It is the policy of various governments in the world to ‘reverse discriminate’ in favour of certain disadvantaged sections of the society who have faced or are facing discrimination and exploitation. The aim of such an action is to safeguard and protect the interests of these sections and bring them on equal terms with other higher sections of the society. Affirmative action is known by different names in different parts of the world. In India and Nepal it is called “Reservation” while in the UK it is called “Positive Action”. Similarly, in Canada and South Africa it is called ‘Employment Equity’ which is a narrower form of the original concept. Also, different countries have applied this policy in different forms. For example, in India, there is a quota system which gives a certain fixed percentage seats to backward sections of society in government jobs and educational institutions. Similarly, some countries like the US, without giving specific quotas to disadvantaged sections, give them priority, preference or special focus in various selection processes like jobs, scholarships, education. However, in the UK, “Affirmative Action” is considered to be illegal so as to ensure equality among all the prevalent races. This approach of ensuring equality among races in UK is called being ‘Color Blind’. But there is a focus on creating equal opportunities for all which is called ‘Positive Action’.
This reverse discrimination, it has been noticed, has not only adversely impacted the so called ‘privileged classes’ of the society but have also hurt the long-term interests of the beneficiaries of this policy by reducing their efficiency along with the broader interests of the nations where it has been implemented.
Origin of Affirmative Action
The term ‘Affirmative Action’ was coined and first used in the US. For the first time it was used in the “Executive Order No. 10925” in 1961, which provided for equal treatment of employees by government contractors during employment. Hence, the latter were supposed not to discriminate on the basis of race, creed, colour, or national origin.
Affirmative Action was again used in US in 1965 in the “Executive Order 11246” which ordered the government employers to take ‘affirmative action’ while hiring employees which basically meant to disregard race, religion and national origin in the process of recruitment.
The justification given for affirmative action was to compensate for the past discrimination and exploitation which the discriminated sections had to go through. But it is ill-understood that to rectify a past mistake, we can’t make ‘a different kind of mistake’ and hope that all will be well in future.
History of Affirmative Action
The concept of Affirmative Action was first witnessed in the French Constitution in 1958 which disallowed distinctions based on race, religion or sex. In the 1980s, France used an affirmative action concept in relation to funding of primary and secondary schools, which is quite different from its contemporary existence in the world. Under this rule, some schools were labelled as ‘Priority Education Zones’ and were granted more funds than others. Again, in the 1990s, the French Defence Ministry in order to make promotions and achievement of driving licenses easier for the French soldiers of North-African descent, used the concept of affirmative action.
Following in the footsteps of Norway, recently France has set a rule to ensure at least 20% reservation of women as board of directors in all listed stock exchanges and state-owned companies. This number has increased to 40% after 27th January,2017.
US was the second country to use and implement the concept of affirmative action although it was the country to coin the term itself. In the 1960s, the US used affirmative action to protect and secure the interests of people who suffered from Racial Discrimination in areas of promotions, salary increments, scholarships, admissions in educational institutions, scholarships etc, in the country. Later, this action or concept was expanded to include Gender Discrimination. It was used by John F. Kennedy in 1961 in the Executive Order 10925 and by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 in the Executive Order 11246.
Affirmative action in the US has faced numerous court cases along with its Constitutional validity being questioned. The reason for this was that affirmative action had created a zero-sum game in the system where less-qualified, protected communities were taking away jobs and other positions from much more qualified people. Many states in the US have passed constitutional amendments in their respective states to ban affirmative action by public institutions. There has also been secret use of illegal quotas by colleges to increase the number of minorities.
Other countries which used affirmative action, include India in jobs and education to certain backward sections of the society, South Africa against Apartheid, China in education for minority nationalities, Israel in select universities for certain classes of society etc.
Views of Gandhiji on Reservation
Gandhiji was a staunch critic of reservations. He wanted to improve the conditions of the untouchables. He knew that if the Communal award of 1932 was allowed to get implemented it would ensure that the untouchables remained untouchables in perpetuity. Gandhiji wanted to remove untouchability in an unobtrusive way. He advised untouchables to become aware, educated and increase their self-confidence and self-worth which would help them in fighting against the exploitation they faced instead of coming out of untouchability by getting reservations. Gandhiji declined to believe in superficial measures to solve problems, reservations being one of them. He said:
“So far as the Reservation in Government Departments is concerned, I think it will be fatal to a good Government, if we introduce there the communal spirit. For administration to be efficient, it must be always in the hands of the fittest. There should certainly be no favouritism…. If we want five engineers, we must not take one from each community, but we must take the fittest of five, even if they were all Muslims or all Parsis. The lowest post must, if need be, be filled by examination an impartial board consisting of men belonging to different communities.”
“Distribution of posts should never be according to the proportion of members of each community…. The educationally backward communities will have a right to receive favoured treatment in the matter of education at the hands of the national Government. This can be secured in an effective manner. But those, who aspire to occupy responsible posts in the Government of the country, can only do if they pass the required test.”
Nehru’s Views on Reservation
Nehru wrote a letter to the then State Chief Ministers citing his opposition to reservations. It said:
“I dislike any kind of reservation, more particularly in services. I react strongly against anything which leads to inefficiency and second-rate standards. I want my country to be a first-class country in everything. The moment we encourage the second-rate, we are lost. The only real way to help the Backward group is to give opportunities of good education… But if we go in for reservations on communal and caste basis, we swamp the bright and able people and remain second-rate or third-rate. I am grieved to learn of how far this business of reservation has gone based on communal considerations. It has amazed me to learn that even promotions are based sometimes on communal and caste considerations. This way lays not only folly, but disaster. Let us help the backward groups by all means but never at the cost of efficiency. How are we going to build our public sector or indeed any sector with second-rate people?”
Panditji wanted to build India with a first-rate citizens i.e. meritorious participants in the nation’s progress. Thus, he believed that caste and community-based reservations would constrain the growth and prosperity of India. He favoured creating educational opportunities for the backward sections so as to bring them on par with other sections of the society.
Ambedkar’s Views on Reservation
Ambedkar never favoured a caste-based reservation system. He wanted reservations only for the economically and socially backward people, that too for a temporary period of time. Ambedkar was the person who taught and brought to India the concepts of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, all of which are against the core principles of Reservation. He believed that a ‘Stretched’ reservation system even on a basis other than caste, would create divisions in the society and would harm the capabilities of the beneficiaries negatively. He witnessed and lamented the situation where the economically sound sections of the backward classes appropriated almost all the benefits of reservations without worrying for the economically weaker sections.
Patel’s Views on Reservations
Sardar Vallabbhai Patel strongly favoured the elimination of caste system and untouchability instead of giving reservation on their basis. He felt that a reservation system on the basis of caste would strengthen the caste system in the Indian society hence making it even more difficult to eliminate the practice and alleviate the miseries of the backward and the downtrodden. According to Patel, quotas were anti-national. He said, “Those who have ceased to be untouchables, must forget they were untouchables… let us stand as one.” In the Constituent Assembly Debates he said: “… The Committee considering the whole situation came to the conclusion that the time has come when the vast majority of the minority communities have themselves realised after great reflection the evil effects in the past of such reservation on the minorities themselves, and the reservations should be dropped.” This speech of his attracted significant support in the Assembly from the fellow members.
The governments world over including India, should be very careful in using the concept of Affirmative Action. They should ensure that the use of these actions not only improves the conditions of certain sections but also prevents exploitation and injustice to the other sections of the society. This means that these actions should presently be curtailed in a way that it improves the situation of the backward sections without hurting the interests of the forward sections of the society so as to achieve Equality. Hence, the current definition of Affirmative Action needs to undergo change to reflect the idea of Equality and Justice which is also reflected in Modern Constitutions, instead of ‘Reverse Discrimination’. In order to make ourselves able to see the right path regarding affirmative actions, India should use the ‘torch’ of experiences, views and teachings of our leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar and Patel.