Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Playing with the Past: Reparations, Positive discrimination and Democracy

A couple of days ago I had the opportunity to listen in on a discussion on the issue of reparations demanded by African-Americans for the sufferings endured by that social-group in the USA. The presenter was rather emphatic that while one could morally sympathize with the demand, it was a political non-starter. Rather than look at the issue from the issue of success or failure however, it would perhaps make sense to explore the implications of the political demand for reparations. Such a discussion of reparations makes sense for us in Goa, for a couple of reasons. First, because the idea of reparations requires the identification of a definite group that would then receive presumably regular installments of money, it is similar to the Indian system of reservations. True, reservations is not about the provision of an income but it does involve similar bureaucratic processes of identification and subsequent support of entitled populations. A discussion on reparations could thus twine with a larger debate on the much-loathed reservation system. Secondly, it could also respond to the suggestion that was cursorily made, a couple of years ago, of reparations to be made to those who suffered the brunt of the early misadventures of Portuguese colonialism in the territory.

A useful entry point into this contemplation of the idea of reparations would be to try and locate it within a broader context. Can reparations be seen as a part of positive discrimination? Reparations seems like it could be a part of positive discrimination, since it seeks to redress the wrongs of people who we see (for the Afro-Americans in the US context, and the Dalits in the Indian) as having suffered historical wrongs, and hence are at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder today. But to see positive discrimination in this light would be quite a mistake, since it pushes positive discrimination into the trap of humanitarian aid; rather than an exercise in egalitarianism that it ought to be.

In a discussion that inspired this column, political scientist Neera Chandhoke makes a crystal-clear distinction between the two. She points out that humanitarianism is concerned not with closing the gap that perpetuates inequalities, but with transferring some of the benefits from the well-off to those in dire straits. Egalitarianism, on the other hand, is a relational concept that focuses on lessening the gap. When incorporated into law or a justice system, humanitarianism endorses the handing out of favours that flow from good intentions. Egalitarianism on the other hand would result in a justice system that prevents the systemic production of the inequalities that it encounters, that may or may not be a result of historical wrongs.

Reparations therefore, cannot be a part of a system of positive discrimination. A system of egalitarian justice is not going to dole out money to you, merely because your ancestors arguably suffered some terrible injustice in the past. If your present socio-economic condition is seriously hampered as opposed to other groups alone, can one think of a system of incentives through which the gap of inequality is bridged.

The argument for reparations however, achieves another, perhaps more pernicious goal. It mobilizes people under the banner of a single community, erasing the class (and other) differences that may exist among them. The goal of this group is to continue receiving what are now perceived as benefits, rather than rights to enjoy equality. Within India we know of such groups as ‘vote banks’. These vote banks emerge however not because those who are seeking reparations, or reservations for that matter, are sly comfort-seekers. On the contrary, that they operate in this way is an outcome of the manner in which democracy is understood. Thus Chandhoke observes that in the Indian context, ‘social justice as a component of egalitarianism, which ideally should include land reform, income generation policies, redressal of inequality and securing the well being of the disprivileged, has been collapsed into reservations in educational institutions and in government jobs. Reservations, which should have formed one component of social justice, have come to substitute for social justice'.

Once cast in this manner, those who are at the receiving end of the stick, have little option but to work within the rules of the game. As she observes ‘reservations in effect have proved a soft option for political elites, who are reluctant to carry out deep-rooted changes in society’. The failure to carry out deep-rooted changes means that while superficially a person may benefit from reservation, in a good number of cases, the stigma of being a Scheduled caste continues to stick. Similarly for the Africa-American person in America, who may be successful, but often-time may have to deal with a social stigma that is hard to erase.

Indeed, by virtue of making reservations the only option for the Indian dalit, reservations have ritualized caste humiliation in the public sphere, and also ensured that caste will never go away. Anti-reservationists may see reservations as a free lunch ticket, but in fact the process through which one has to identify oneself as Scheduled Caste, and then carry that label through one’s educational life, is a terribly humiliating experience. Speaking as it does to a humanitarian justice system, reparations reinforce the roles of the elite and the subaltern, the eternally damned and the eternally superior. The demand for reparations therefore indicates a deeper malaise with the kind of political systems we have. While democratic in form, they are not dynamic polities that move forward, but are polities caught within a vicious cycle that repeat the past in differing forms.

The demand for reparations then is not the sign of a healthy democracy. In some contexts it could be the ploy of social elites attempting to create political capital by creating a community that has allegedly been harmed in the past. This lays a wonderful foundation for fascism. In other cases, it is a revelation of the manner in which democracy rather than fulfilling a egalitarian function, serves merely a humanitarian one.

Positive discrimination is a good idea, and one that involves a wide variety of measures, that also takes into consideration the baggage of the past. Reparations on the other hand are just a bad, bad idea!

(A version of this essay was first published in the Gomantak Times, 31 March 2010)

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