Members of low Indian caste seek to be lower

Competition for job, education set-asides heats up

June 10, 2007|By Chicago Tribune

NEW DELHI -- Members of India's lowest castes have struggled for generations for dignity and a better chance in life. But job and education quotas aimed at helping them have unintentionally spawned a new phenomenon: The eager downwardly mobile.

Over the past week, tens of thousands of members of India's Gujjar community -- politically powerful traditional farmers and shepherds from India's Rajastan state -- have burned buses, shut down interstate highways and sparked clashes that killed 25 people, all in an effort to be downgraded in caste.

For years, the Gujjars have been included in a broad group known in India's convoluted caste classification as "other backward classes" that under the constitution are entitled to 27 percent of government jobs and university enrollments.

But as Indians everywhere struggle to get ahead in the country's fast-growing economy, the Gujjars have set their sights on a richer and less competitively crowded entitlement: the added 15 percent of jobs and university spots set aside for the country's lowest castes, the so-called unscheduled tribes and scheduled castes that include the people once known as "untouchables."

"There are many segments of our society that are still not in the mainstream of our nation, and they want to be part of India's growth story," said Sachin Pilot, a Gujjar member of parliament who has helped push for his caste's reclassification. Some Gujjars have prospered, he said, but others should be included in the "many, many hundreds of millions [of Indians] who are not able to do that."

After protests Monday that shut down much of the traffic into Delhi, leaving normally congested highways virtually empty, India's government agreed to study the group's demand to become a "scheduled tribe," groups traditionally considered literal "outcastes" from the country's ancient caste system and at the bottom of its complex social ladder.

The Gujjars themselves might have agreed to the study, rather than an immediate status change, in part because the Meenas, an even larger bottom-rung caste in Rajastan, had begun to take up arms in recent days to protect their affirmative-action turf from Gujjar encroachment, a move that triggered fears of a domino-style series of caste wars.

Gujjars are about 5 percent of Rajastan's population and Meenas 15 percent, official figures show.

The irony, sociologists say, is that quotas India created to reduce social inequalities and eventually help eliminate the country's caste structure are now reinforcing it.

"Caste is becoming more political than social," said Dipanker Gupta, a sociologist and caste expert at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "Do people willingly want to go down the social ladder? They don't. They're just jockeying for administrative convenience. They're taking advantage of the system."

The Gujjars' downwardly mobile ambitions are driven in large part by frustrations that rural India has so far benefited little from the country's impressive economic growth -- about 9 percent a year -- that is creating conspicuous new wealth in its cities.

The Gujjars, once tenant farmers to oligarch landlords, have gotten land of their own in recent decades, but small-scale agriculture pays poorly in India, creating frustration among small farmers eager to share in the good life. Many now see a government job in the city, or a university degree, as their ticket to prosperity.

Politicians have in turn fed unrest by promising more and more Indian caste groups inclusion in affirmative action categories as a way of winning their votes. Those groups who ultimately aren't included feel angry and deceived; those who do get special status face resentment from those who already have it as competition for a limited number of set-aside positions grows, analysts say.

Politicians "have been kind of irresponsible," Pilot said. "When they make promises and can't deliver, they set up a situation where everybody stands to lose."

He and most sociologists still believe caste quotas are needed in India, at least for the country's poorest and most socially handicapped. But a better way to improve lives, Pilot said, is simply to ensure that India's rapid economic growth continues.

"Once there's more prosperity and the pie gets bigger, these problems tend to mitigate themselves," he predicted. If economic growth continues, "the caste system, I hope, will fall by the wayside in my generation."

For now, he and Gupta believe the government should make greater efforts to ensure quota positions go to the genuinely disadvantaged by creating legislation to skim off what Indians call the "creamy layer," those who have used set-asides to become prosperous but continue to be eligible for affirmative action benefits. Families who now earn enough to pay income taxes might be excluded, for example, Gupta said.

Quotas were "never meant as an anti-poverty measure" but to "uplift certain communities from degradation and give them a measure of social respect," he said.

But under the system the Gujjars and others are now trying to bend to their advantage, set-asides are "not creating assets for those who have none but leveraging rural power into urban jobs," Gupta said. "It's a war over spoils."

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