Many roads to hell are paved with good intentions. No public policy illustrates this more clearly than affirmative action, the polite term for racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination that, in the United States, has bred high levels of hostility among those who are discriminated against. By the same token, affirmative action has consigned its “beneficiaries” on college campuses not only to inordinately high dropout and failure rates, but also to the adoption of the belief that they are victims of an inherently unjust society that would gleefully trample all of their rights if not for the protective, watchful eye of paternalistic leftists.
But lest anyone think that preferential policies and their disastrous consequences are the exclusive province of the American Left, consider what is currently taking place in India, where a hereditary caste system continues (though it was formally outlawed in 1950) to divide people into four broad castes, each containing hundreds of sub-castes drawn largely along occupational lines. At latest count, there were some 3,743 castes and sub-castes throughout the country, whose government in recent years has sought to redress historical discrimination against those in the lower castes by reserving predetermined percentages of government jobs and university admissions for them. The greatest beneficiaries of these set-asides are members of the very lowest caste, the dalits (formerly known as “untouchables”), who hail from more than 1,000 local castes. Traditionally, dalits have been granted few, if any, basic human rights -- often being forced to live in segregated villages and subjected to violent abuse.
From Tuesday, May 30 through Monday, June 4, angry mobs from one of India’s lower (but not the lowest) castes, the Gujjar farmers and shepherds, engaged in violent demonstrations -- resulting in at least 23 deaths -- demanding to be categorized officially as dalits so that they may take advantage of the aforementioned set-asides. As the Taipei Times explains: “Gujjars are already classified as one of India’s thousands of ‘Other Backward Classes,’ which gives them some preferential treatment. However, they want to be redefined as a ‘Scheduled Tribe,’ an even lower classification that would open up more opportunities.”
Late Monday, Gujjar leaders called off their protests after government officials agreed to consider their demands. This government concession, however, sparked threats from the leaders of a rival caste, the Meena, who are currently classified as a “Scheduled Tribe” and do not welcome the prospect of new competitors for a finite number of reserved jobs and school spots. Clashes between Meenas and Gujjars led to four deaths last week.
By no means is this the first time that Indian preferential policies have resulted in bloodshed. Home to nearly a billion people, India is the world’s largest multiethnic society -- socially fragmented along religious, caste, regional, ethnic, and linguistic lines. Some 180 languages and 500 dialects are spoken nationwide, and intergroup hostilities have traditionally been intense. Clashes between India’s Muslims and Hindus, for instance, have produced some of the most horrific massacres in human history.
Into an already volcanic brew of disparate peoples and traditions, government-imposed preferential policies began injecting potent doses of toxic venom as early as the 1860s. Consider what transpired in northeastern India’s state of Assam, which was under British rule throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During that colonial period, educated Bengali immigrants (who were brought to Assam by the British) became statistically “overrepresented” among Assam’s lawyers, doctors, teachers, journalists, and government administrators. Meanwhile another immigrant group, the Marwaris, became prominent in Assam’s industry and finance.
Jealous of the success enjoyed by both of these groups, the native Assamese, who were largely peasant farmers, sought to improve their own position by agitating for group preferences. In the 1860s, Assamese nationalists pressured political authorities into changing the official language of the schools from Bengali to Assamese, and by the 1920s they had persuaded the British to stem the flow of Bengali and Marwari migrants into Assam. Eventually the Assamese -- largely through protests, threats, and outright violence -- were able to secure preferences in state government employment. Thereafter they demanded that their native tongue be made the exclusive language of Assam’s government institutions -- a proposal that predictably infuriated the Marwaris and the Hindu-speaking Bengalis. Inter-group tensions over these issues festered and grew for many years, and when political activists in the mid-1960s publicly denounced Marwari employers for hiring too few Assamese workers, Marwari businesses throughout Assam fell prey to arsonists and rioters.
When the Assamese made additional demands for the primacy of their language in 1972, they found themselves increasingly embroiled in violent clashes with Bengali activists. Government proposals for compromise were obstinately rejected by the Assamese, whose demands for preferences eventually spread to the private sector, further heightening inter-group hostilities and sparking many riots. In 1983, Assamese mobs slaughtered more than a thousand defenseless Bengali Muslims.
The story has been much the same elsewhere in India. During the early 1960s in the state of Maharashtra, calls for preferences favoring Maharashtrians over “outsiders” in both public and private industry led to extreme levels of group polarization. Out of this hostile climate emerged a political movement called Shiv Sena, which strove to compel employers to reserve, for Maharashtrians, 80 percent of all jobs in Bombay. The movement’s leader, Bal Thackeray, through his many “exposés” of “immigrant dominance,” masterfully roused the xenophobic instincts of young and uneducated Maharashtrians. To drive home their agenda, Shiv Sena activists organized boycotts, ran candidates for political office, and periodically resorted to mob violence -- killing more than 200 and leaving at least 10,000 homeless in 1984 alone. The perpetration of such atrocities, however, did nothing to diminish the movement’s popularity. Some Shiv Sena rallies drew as many as 200,000 people.
The Assamese and Maharashtrians, it should be noted, each constituted a numerical majority of their respective states’ populations; they sought group preferences for themselves because various immigrant minority groups were outperforming them educationally and economically.
But India has also seen the institution of preferences in favor of minority groups that traditionally have underachieved, usually through no fault of their own. Consider the case of the “untouchables.” In 1950 the Indian government, in an effort to improve the wretched condition of such “backward classes,” set aside for them more than one-fifth of all openings in employment and college admissions. But the fulfillment of these quotas required that the largely unskilled and poorly educated beneficiaries be judged by a uniquely lax set of standards -- thereby provoking the ever-escalating resentment of the upper castes. In the late 1970s, for instance, when many “untouchable” applicants failed to score even the barest acceptable minimum of 35 percent on their medical school entrance exams, the qualifying requirement was reduced to a meager 15 percent. Before long, engineering schools followed suit, accepting lower-caste candidates who scored as low as 10 percent on their admissions tests -- far below the 70 percent required of all other aspiring engineers. Not surprisingly, almost none of these newly preferred engineering students were able to maintain the minimum grade average needed to continue in school, and more than 85 percent dropped out without a degree. We have seen similar trends among preferentially admitted students on American college campuses.
Sadly, the pro-“untouchable” preferences in India spawned a violent societal backlash against their beneficiaries. Bloody protest riots broke out repeatedly in the 1970s -- often for the barest of causes. In 1978, for instance, when a university was renamed in honor of the late leader of a newly preferred group, more than 300 villages were overrun by riots that destroyed nearly 2,000 homes -- all in response to a purely symbolic gesture. A 1981 dispute over seven medical school slots reload reserved for lower-caste members led to riots that killed 42 people. Four years later, a plan to increase the number of admissions slots reserved for “untouchables” in medical and engineering schools led to months of rioting and at least 200 deaths.
Undaunted by these tragedies, in 1990 Indian Prime Minister V.P. Singh announced plans for further dramatic increases in job and school set-asides for lower-caste people. But as India was already flooded with many more university graduates than its job market could absorb, Singh’s decision sparked anger among members of non-preferred groups throughout the country. Before long, Indian streets were littered with the casualties of brutal clashes between advocates and opponents of set-asides. Seventy people were injured by rioting in the northern city of Delhi, six were killed in a demonstration in Patna, and dozens more lost their lives to violence elsewhere. Twenty-four towns found it necessary to impose curfews to curtail the unrest.
In 1995 an inadvertently omitted comma in the government roster of quota-eligible tribes led Gowari caste members to believe that they would be denied the group preferences they had been expecting to receive. In response, more than 40,000 Gowaris in Maharashtra staged a chaotic protest in which 113 people were trampled to death.
As in the United States, preferential policies in India have bred not only resentment but also widespread corruption. Many Indians, for example, have tried to exploit group preferences in employment and education by fraudulently claiming lower-caste membership. “Counterfeiters do a brisk business in false lower caste certificates to allow upper caste applicants to take advantage of job or education quotas,” reports the Washington Post.
But the most notable -- and predictable -- result of India’s preference programs has been group polarization evidenced by such extreme measures is the creation of private caste armies.
Affirmative action is firmly rooted in the leftist paradigm that views society as composed only of dominators and the dominated, oppressors and the oppressed. And the Left, anointing itself as the agent of cosmic justice that will punish the “oppressors” and remake the world according to the noble standard of mandatory “equality,” justifies preferential policies by citing the purportedly self-evident notions of collective guilt and collective innocence -- where race and class ultimately determine who is deserving of blame or grace, and where there are no shades of gray.
Thomas Sowell, Preferential Policies (New York: Quill, 1990), pp. 15, 52-63, 98-101.
Edward W. Desmond, “Fatal Fires of Protest,” Time (October 15, 1990), p. 63.
“Affirmative Action Fights, Indian Style,” Newsweek (September 17, 1990), p. 44.
Lee Adair Lawrence, “Christians and the Caste Controversy,” Christian Century (November 7, 1990), p. 1,014.
Jonah Blank, “Quotas that Are Cast in Stone,” U.S. News & World Report (March 27, 1995), p. 38.
“Indian State Reopens Transport Links After Caste Wars,” Taipei Times (June 3, 2007).
Matthew Rosenberg, “Group Eyes Lower India Caste System Spot,” Houston Chronicle (June 4, 2007).
Thomas Sowell, “‘Affirmative Action’ and College Graduation Rates,” Capitalism (June 4, 2002).