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The Logic of Affirmative Action: Caste, Class and Quotas in India

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Most social scientists today agree that identity is a social construction, not a primordial given. They also agree that the state (through its power to dominate discourse) is a key agent in the process of identity construction. The literature on caste in India is illustrative. Caste used to be thought of as an ancient fact of Hindu life, but contemporary scholars argue that the caste system was constructed by the British colonial regime. The social construction thesis should apply a fortiori to a project begun by the Indian government almost 50 years ago and still going strong, namely affirmative action for the 'backward classes'. This project is strikingly similar to the British colonial project that ex hypothesi constructed the caste system. The government defines social categories (official constructions) under which people must register in order to qualify for the material rewards - jobs and education - that made these constructions real in their consequences. The tangible effects of affirmative action differ, however, from what the social construction theory predicts. The backward classes never emerged as a viable identity. What emerged instead was a multiplicity of castes. The government's prolonged attempt ever since independence to construct the 'backward classes' only reinforced the caste system. The logic of affirmative action explains this unintended outcome.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2000-09-01

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