Perhaps it is a reflection of our times, and inevitable that in these days of Bush Binaries it becomes necessary, even incumbent, upon any one opposing the proposed OBC quotas to have to point out that they are not against affirmative action per se, nor that they believe that merit is distributed by caste or class. It was heartening and edifying to note the mature, level-headed and restrained manner in which this civilised exchange between two of the country's most articulate and respected public intellectuals was conducted. While reiterating his position, Pratap Bhanu Mehta's response underscores once again how important it is to "find a modus vivendi to balance different and equally important values: social justice, diversity, autonomy, freedom, creativity, efficiency" and actually move towards intelligently identifying and implementing measures of affirmative action that move beyond caste and reservations. OBC quotas are obviously not the one-size fit all panacea to the crying need for social justice. In this regard, it would be useful to also look once again at what Surjit Bhalla had pointed out some days back in his article Who Needs Quotas? - Ed, outlookindia.com
Full text of Pratap Bhanu Mehta's response:
Dear Yogendra Bhai,
My letter is redeemed by the fact that it prompted you to write. Minor points first: The NKC statement carefully did not take a categorical stand against all reservations; it merely was a plea that quotas not be extended till alternatives had been explored. If we had not taken an interim position we would have been accused of ducking the issue. As for politics, if misrepresenting the Constitution, deciding seat enhancement solely for the sake of quotas and not on other rational considerations, and leaving decisions to politicians, is not politics of the bad kind I do not know what is. Mr. Arjun Singh himself linked the decision to the prospects of the Congress party.
I want to clarify two important things. My argument on diversity and freedom leaves substantial room for the state to enact radical policies; like you I believe it will have to do so, but more intelligently. But should policies in all institutions necessarily have to follow the same model? And in a country where even people who agree on the objective of social justice are deeply divided over the means to achieve it, is not draconian homogenising going to exacerbate social conflict? I think genuine pluralism requires that we find a modus vivendi to balance different and equally important values: social justice, diversity, autonomy, freedom, creativity, efficiency. Perhaps I trust society too much, but perhaps you trust the state too much, and good historical sense requires being wary of both in appropriate measure.
Second, I did not intend to be an icon for any movement; how people use images and ideas is beyond my control. I just hope my arguments are taken for what they are. But we have to move beyond demonizing any caste or class, upper or lower. Some of the symbolism used by the protestors display a lack of sensitivity to India’s social realities and, as my letter suggests, I do not buy the binary of social justice versus merit that their arguments are based on. Yes, these kids are comparatively privileged; but in a competitive world, with short supply of institutions, they also face an anxious future. Their anxiety is sometimes misdirected and misarticulated, but that is an intellectual and moral vacuum this society as whole faces. I have written about the indignities of caste elsewhere. But I do not believe that virtue is distributed by caste or class, which your letter implicitly suggests. Perhaps I worry too little about the absence of social justice issues in some discourses (though hopefully not about social justice itself). But I think you worry too little about how a mere reference to social justice can itself disable all critique, and excuse all kinds of ineffective and non-sensical policies. And I hope India has space for both of us.
With great admiration,
Pratap Bhanu Mehta
The above response was first published by the Indian Express today and is carried here for the record, with permission from the author.