In India’s tribal-dominated Northeast, caste poses fresh challenge

September 10, 2018 6:08 PM (UTC+8)
The Indian Supreme Court in New Delhi. Photo: The Indian Express

If the idea of minority is central to democracy, the principle of equality is critical to the Constitution of India. Inherent in that principle of equality are the provisions for reservation of appointments or posts and affirmative-action policies for “women, children, and people from backward classes,” Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Scheduled Castes.

These exceptions should be seen as positive discrimination for the caste atrocities and all other forms of discrimination and violence carried out historically by upper castes and classes in India. These exceptions are intended to rectify the inadequate representations in various fields in order to give adequate opportunities for all. In short, as long as caste practices and gender and racial discrimination are practiced, reservations must remain as a civil right in the whole of the Indian Union.

In Article 15 (3) of the constitution, one finds special provision made for women and children for their advancement and welfare in all fields. This article is available to all social groups transcending caste and religion. Article 15 (4) attends to the backward classes and for SCs and STs. It is meant to facilitate their social advancement in any field. Article 16 (4), on the other hand, grants liberty to the state to allow reservation of appointments or posts in favor of any backward class that, in eyes of the state, has remained grossly under-represented.

The expression “backward class” here is defined by the Supreme Court as “socially and educationally backward.” Last but not the least, Article 46 is an important provision that seeks to protect particularly the SCs and STs “from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.” In essence, it directs the state to pay heed to their educational and economic interests.

Ending history of discrimination

At the core of the practice of the caste system is the practice of differentiation. This invariably results in humiliation. As a result of this practice of differentiation and humiliation, the caste system finds fertile ground for multiple discriminatory practices and violence. In essence, Dalits are the protagonists of India’s boycotted society, Sharankumar Limbale notes in his book Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature. This is also true for all other sections included in the reservation process.

Hence reservation is aimed at rectifying those discriminatory practices sanctioned by Hindu religion. Since there is a scarcity of opportunity owing to such discrimination, it aims to create grounds of equality by giving more opportunity to the historically marginalized groups.
In the context of Northeast India, people from the region also face various forms of racial discrimination in Indian cities.

Such discrimination marks social boundaries where certain foods, their smell, looks and dress, among others, are brought under the scanner and looked down upon. Such discriminatory practices also find reflection in institutional practices and everyday politics, which reservation aims to rectify.

This is also not to say that there is no internal racism in the Northeast. In fact, India too, to an extent, is a racist society. The nature of reactions from caste Assamese society when Nilotpal Das and Abhijit Nath were lynched, framing the Karbi people as jangli (barbaric), is but an example of internal racism. One needs to examine those practices critically too.

Nationalism vs sub-nationalism

Often nationalist and sub-nationalist groups in the Northeast speak of migration into the various states of that region. However, as we know, people from the Northeast also migrate to cities elsewhere in India in search of better educational opportunities and jobs of all kinds. Those numbers are in the millions. A huge chunk of those migrations in educational sectors were made possible by the reservation system that the constitution allows.

Most students from the Northeast only have access to poor educational infrastructures in their home states. These infrastructures include textbooks, Internet access, newspapers, teachers, social networks and appropriate funds, among others. The uneven development and different bottlenecks as compared with metropolises elsewhere in India put these students in disadvantageous positions. A similar story is true for people who come from Dalit and Adivasi communities, among other margins. Reservation mitigates those inequalities to some extent by addressing both the social and economic.

The five-judge constitution bench of the Supreme Court in a landmark judgment delivered on August 30 ruled that an SC or ST will be able to access the benefits of quota in his or her original state only and not in any other state or union territory where one may migrate to. This will in essence mean that a Naga or a Meitei student wouldn’t be able to study in Cotton College, which is in Assam. Similarly, a Bodo or a Mishing wouldn’t be able to access reservation to take admission in North Eastern Hill University.

This gets even more serious. Apart from Delhi, which is made an exception, no student from the Northeast will be able to access reservation in any other part of the country for education or jobs. This is bound to make the future of millions from the Northeast very bleak.

The repercussions  of this judgment are immense, as it will lead to numerous restrictions. Changing the grounds of reservation will freeze movement of people, particularly those who come from weaker backgrounds. In essence, it is against a society that the reformer B R Ambedkar imagined. Statewide reservation will affect all the classes under reservation, as the idea of reservation is in favor of “classes,” and not individuals, notes P B Sawant, a former judge of the Supreme Court.

The wind in India is blowing in a particular direction. The grounds that we tread are changing, and perhaps we need new grounds of solidarity to defend our rights, a solidarity where all the margins and minorities find a place.

Suraj Gogoi is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the National University of Singapore.
You May Also Like