The Reservation Addiction Syndrome
by Vinendra Gupta on 04 Mar 2009 3 Comments

Of all the myriad religio-socio-political issues that contemporary India has faced, none has polarized Hindu society as much as mandatory caste-based reservation. The fiercely divided pro- and anti-reservationists are currently locked in an uneasy stalemate. Intervention by the Supreme Court has kept the situation from spinning out of control. This contentious issue has defied a long-term durable solution; the longer it is allowed to fester, the more potential it has for fissuring Hindu society.


Undeniably, one of the biggest banes of Hinduism was caste-based discrimination and the heinous practice of Untouchability, the eradication of which was a cornerstone of the Constitution after independence. There can be no doubt that there has to be zero-tolerance for caste-based discrimination and atrocities.

Reservation in different spheres of life for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes (priyajans) took the form of ‘reverse discrimination.’ Reservation was to be a means for betterment, a vehicle for atonement of past discrimination; it was designed to provide support to deprived and exploited sections of society until they could get back on their feet. A period of ten years was considered sufficient for this, but reservations have now been extended for an additional fifty years, with no end in sight. In fact, over the years the quantum of reservation has been scaling new heights.

Many countries offer affirmative action systems, but such affirmative action admits a number of exclusionary factors such as race, gender, regional identity, and economic situationA caste-based system narrowly focuses on caste at the expense of other issues of social justice, for purely political ends. It entrenches the value of caste as the sole criterion of social consideration, weakening the inclusive notion of democratic citizenship as envisioned in the Constitution. 

While other countries publicly debate their reservation schemes and roll them back, such a notion is currently unthinkable in India. The ritual extension of reservation by Parliament periodically with barely any thoughtful discussion or introspection is a foregone conclusion. It seems like a chakravyuha into which our nation has entered, like Abhimanyu, but is unable to find a way out.

Votebank politics is the life-line of reservation.  Political parties, with few exceptions, do not want the ‘reserved’ to stand on their own feet, but to become permanently lame and perpetually dependent on reservations so politicians can proclaim themselves as reservation-crutch providing saviours. This phenomenon has striking parallels with the medical condition recognised as addiction. Having tasted the fruits of reservation for decades, both the reserved and reservation-promoting politicians seem addicted for their own reasons.

Reservation is akin to a potent medicine like morphine, the temporary use of which is justified to alleviate pain and assist in healing. But even a layman can tell that when taken in excess, morphine leads on to dependence, addiction, and ultimately ruin. Lamentably, reservationists have become tools in the hands of political parties who are using reservation just like drug-pushers promote addicting drugs. Politicians could act like physicians to help control this addiction, but instead are behaving as quacks bent on promoting it for their own selfish reasons, unwilling and unable to see beyond the next election. Meanwhile the reserved have become so dependent on reservations that the prospect of a reservation-less or quota-less society evokes primordial, irrational fears and provokes threats of violent reprisals. In essence, the disease of caste has been replaced by addiction for the reservation-medicine.

Reservation allows beneficiaries a flying start in a sheltered environment. But in the wider domestic and global context, it is not designed to enable victory at the finishing line. The entitlement complex created by reservation is one of the biggest barriers to the development of self-reliance, self-esteem, strength and growth. An addict getting a regular fix from compliant suppliers has no inclination to kick the habit or recover. The long-term drawbacks of reservation were realized by late Kanshi Ram himself: “Reservation is a crutch – useful for a cripple but a positive handicap for someone who wants to run on his own two feet” (1996). 

It is tempting to speculate what the prime initiator of term-based reservation, B.R. Ambedkar, would have felt about the current scenario. He was an advocate of a status based on equal footing and elimination of the caste system. “The outcaste is a by-product of the caste system. There will be outcastes as long as there are castes... Nothing can help to save Hindus and ensure their survival in the coming struggle except the purging of the Hindu faith of this odious and vicious dogma” (Harijan: 11 February 1933). Paradoxically, far from helping create a caste-less and class-less society based on equality, sectarianism and a yearning for backwardness have become more firmly entrenched. Reservation which was supposed to be a means towards an end has ended up becoming the end in itself.

An inherent feature of any addiction is progressively decreasing satiety resulting in increasing craving for the object of addiction. Witness the periodic calls for extension of reservations beyond education and government employment into the realm of private enterprise, bank lending and employment. This is being fuelled largely by politicians who have latched on to competitive reservation-mongering for electoral benefit. The reservation juggernaut has affected communities of all religions (even those that proclaim to be casteless) who, smitten by reservation-envy, are clamouring to climb the reservation bandwagon on the basis of real or imaginary grievances. This sense of entitlement is widely pervasive and communities are competing to get themselves proclaimed as backward in order to gain reservation (Low caste in India wants to be lower: New York Times: 4 June 2007).

The argument that reservation is synonymous with empowerment is specious at best. For this we have our own political leaders to blame for lack of pan-Indian vision. All too often they shamelessly pander to only their caste, community or region. Their actions are directed more at distributing governmental largesse amongst their sycophants or special interest groups than in tackling the root causes of inequality or discrimination. The fallacy of group-based entitlements is easily illustrated by comparison with the Muslim community. With many of India’s 100 richest persons being Muslims, including many politicians, movie stars, and sportsmen, there can be no claims of systematic oppression. Yet politicians continue to pander to this community as it is a reliable votebank. This entrenches the position of already-wealthy Muslims, while being of no use to Muslims who are oppressed for any number of social or economic reasons.

Has any government ever taken steps beyond the ambit of reservation to eradicate casteism or double standards? We have a surfeit of laws directed at ending various social ills, including casteism, but hardly any will to enforce them in a rigorous manner. Instead, most politicians choose the shortcut of reservation and populism over the arduous task of taking tangible and meaningful action.

In a similar vein, though women are frequently promised reservation in Parliament and state assemblies, its utility is suspect. Can anyone say that the long spell of Prime Ministership under Indira Gandhi or current de facto reign of UPA supremo Sonia Gandhi have translated into improved conditions for Indian women? The political rulers only have their self-interest at heart, however hard they may profess otherwise.

Promoting reservation has become a time-tested vote-grabbing gimmick that raises the expectations of and ultimately betrays a gullible public. Once any form of reservation is instituted it takes on a life of its own and the original objective of empowerment gets relegated to the background.

While the initial concept behind reservation is politically correct, it still runs counter to one cardinal principle: “Two wrongs do not make a right”. With rising aspirations of the younger generation and intense competition for limited opportunities, reservation is being increasingly viewed as being contrary to merit. Reservation without any foreseeable end is turning the tide of public opinion against itself.

However, that by itself is unlikely to bring about its reversal. No amount of external pressure will help cure addiction unless the addict is serious about quitting the habit. Until the reserved themselves realize that reservation is counter-productive to their long-term interests, the reservation system will perpetuate itself endlessly. The ‘reserved’ will eventually have to choose between self-dependence and reservation-dependence; the two paths are mutually exclusive. Eklavya of Mahabharata would have unhesitatingly chosen the former over the latter, but what about the contemporary Eklavyas?

The transition to a reservation-less society is neither going to be painless nor easy. Nonetheless, the fratricidal conflict in Hindu society which began with casteism and is continuing due to reservations has to cease if Hinduism has to thrive. All sections of the Hindu community have to seriously and collectively determine whether to stay tied down to past follies and remain backward-centric, or move beyond casteism and reservation. In this process, it is extremely important that the so-called upper castes shed their antipathy towards their Hindu brethren and welcome them into the national mainstream as equals. Unless priyajans are treated with compassion, respect and understanding they will never be able to free themselves from reservation.

The cost of persisting with the status quo is too high. If we resolve to move forward, the addiction model provides practical guidelines to achieve this. The two major sequential components of de-addiction protocols are initial stabilization followed by weaning or tapering the dose of the addicting agent. Thus, an approach to freeze and progressively wean off reservations has a greater chance of succeeding than abolishing reservation cold turkey.

This means freezing reservations at current levels and banning any further increments across the board. Demands for more or new reservations must simply not be accepted. Overt and covert instigation of susceptible sub-populations by vote-hungry politicians will have to immediately stop. Only when the fuel supply of a fire is cut off can fire-fighting commence.

Thereafter, the quantum of reservation should gradually be tapered off, say by 25% of the current level every 10 years. This means that till August 2017 the current level of reservation will prevail, but diminish thereafter and finally end by 15 August 2047, the first centennial of Independence. Only then can there be real freedom, unshackled from past prejudices.

The reservation-pushing political establishment will certainly not be mute to this erosion in votebanks and can be counted upon to scuttle this move. Hence the real solution is with the Hindu electorate. For too long, large sections of voters have either not been exercising their franchise or have done so without asking hard, inconvenient questions to political parties.

Voters must assert themselves and demand a debate on the reservation policy from different political parties. Anyone promoting reservation to divide and rule should be shown the door. The use of reservation-opium to lure the masses must be firmly rejected if the Hindu community and India have to make the paradigm shift from a developing to a developed populace. Finally, we must ask ourselves whether reservation is eliminating casteism and backwardness or doing just the opposite.

Dr. Vinendra Gupta is a practicing endocrinologist


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