Recently, the United States Supreme Court returned a ruling to the lower courts, directing them to re-examine a ruling on affirmative action at the University of Texas at Austin. Affirmative action has been a controversial move since its inception. However, the United States is not the only country to practice some form of it. The oldest form of affirmative action can be found in India, and is known as reservation policy.
The caste system has been a facet of Hindu society for millennia, and was enshrined within India’s constitution of 1950. This original policy, building on quotas for jobs and education that were a part of British-run India, was initially intended for review after ten years, but has instead simply been renewed every decade without significant changes.
The original reservation policy in India focused on the ‘scheduled’ Hindu castes, notably the Dalits, or Untouchables. Since then the policy has been extended to other ‘backwards’ castes. This extension means that between a quarter and half of all Indians belong to castes eligible for affirmative action. In some regions, like Tamil Nadu, more than 80% of government jobs are set aside in quotas.
However, finding proof that these reservations have had any continued benefit is difficult. While it is true that more of the scheduled castes are now enrolling in universities and filling government positions, the inevitable issue of reverse discrimination looms. The Indian caste system no longer necessarily corresponds to economic or professional status, a fact that can lead to rich prospective students who happen to belong to a backwards caste being given preferential treatment over poorer, more able students who happen to belong to a supposedly favored class.
And so India lives with the irony that a program intended initially to give greater equality to all her citizens and eventually eliminate caste distinction, instead perpetuates the system.
– David Wilson