Thoughts on economics and liberty

Institutionalised discrimination in India’s constitution

In its Part XVI, our Constitution has institutionalized social inequality and inequality of opportunity, despite the claims in the Preamble to the contrary. Article 15 (1) states quite clearly, ‘The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them’. And yet, the Constitution goes off to do precisely that! On the ground presumably of social justice and of the ‘justice of yesterday’, Part XVI recognizes multiple classes of citizens, namely, the scheduled castes and tribes and the rest of us – each being treated quite differently from the other through affirmative action such as by Article 335 which enables the ‘relaxation in qualifying marks in any examination or lowering the standards of evaluation’ for such classes of citizens.

The argument underlying affirmative action is the following – that non-scheduled members of the present generation should legally relinquish their equality of opportunity in order to compensate the scheduled groups for the harm allegedly caused by the forefathers of the non-scheduled groups. This is an untenable argument. The present generation both of the scheduled and non-scheduled groups was not even born when the alleged harm took place. If the current generation of non-scheduled people have harmed ‘lower’ castes or tribes in any way, they must be punished, but individually, not collectively. This is a matter of justice, not a matter of the ‘justice of yesterday’.

Ours appears to be a contract between two types of slaves. As Gandhi said, ‘A slave is a slave because he consents to slavery’.[i] One claims to have been discriminated against and hence wants compensation from people who had nothing to do with it. The other group offers to be punished for the alleged discrimination that someone else practised in the past! No one can remain free in a society where both parties violate the basic principles of accountability. This masochistic self-flagellation on the one hand, and the opportunistic beggary on the other, diminishes everyone. 

On a personal level, I would hate to be a member of a ‘lower caste’ or ‘tribe’ who takes advantage of a more meritorious person. It would lower me, demean me; it would reduce my sense of self-worth. Charity is anathema to able-bodied free peoples, an insult greater than no other. I would be unable to get out of a sense of deep anguish at being an able-boded person given other’s charity. Therefore I would say to such foolish ‘higher’ caste people, ‘Stop this! Stop perpetrating this mayhem of charity towards me, you slaves of injustice! Let me find my own way and own level in life through my own effort. Let me be a man. Do not treat me as a cripple’. I admire Ambedkar precisely for getting out of the stigma imposed on him by Hindus who called him a lower caste person. He joined Buddhism. Mass-scale exodus of this sort is perhaps one of the most effective ways to fix Hinduism’s flawed caste system that deeply insults virtually half its members. I would suggest an exodus to reason as an even better option.

Let India become a place of respect-worthy people and not a land of cowards, each coward begging for a little ‘extra marks’ from others. If you were to call me backward I would be extremely angry. And yet today, entire groups of people seek to be labelled as backward! This is a clear sign of a great people who have lost their way. Let all men and women of India forget their social and economic past, and stand up as Indians – no less, no more. Let each person meet the great challenge of making the greatest possible contribution to society by dint of his or her determination, hard work and merit. Let the best man or woman win in every field of life in India.

I love the story about a young couple, Craig and Helen Elliott, who started with virtually nothing in their pockets in 1995 and have built their own farm in New Zealand which now generates 26,000 litres of milk per day. Between the two of them they milk 900 cows a day; only two of them work on the farm! And they have done this without any government assistance as well.[ii] That is the minimum standard of sheer determination that each of us must show. No more of this shameful desperation to be labelled as ‘backward’! Let us cast out all charity into the ocean! And throw the person who gives us charity far into the ocean as well. That is the only way we will grow up into humans worthy of living in a free country.

Many things are deeply wrong with Part XVI of the Constitution:

  •  Sociologists and anthropologists can use terms like tribes and castes, but not a government. A government only recognizes citizens. Period.
  • As already indicated, Part XVI perpetrates grave injustice by punishing people who have not, as individuals, participated in any crime.
  • By recognizing these castes and tribes in our Constitution, we have effectively frozen them forever. Our culture and society should remain free to evolve and change in any way that its people individually choose to, so long as they remain accountable for their actions. In any event, the time has come for people to move from tribal modes to a modern, individualist mode sooner rather than later.
  • Affirmative action increases caste-based inequality. If the caste system would have disappeared on its own in, say, a hundred years in capitalist India, the socialist intervention of reservations will now sustain it for ever. Thus, our Constitution has made it very hard even for the best social reformers of Hinduism to do anything about the caste system now. There has never been greater awareness of one’s own caste than in today’s India. We don’t know our politicians by their views any longer, but by their caste. Perhaps even primary school children think about their caste now.

These things should be completely out of the reach of a government. A government should entirely focus on the economy, on the education of our children, on teaching them the wonders of science. The way to break the back of the invasive and insulting caste system is the following:

  • abolish reservations;
  • remove all references to any religion, tribe or caste in the Constitution;
  • review, and where possible repeal, any law in India with the words Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jain or Sikh included in it; and
  • ban the census of India from asking us silly questions about our religion or caste. Let us only be Indians. Period. That should do.
* * *
I am not denying the deplorable practice of caste discrimination. I strongly oppose it, it being one of my reasons for choosing not to be a Hindu (I have, in addition, many other reasons for opting out of the business of religion altogether). Nevertheless, eliminating the caste system is not a matter for a government to get involved in – it is a matter purely for social and religious reformers.
Similar discrimination or stereotyping has occurred in the past in every part of the world. Ending these things needs a different approach. Even as George Washington was taking on the role of American presidency after the 1776 Declaration of Independence, he owned hundreds of slaves. Thomas Jefferson, the man to whom we owe the sentiments of the Declaration, also owned over 180 slaves; even as late as in 1824. Similarly, providing equality and adult franchise to women took a very long time coming in the USA. In other words, there has been massive discrimination in the past even in today’s relatively free societies.
The lesson here is that while a government can set minimum standards and punish people if they violate these standards, the task of preparing a society to accept these standards requires social reformers to spend decades, if not generations, in preaching the message of reform. Yes, governments can set in place non-discretionary outcomestandards, and they should. In the case of caste discrimination, the government can do the following two things:
  • Ensure that poverty is eliminated and all children receive education of decent quality up to their twelfth year. This will involve a total revamp of the school education system, as outlined in Chapter 6.
  • Enact an Equal Opportunity Act in order ‘to enforce everyone’s right to equality of opportunity; to eliminate, as far as possible, discrimination against people by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of various attributes’.[iii] A government can definitely control people’s behaviour, even if can’t change people’s feeling. Such a law will clarify, extend and enforce Articles 15 and 16 of our Constitution. The government would then need to build a very strong capacity to enforce this law.
But to ask a government to do anything beyond these two is not realistic or reasonable. If a government attempts social reform, it faces the following problems:
  • Governments are not credible. Their sincerity is questionable. Members of a government are not qualified to touch our hearts and to make us change. People know that politicians are on the lookout for votes.
  • The opinions of the political class or the bureaucracy merely reflect existing social opinion. They can’t become reformers, anyway.
  • Bureaucracies established to ‘reform’ the society have no interest in eliminating the social problem, for if that problem goes away then they will lose their jobs! 

The diagram below tries to distinguish the role of government from that of social reformers.

It is therefore up to social reformers to initiate community-based action to educate and change people’s minds and hearts. When we feel really bad about the terrible things that continue to happen in Indian society, we can try to do the following few things:

  • We can begin by setting aside, in differently coloured piggy banks – labelled separately as ‘Ending the Caste System’, etc. – all the money that we would have been otherwise willing to let the government take away from us in taxes for the purpose of social reform (say 1 per cent of our income?). Presently, this money would go towards establishing mammoth ineffective bureaucracies which are focused entirely on increasing the problem.
  • Instead of then funding the government through this 1 per cent increase in our taxes, we can get together with others who believe in similar causes and form associations to promote our chosen causes. There may already be many such associations in existence that need volunteers like us. Let us network with other like-minded people and expand India’s social capital. Let us build civil society.
  • Once we are satisfied about the quality of work of these associations, let us then break open our piggy banks and fund these associations.

We will be pleasantly surprised by participating in such associations that social causes are impacted quickly, economically and very effectively. In addition, those of us who belong to a so-called ‘high caste’ should not forget to clarify to our children that we will be equally happy if they marry a person from a social category considered by un-enlightened Indians to be ‘lower’ than ours –as long as the person they choose is of good character. We can also use non-caste titles in our names. Finally, we can place the entire offending religion on notice and publicly declare that we will abandon it if it refuses to reform

There is another problem brewing on the horizon. In addition to caste-based affirmative action, gender-based affirmative action is gathering momentum, namely, reservation of seats for women in elected bodies. This, once again, is primarily a matter for social reformers to deal with. There can never be any justification for a government to legislate quotas for women. Reservations for women (or any other group) in Parliament or any other elected body goes against equality of opportunity. Sweden doesn’t have any reservation of seats for women, but its political parties have a voluntary norm under which 50 per cent of their candidates are women. As a result, women constitute 45 per cent of Swedish parliamentarians. The way out for India would similarly be for political parties to take the lead and not to have the government do things which are none of its business.

[This is an extract from my book, Breaking Free of Nehru]

[i] Fisher, Louis, op. cit., p.204.

[ii] Article entitled ‘A Rich Harvest and No Handouts’, by John Dyson, Readers Digest of January 2008.

[iii] This is a paraphrase of the objective of the Victorian Government’s Equal Opportunity Act.

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4 thoughts on “Institutionalised discrimination in India’s constitution
  1. jesvin

    This is a an awesome article – it sold it's point really quick! The way you treated the 'collective punishment', 'choosing to be a slave' and the goverment's flawed role in keeping our morals sure cut through deep beaurocratic muck called backwardness and exposed it for what it really is.

  2. jesvin

    This is a an awesome article – it sold it's point really quick! The way you treated the 'collective punishment', 'choosing to be a slave' and the goverment's flawed role in keeping our morals sure cut through deep beaurocratic muck called backwardness and exposed it for what it really is.

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