term for the forward castes which receive no preferential treatment:

The survey finds that three-in-ten Indians (30%) identify themselves as members of General Category castes, a broad grouping at the top of India’s caste system that includes numerous hierarchies and sub-hierarchies. The highest caste within the General Category is Brahmin, historically the priests and other religious leaders who also served as educators. Just 4% of Indians today identify as Brahmin.

Most Indians say they are outside this General Category group, describing themselves as members of Scheduled Castes (often known as Dalits, or historically by the pejorative term “untouchables”), Scheduled Tribes or Other Backward Classes (including a small percentage who say they are part of Most Backward Classes).

Hindus mirror the general public in their caste composition. Meanwhile, an overwhelming majority of Buddhists say they are Dalits, while about three-quarters of Jains identify as members of General Category castes. Muslims and Sikhs – like Jains – are more likely than Hindus to belong to General Category castes. And about a quarter of Christians belong to Scheduled Tribes, a far larger share than among any other religious community.


In summary, almost all Buddhists are already reserved seats  by dint of being dalits and  a substantial portion of Christians are covered too. Many states, especially the southern ones, also include muslims under the reservation programme. There is also a quota based on sex to help women achieve some sort of parity and the 2014  recognition of transgender people as the third gender came with instructions from the Supreme Court that they could qualify as OBCs for preferential treatment.

Although the British started the reservation project in the 19th century, on a much smaller scale, independent India has committed wholeheartedly to its positive discrimination programme, the largest and longest in the world. The Indian constitution puts a cap of 50% on reservation but this has been breached in many states (Tamil Nadu has a reserved quota of over 70% )  and also by the BJP, which in 2019, added a 10% plan for the economically deprived from the general category! The BJP move was roundly castigated by the BBC as a gimmick but that points to the utter ignorance and bias of the BBC. There are dirt poor Brahmins, (they have cultural and religious capital, not money) and in states like Tamil Nadu which are ferociously anti-Brahmin, actually face discrimination and have long been forced to seek their fortunes overseas and in other Indian states. Leaving aside the brahmins, the other forward castes and other religious groups have badly  reduced chances of entering elite educational institutions and getting into desirable courses like medicine or law and their families bankrupt themselves paying for private college admission. Read this 2012 NYT article. Ignore the headline which has little to do with the content. The brahmin girl from Tamil Nadu who took her case of caste discrimination to the Indian Supreme Court was just another in a long line of such legal challenges.

While affirmative action in the United States is now threatened, the program in India is a vast system of political patronage that increasingly works to reward the powerful rather than uplift those in need.
Indeed, the caste-based affirmative action here raises questions for nations like Brazil and Malaysia that have adopted anti-discrimination programs that are in some ways similar to India’s. Without diligent judicial oversight, experts say, the efforts can help perpetuate inequality rather than redress it.
In Tamil Nadu, for instance, 69 percent of university admissions are now set aside for what the state has determined to be “backward castes.” Many of those favored with these set-asides have controlled Tamil Nadu’s government and much of its resources for generations, but they claim special status by pointing to a caste survey done in 1931. (Ms. Gayathri, 17, is a Brahmin whose parents are civil servants with modest incomes.)
Five prominent university officials in Tamil Nadu said in interviews that those given set-asides at their institutions were generally the children of doctors, lawyers and high-level bureaucrats. The result is that rich students routinely get preference over more accomplished poor ones who do not happen to belong to the favored castes. None of the officials would allow their names to be used for fear of angering the government ministers who benefit politically and personally from the program.
The questions to be asked are :
Has this huge affirmative action programme worked?
Can it be reduced or dismantled if it has worked to satisfy its objective? Can it be amended if it hasn’t?
Do note that there is no dispute that such a programme was/is necessary. Let me deal with Malaysia in Part 2 and attempt to answer the questions.