Rethinking Social Justice
0 comments | by Yogendra Yadav
Policies and politics of social justice have reached a dead end in contemporary India. This does not, however, mean a futile or wasted journey. India’s bold experiment with politics of social representation and policies of affirmative action in the twentieth century is among the largest and more successful examples of social engineering across the globe. The system of reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in government jobs and legislatures continues to yield positive outcomes, better than anything that existed earlier, or any scheme that seeks to replace it. What we face today indicates a wrong turn, or perhaps a missed turn, in an otherwise rewarding journey. Nor is it necessarily the end of the journey; often reaching a dead end provides opportunity to turn around, look back at the path tracked, do a course correction and resume the journey with renewed vigour.
Or so I argue, looking at the difficult present and a possible future of the idea of social justice in India. The first part defends the assertion with which this essay begins, that the policies and politics of social justice have reached a dead end. It identifies five signs or characteristics of the current impasse of social justice. It then looks at how and why we have reached this impasse. Tracking back the intellectual and political history of social justice takes us to the five-fold shrinkage that has led the idea of justice to the point where it is. This leads, finally, to some concrete proposals for a second wind of policies and politics of social justice. The essay proposes five directions for rethinking social justice.
One preliminary clarification. This essay works with and within the everyday language of politics for there is an insight to be gained by restricting one’s focus to what is usually referred to as social justice. Thus, ‘policies of social justice’ refer to the entire gamut of affirmative action programmes aimed at redressing caste inequalities. The ‘politics of social justice’ is usually identified with political parties like the BSP, Socialist Party offshoots like the SP or the RJD, and with the DMK and its splinter parties, but not with the official left.
Let me begin then by defending the proposition that the policies and politics of social justice have reached a dead end. This might seem a curious suggestion if one looks at the ubiquitous presence of forces representing social justice today. Within parliamentary democracy, the politics of social justice is more ‘successful’ and powerful than ever before, notwithstanding the fiasco of the Third Front in the 2009 elections. Even if the RJD and the PMK are no longer a part of the UPA government, the Congress is trying hard to position itself as a party of social justice. The BJP may not be as keen to occupy that slot, but it is kept in check by allies like the JD(U) who have a social justice constituency to respond to. The BSP continues to be a threat to its bigger rivals, even if Mayawati’s prime ministerial dream has been shelved. Any legislation that has to do with SC/ST reservations is passed by Parliament instantly and with unanimity. No serious political party or government can afford to be seen as opposing reservations. It might thus seem that the politics of social justice is in good health and the policies of social justice are secure.
This apparent ubiquity of politics and policies of social justice is actually a sign of the domestication of the idea of social justice by the state and democratic politics. If the language and legacy of social justice has a wide presence in our public life today, it is because social justice has turned into a thin foil that can be used to wrap virtually any substance. On the one hand, the success of politics of social justice is limited to the accession of leaders from dalit-bahujan communities to governmental power, detached from any substantive consequences for dalit-bahujan communities. On the other, the policies of social justice are confined to implementation of reservations in government jobs and educational opportunities. Both end up drawing upon, if not reinforcing, the same caste system that they set out to annihilate.
There are at least five ways in which this dead end announces itself. First, there are signs of stagnation in the politics as well as the policies of social justice. Thus the politics of social justice either faces a containment of political ambitions as in the case of most regional OBC parties, or an emptying out of the ideological agenda as in the case of the BSP. In either case, their capacity to use state power to push through policies of substantive social transformation is very limited. This in turn is reflected in the stagnation of policy around the familiar issues of effective implementation of reservation in government jobs. Though the first UPA government did initiate a dialogue on affirmative action in the private sector, there was no policy outcome. The question of social representativeness of the higher judiciary too remains unaddressed despite attempts by parliamentary committees. In the absence of a move forward, the energy of the movement remains focused on routine questions of implementation of the reservation policy.
The second sign of having reached a dead end is the fragmentation of the idea of social justice. The politics of various social groups and communities such as dalits, adivasis, OBCs and Muslims is articulated in isolation, if not in opposition, to one another. Ever since the SP-BSP coalition collapsed, there has been no fresh attempt to forge a dalit-OBC alliance. If anything, OBC parties like the SP have campaigned against the SC/ST Atrocities Act. Nor has there been a serious effort to forge a dalit-adivasi alliance in any part of the country. Similarly, the alliance of Muslims with some dominant OBC communities remains contingent on political tactics. The politics of social justice lacks a language to expand beyond its core social constituency. The BSP’s much publicised brahmin-dalit alliance is an instance of the limits of this language.
The stagnation and fragmentation paves the way, third, for a subversion of policies of social justice. Affirmative action policies announced with much fanfare at the highest level are quietly subverted by other arms of the state, viz. the hotly debated reservation for OBCs in the centrally administered higher education institutions. On the face of it, the political and legal battle was won by proponents of an OBC quota. In effect, the new legislation has amounted to very little so far. The lack of political will on the part of the Moily Committee, ambiguities in an otherwise favourable judgment by the Supreme Court, and deliberate sabotage by the implementing authorities has meant that the OBC reservation has become something of a joke: on balance, it has only ensured huge doles for already pampered institutions of higher education and greater number of seats for students of general categories, but little for the OBC students. So far, the second UPA government appears to be looking for opportunities to keep more and more institutions beyond the purview of the reservation regime.
Fourth, the dead end is characterized by defensiveness on the part of advocates of social justice. This was visible in the Mandal II debate. In the face of a rather aggressive media-led anti-reservation campaign, the pro-reservationists were clearly pushed on the defensive, not just because they were outnumbered and out-shouted in elite circles, but because they had no fresh arguments and robust evidence to offer. Those who shared the conviction for affirmative action, yet wanted the system to be fine-tuned, were left with no option but to come to the defence of the reservation regime. The end product of such a deadlock is that the policies of social justice are increasingly weak in the moral and ideological contestation for legitimacy. This leads them to a primeval partisanship for anything associated with the politics of social justice or anyone who represents SC, ST or OBC. Hence, the sad spectacle of protagonists of social justice jumping to the defence of a Mayawati or a Buta Singh in the face of credible evidence of gross corruption.
Finally, a movement that faces stagnation, fragmentation and subversion and is on the defensive cannot but be in denial of challenges that it faces from within. The last few years have witnessed many a challenge from within the camp of social justice. Most famously, there is the demand for a ‘sub-classification’ of communities such as the SC and OBC so as to provide for a sub-quota for those communities which are seen to have benefited least from the system of reservations.
The stock response of the ideologues of social justice is to see this move as a conspiracy to divide dalits and OBCs. Similarly the social justice camp has kept quiet about the need to review the existing lists of SC, ST and OBC so as to exclude some castes that may no longer deserve the benefits of reservations. There is a tendency to oppose the very idea of a ‘creamy layer’ as a thin end of the wedge that can upset the affirmative action regime. Clearly, such a position cannot even raise the question about how to accommodate other forms of inequality like those of gender and class which make a big difference to opportunities for jobs and education. A movement that lives in denial of all these real and pressing questions of our times cannot offer a convincing defence of the idea of social justice, except to the already converted.
This is not the place to go into the complex political and intellectual history of why and how the policies and politics of social justice have reached a dead end. Suffice it to note that this is not a sudden onset of an unsuspected debility. This was an unintended but almost inevitable consequence of the encounter between the idea of justice as it evolved in colonial India and the state structures as they took shape in post-colonial India. It may be necessary to note two parts of this story which are relevant to the task of resuming the journey that has hit a dead end. One part of the ‘why’ relates to the interlocking of policies of affirmative action with politics of representation in the post-independence period. The other relates more to ‘how’ and is about the shrinking of the idea of justice in this period.
The idea of justice unfolded in modern Indian thought in opposition to the social hierarchy of the Hindu caste order. The idea was expressed in different languages: Jotiba Phule used the idiom of radical social reform, Narayan Guru used the religious vocabulary of bhakti, while Periyar deployed the lexicon of rationalism and Ambedkar the language of legal rights and constitutional framework. Departing from and in opposition to the Dharmashastra mode of thinking about justice, this selective adaptation of the modern language of justice and its strategic deployment to interrogate the Hindu social order turned the idea of justice into something that was at once positive, substantive, and radical.
It was positive in that justice here was not concerned with the juridical questions of distribution of punishment but with the issue of distribution of rewards, dignity and socially valued goods. It was substantive in that the search for justice was not about looking for ideal rules, procedures and institutions but about realizing just outcomes. This tradition was radical – a conservative tradition of thinking about justice is conspicuous by its absence in modern India – for its understanding of justice posed a fundamental challenge to the existing social order. Both the policies and politics of social justice in our times continue to draw strength from this tradition.
Yet this tradition has several inbuilt limitations. The claims of justice were addressed principally to the colonial state; this tradition could not have evolved a grammar to deal with a democratic state that came into being after independence. Since this tradition evolved in the face of stiff resistance to acknowledge the reality of caste based exclusion, injustice and oppression, it tended to foreground caste injustice and was often less attentive to other dimensions of social injustice. This led to the notion of a singular, caste-based identity and the idea of justice as fair distribution in proportion to the share of various caste groups in the population. Rammanohar Lohia did, however, make an attempt to interpret the idea of justice in the post-colonial setting. He linked policies of social justice with democratic politics, recognized multiple dimensions of injustice and explored models beyond proportional distribution.
This rich tradition of thinking about social justice was subjected to selective adaptation in post-independence India. The adoption of the principle of justice in the Preamble to the Constitution and the various special provisions for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes triggered a new dynamics of the policies and the politics of social justice. The presence of a substantial number of MPs and MLAs from ‘reserved’ constituencies served to secure the policies of reservation in jobs. At the same time it reinforced a singular caste identity, the principle of proportionality and reliance on the mechanism of reservations.
On the one hand, competitive politics kicked off a search for ‘vote banks’ or an identity-based political constituency. The requirement of our electoral system to gain a plurality of votes in a localized context provided an incentive to forge social coalitions, thus creating a strong imperative to expand the scope of affirmative action to include more and more social groups. The operation of affirmative action policies, on the other hand, gave rise to a middle class that was at once distant from and articulate about the injustices of the caste system, one which though needing political protection, could in turn offer support to the emerging political class.
This interlocking of the policies and politics of social justice had a positive and a negative consequence. It ensured that India’s extraordinary experiment with affirmative action was not aborted under the pressure of powerful voices from the upper caste elites. At the same time it consolidated a system based on singular caste identities, prevented any fine-tuning of the design or mechanism and frustrated any attempt at precise targeting of affirmative action policies. Social justice became more about representation to social groups and less about redressing disadvantages, deprivation and discrimination that characterised the caste system.
The net outcome of all these intellectual and political processes is a shrinking of the idea of justice in post-independence India. We can notice a regress in responses to each of the major questions that involve social justice: What is to be distributed? Who qualify as the potential beneficiaries of distribution? What is the criterion to select the actual beneficiaries? What form should this benefit take? Who is to carry out the distribution? And how do we assess the success or otherwise of a just distribution? The response to these questions has seen means being mistaken for ends, necessary conditions regarded as sufficient conditions, and the interests of a small section conflated with principles of social justice.
First, in thinking about the subject matter as well as the agency of justice, there has been a fascination with the state. If the politics of social justice was directed towards the capture of governmental power, policies were focused exclusively on a share in opportunities provided by the state sector. From a legitimate if narrow belief that we need to prioritise the state and its institutions as the principal sites of distributive justice, we have come to a debilitating position that the subject matter of social justice is confined to the state and its institutions. This limitation is particularly telling in the post-liberalisation times when most of the action, both in the economy as well as in education, is shifting outside the public sector.
The second point of regress relates to an over-expansionist imperative in defining the potential beneficiaries of affirmative action. Over the years, the compulsions of democratic politics have led to additions, both to the number of categories who qualify for benefits as also to the lists of caste/communities in each category. The SCs and STs were soon joined by the OBCs under various nomenclatures and then by the economically backward groups. This was in addition to the physically handicapped, ex-servicemen, special category of migrants and so on. Within each category, especially in the OBC but even among the SC and ST, the inclusionary imperative has led to an addition of more castes without any deletion whatsoever. A greater inclusion has led to demands for expansion of the quota beyond the judicially sanctioned limits, all in the name of social justice. This kind of expansion constitutes a regress; it is indiscriminate and more often than not without reference to any principle of social justice.
Third, there is an obsession with caste as the sole and sufficient criterion of identifying the actual beneficiaries. Increasingly, the policy as well as politics of social justice is premised on a one-dimensional understanding of the nature of social injustice. Advocates of social justice have replicated the Marxist reasoning that only one of the various dimensions of social inequality – caste, class, gender, etc. – is the real one, and one that subsumes all other dimensions. Over the years, the discourse has shifted from a much-needed reminder that caste is essential to understanding social injustice, for it is a proxy for multiple disadvantages in the Indian society, to a position that caste is a sufficient identifier of injustices, that what is not captured by caste is not really worthy of redressal by affirmative action.
Fourth, in thinking about the mechanism or form of affirmative action, there is a fixation with reservations. This follows from the limited and legalist understanding of the instruments of social change. If politics was limited to elections, policies were limited to a legal guarantee through the system of reservations. From the discovery that reservation was a simple, robust and assured mechanism of social justice, we have begun to see reservation as the only method. Thus the demand for better representation for women gets converted, without careful deliberation, into a demand for reservation for women. If Muslims are under-represented and systematically face disadvantage, they too demand reservations. There is little thinking about how to design any affirmative action policy. Reservation has instead become the quick-fix solution, almost a knee-jerk reaction, to any legitimate grievance of a social group.
Finally, there is an over-reliance on the principle of proportional representation at the cost of other principled justifications for policies of social justice. The Indian idea of justice draws upon four overlapping justifications: that some groups are systematically disadvantaged, that they have suffered from deprivation, that they have been the victim of discrimination in the past as well as in the present, and that there is a deficit in their representation in some key positions. As noted above, thinking about social justice in colonial times had a bias in favour of the justification in terms of representational deficits.
After independence, though the context changed, the justification did not. The presence of a middle class outside the upper castes and its rise among dalits further strengthened the search for representational basis of affirmative action policies. The principle of proportionality of representation requires singular identities and thus reinforces the obsession with caste. Competitive politics furthered the drive towards seeking political representation. From the valid argument that political representation is necessary to serve the interest of the disadvantaged, there was a leap into believing that political representation was sufficient.
This five-fold regress in the imagination of social justice was not confined to some intellectuals. The description here applies to state policies, party ideologies, non-party movements and NGOs, as well as judicial pronouncements. The shrinkage was neither accidental nor a simple intellectual mistake. The post-colonial state promised a new world of opportunities open to democratic control. Caste-based reservations were one of the few initiatives that appeared to be delivering some results. But what was once a strength has now become a liability. The translation of the idea of justice into policies and politics in post-independence India has considerably narrowed the potential of the tradition of social justice.
This essay began by promising some concrete proposals to rethink the policies and politics for social justice. It has argued that politics and policy of social justice are in a poorer shape than they appear and that the relationship between the two has led to a many-fold regress in the imagination of social justice. It follows, therefore, that we need to think afresh. The five regresses mentioned above indicate the direction in which we need to move. More than just a patchwork or minor course correction, if the idea of social justice has to recover from its domestication in post-independence India, it needs a second wind, as it were.
A rethinking of the kind proposed here does not require us to give up on the tradition of social justice in modern Indian political thought. In fact, in most cases, it requires us to recover and reconstruct the paradigm implicit in the writings of Phule, Narayan Guru, Ambedkar, Periyar and Lohia. Sometimes it demands that we think boldly and provide new answers to the questions raised in this tradition. At the same time, a rethinking of the kind proposed here requires us to go beyond the established idiom of social justice, defy the existing orthodoxy that dominates our thinking and challenge the vested interests that often creep into any movement for social change. What follows is an outline map that sketches the five directions that such a rethinking must take.
As is obvious from what has been said so far, rethinking the policies and politics of social justice would require, first, revisiting the principles and restating them if necessary. The case for social justice needs to be distinguished from a crude demand for equality of outcomes, understood as proportionate distribution of all valuable goods, for all caste groups, in every respect. Clearly, not all goods are equally valuable, not all groups are equally homogenous, and not every unequal treatment is unjust.
Social justice requires that all social goods (material as well as non-material goods such as dignity) should be distributed on the basis of the criterion relevant to that good or activity. This would mean detaching access to social goods and opportunities from social circumstances and thus complicate any understanding of ‘merit’. But social justice need not reject relevance of ability, effort and choices to life prospects of individuals and groups. The demand for equality of opportunity must go beyond a formal equality in the sense of banning explicit discrimination. It must require an end to all forms of indirect discrimination, historically accumulated deprivation and systemic disadvantages. In that sense, justification for policies of social justice will have in a large measure to draw on considerations of and provide evidence for disadvantage, deprivation and discrimination.
There are some aspects, more in the domain of politics than policy, in which the case for social justice can take the form of same treatment to all, plain and simple. But this would apply only to those basic goods (absence of humiliation, for example) where the relevant criterion is equal humanity. In some respects the claims to proportional representation of social groups (or redressing gross disproportionality of group representation) are valid, but this is at best a limited argument about diversity and that too about some key positions and institutions. The case for adequate political representation for dalit-bahujan has to be linked to the consequences of such representation on state policy, economic well-being and social power of these communities. An over-emphasis on the proportionality principle may appear to strengthen the case for social justice, especially for the elite within the deprived groups, but it does so at the cost of reducing the intuitive appeal and the power of the idea of social justice.
The second arena of rethinking requires recovering lost spaces and claiming new spaces for social justice, especially spaces beyond state and the public sector. It is true that a democratic state provides a sphere where the disadvantaged majority can press for action and that a lot remains to be done there, especially with regard to sectors such as the judiciary, institutions of excellence and the army. Arguably, an improvement in the social composition of higher judiciary would go a long way in strengthening policies of social justice. The grounds for keeping technical institutions of excellence beyond the purview of affirmative action in some ways go against the very idea of why affirmative action is needed in the first place. Better representation for SC, ST and minorities, especially Muslims, in the army is an example where the diversity principle needs to be invoked. In all these instances, we must not allow the non-feasibility of reservation to be a good ground for exclusion from affirmative action.
Yet we have reached a stage where the politics of social justice needs to focus on other sites of power. Besides state power, the politics of social justice needs to be aware of and encompass ‘civil society’ institutions, institutionalized religion and market. The media and NGOs are two critical sectors in the ‘civil society’ arena. A recent rudimentary count of the social profile of the ‘national’ media brought out its grossly unrepresentative social character. We do not have even a rudimentary social profile of the NGOs but this too appears to be another site of power that needs examination. These sectors, not to speak of institutionalized religion, do not permit state legislation as an instrument of social justice and would require social pressure.
Above all, it is time that both the politics and policy of social justice focused energy on the private sector that represents the largest arena of economic opportunities. As the state systematically withdraws from economic life and much of the higher education is handed over to private players, the gaze of social justice too must shift to this arena. The first UPA government had announced this with much fanfare but it seems that corporate India has managed to brush this debate under the carpet. There is a huge opportunity for innovative thinking waiting here. The state need not enact any ‘draconian’ quotas. All it requires to do is to make any form of governmental benefit (subsidy, tax incentives, eligibility for governmental tender) conditional upon Equal Opportunity Audits. The government could also give preferential treatment to entrepreneurs or enterprises that are dominated by the disadvantaged groups.
Third, the politics of social justice should openly embrace the idea of refining the target groups for policies of affirmative action as long as the benefits of better targeting go to the designated groups. Even if the number of privileged among the beneficiaries of the current reservation regime is very small, it does cause deep hurt and takes away from the intuitive appeal of the idea of social justice. If the advocates of social justice accept the principle that the benefits of affirmative action must not go, at least in the first instance, to those who are not deprived, it would strengthen the appeal for the idea of justice.
A simple devise for addressing the suspicion against better targeting would be to adopt the ‘last beneficiary’ principle for the privileged among the deprived groups. This would mean, for example, that the privileged among the SC are not excluded altogether from the benefits of reservation but are placed at the end of the queue. They get to enjoy the benefits of reservation only if there are slots left after the non-privileged SC candidates have been accommodated. This would ensure that the provision for exclusion of the privileged from the benefits of reservation is not used as a pretext for passing on the benefits to general category, as has happened in the case of the reservation for OBCs in higher education.
Once we have built-in this precaution, there is nothing wrong with the ‘creamy layer’. Of course, it should be redefined and the bar should be set much higher so as to exclude only those families whose privileged status would negate any historical deprivation or discrimination. Besides the creamy layer, there could be another provision for limiting multi-generational advantages. Here the simple principle would be to limit the benefits of reservations or any other form of affirmative action to levels not reached by the previous generation beneficiaries. The daughter of someone who availed reservation to get a class II job, for example, would still enjoy the benefits of reservation for class I jobs but not for class II and below.
Another extension of the same principle would be a comprehensive evidence-based review to determine if some caste-communities are no longer in need of reservations. The Supreme Court had mandated it in the case of the OBCs, but the government has neither the will nor the capacity to implement this order of the apex court. Here again, as in the case of the creamy layer, resisting the idea of a review might be counterproductive; instead advocates of social justice should be debating the norms and forms of exclusion.
A bigger, more contentious and perhaps more far reaching proposal for better targeting would involve splitting the SC, ST or the OBC quota, wherever indicated by evidence, so as to allow assured access to the most deprived groups and women within each category. The crucial point here is that of compelling evidence: every case for sub-quota must be based on robust evidence of a gross difference between different sub-groups. Sub-categorisation of the SC quota has already taken place in Punjab, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh and has led to a legal dispute. The Usha Mehra Commission appointed by the Government of India has reportedly recommended this in the case of Andhra Pradesh. Similar demands have come up in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and are likely to arise in most other provinces. In the case of ST, there appears to be a case for a sub-quota for the educationally advanced STs in the North East to protect the adivasis in the rest of the country.
As for the OBCs, this category includes some peasant proprietor communities whose condition is just a shade worse than the upper caste Hindus and some of the most deprived service and artisan communities whose condition is much worse than that of the upper crust of the SC. A single undifferentiated quota for the vast range of communities falling in this category appears to be in gross violation of the idea of social justice. It bears repetition that any sub-quota should be subject to the ‘last beneficiary’ principle: any unfilled positions from one sub-quota should be passed on to the other sub-quota and should not be de-reserved.
The fourth arena of rethinking would involve revising the criteria beyond a one-dimensional category of caste. The structure of our society is marked by multiple, overlapping, cross-cutting and graded inequalities that cannot be captured by only one dimension like caste or class or gender. Any attempt to change the unjust social order must begin by looking at the cumulative impact of these multiple inequalities. Therefore, the current practice of identifying the beneficiaries of affirmative action with reference to a community or a similar identity-based social group needs to give way to a multi-dimensional approach based on evidence.
In some cases like job reservations for SC and ST, caste can continue to be the sole criterion for some time to come. In some other cases, as in job reservations for OBC, caste can be used as the primary criterion, but supplemented by class and gender as secondary criteria for exclusion or sub-division. In many other cases, reservation for ‘backward classes’ in education is a prime candidate here, caste can become just one of the many variables in a multi-dimensional deprivation index. This approach would open itself to newer categories of disadvantage that do not enter our discussion today: physically handicapped, disadvantaged minorities, victims of displacement and so on. Gradually the regime of affirmative action needs to shift from the first category to the third.
The fifth arena of rethinking involves redesigning the mechanism of affirmative action so as to expand its repertoire beyond reservations. Any instrument of social justice must be designed carefully to meet the objectives that it is meant to realize. Reservation in one form or another should be used as a measure of last resort, rather than as the first or the only tool of social justice. Reservation is simple, familiar and robust and should be used in cases where we suspect that every other provision might fail. In that sense there is a strong case for continuing with reservations for jobs, education and in politics for SC and ST. But a mindless replication of the same design for every other situation or social group runs the risk of using up a limited resource.
There is thus an urgent need to explore other instruments of affirmative action. A deprivation index based mechanism has already been mentioned above. This would involve calculating the deprivation score of every candidate and adding it to their ‘merit’ so as to compute a score that is sensitive to the social context. A system of strong incentives and disincentives could go a long way in introducing affirmative action in the private sector. Similarly, any mechanism for increasing women’s representation that is based on incentives to the political parties would be better than the system of geographical reservations provided for in the current Women’s Reservation Bill. Public audits of ‘equal opportunity practices’ could be a very powerful tool of social justice, especially if it is linked to a system of strong incentives and disincentives.
And finally, we tend to underestimate the extent to which simple collection, collation and publication of information can achieve objectives of social justice. The Sachar Committee Report has already demonstrated the value of information in the public domain. This could be institutionalized by a statutory requirement of an annual Equal Opportunity Report to Parliament that simply publishes data for employment and education for different social groups across the country.
The idea that we need one golden method to redress social injustice needs to be given up in favour of multiple methods. This would be particularly relevant to address the problems of a group like the Muslims where the mechanism of reservation would be legally untenable and politically unwise. In such a situation, affirmative action would require creating a series of programmes none of which addresses only the Muslims (these could target, say, the weavers, locksmiths, religious minorities, border districts and so on) but the sum total of which would lead to significant benefits for the Muslims.
The sixth and the final direction of rethinking social justice policies would require refurbishing the institutional set-up for social justice. One of the reasons why the delivery of social welfare policies is so poor is that the weaker sections of our society are served by very weak institutions. We have a large gamut of official institutions each of which purports to serve the cause of social justice: there are constitutional commissions for SC and ST, statutory bodies like the NCBC and NCW, and executive creations such as the Safai Karamchari Ayog. Each of these institutions has become a small and harmless cog in the wheels of the state. The problem is not that they do not have the power; the real problem is that the appointees lack the will and the stature to exercise these powers for the right purpose. None of them is accountable to the larger public or its own social constituency. There is a case here for merging all these into one single powerful and purposeful institution.
In the meanwhile there is a strong case for establishing an Equal Opportunity Commission along the lines recommended by an expert committee (the present author was a member of this committee). The expert committee has suggested that the proposed EOC would be a path-finding institution that will help evolve and evaluate mechanisms for affirmative action, following an evidence-based approach. It would be open to any social group and cover public as well as private sectors. Unlike the existing commissions, the EOC will focus on advisory, advocacy and auditing rather than individual grievance redressal.
Such a vast and ambitious agenda for rethinking and redesigning policies and politics of social justice is bound to invite a simple question: Who will take it up? What are the chances that this system which has failed to meet simpler challenges would handle something as demanding as this? Who will take on the vested interests of the supporters and opponents of social justice? This is a difficult question with no easy answers. But there is one possibility. If the push towards the dead end has come from the interlocking of policy and politics, a resolution may also come from the same source.
The last few years have witnessed a rise in the aspirations and demands of various disadvantaged groups who remain largely excluded from the benefits of the existing policies and politics of social justice. The lower OBCs are already a political force to reckon with in several states. The question of Mahadalits, comprising the lowest groups among SC, could well spill over from Andhra and spread to the rest of the country. Pasmanda or Backward Muslims have already started mobilizing in Bihar and are trying to expand. The existing equilibrium on social justice works to their disadvantage. As these groups and their issues rise to prominence, the settled political equations can face a challenge. Some of the parties that have come to represent politics of social justice may face a challenge to their monopoly. The challenge could come from newer sectional parties that represent the hitherto excluded segments or from a catch-all party like the Congress that might seek to mobilize these sections. This could turn into an internal battle within the social justice camp (MBCs vs. prosperous OBCs, Mahadalit vs. Dalit, Pasmanda vs. Ashraf).
Alternatively, if the politics of social justice shows greater imagination, such a rupture can point to a way forward for everyone. This would involve revisiting the ideological and political legacy of Phule, Narayana Guru, Ambedkar, Periyar and Lohia and might create an opportunity for the kind of rethinking advocated in this essay. A dead end might well become a point of renewal.
Yogendra Yadav is Senior Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi