There are of course good quota systems and bad quota systems. A blanket quota system which reserves only on account of identity can itself suffer from rent-seeking by elites with the quota benefiting the already empowered people of the marginalized group. These people don’t just have superior resources in education and job-related skill sets to be able to get the designated quota but may even use lobbying to obtain the position.
If we take a Rawlsian veil of ignorance test and judge the Nepali society ‘just or unjust’ from behind a curtain whereby we do not know our exact position within it, most would have serious reservations about calling it just. Being born in a historically marginalized caste dovetailed with regional remoteness would be catastrophic for our hopes and ambitions that we carry in our own lives. Many groups in the country today still do not possess economic and/or social mobility and by birth their opportunities are limited with a ceiling set by society. The tragedy is set in stone when adaptive preferences make the marginalized person accept the social order without protest. This is the old adage of “one cannot know the good days without the bad ones” reversed to “one cannot know things are bad without experiencing the good days.”
Such easy recognition of historical marginalization means social quotas become necessary to not only symbolically uplift the marginalized communities but also transform their value system. Quotas represent a form of integration into society for the marginalized people and are theoretically believed to placate social conflicts and improve social cohesion. They are instilled to create a more meritocratic society whereby success is determined by one’s endeavor and not through mere identity. When a particular ethnic group cannot impose their skill set in society due to preconceived perception of their inferiority then policy procedures are required to ensure participation from the marginalized community. The hierarchy by birth as enforced by the caste system makes it necessary for the state to intervene and use its legal coercive power to promote equity even if there is a sacrifice on equality and efficiency. Quotas aren’t a mechanism of aggrandizement but of equalization. However, as all public policies, they do expire once historical oppressive implications subside and equality of opportunity emerges in society. My opinion is that such a society still remains a utopia for Nepal.
The most powerful weapon of a minority group for change is mobilization and rebellion. The civil rights movement in the United States was an example of a minority group asserting its rights to the majority and demanding change for their empowerment. The agency factor is extremely important if a social order is to shift toward a more egalitarian structure through revolutionary means. However, mobilization requires a common identity for people to believe in a movement. The Madhesh movement in Nepal created a Madhesh identity in its protest that decoupled the Madhesh identity from the regional zone also called Madhesh. This was how the Madhesh leaders appealed to the populace and were successfully able to get the government’s attention. However, some forms of oppression are designed in such a debilitating manner that they prohibit the creation of a minority identity and thus no mobilization for change transpires. The Dalits in Nepal are such a group which embodies a hierarchical structure even within the Dalit name and thus restrict the formation of a united front. As Dr Ambedkar stated in Annihilation of Caste, “This anti-social spirit is not confined to caste alone. It has gone deeper and has poisoned the mutual relations of the sub-castes as well.” The implications of this structure are that certain Dalit groups have more to lose if the current status quo is changed than others and their fear of losing the higher position even within the Dalits means they are reluctant to protest the existing order. When a social order engenders such fragmentation even within the minority group, a certain degree of state protection is necessary to uplift them. If this doesn’t happen, a tyranny of the majority is the likely result.
There are of course good quota systems and bad quota systems. A blanket quota system which reserves only on account of identity can itself suffer from rent-seeking by elites with the quota benefiting the already empowered people of the marginalized group. These people don’t just have superior resources in education and job-related skill sets to be able to get the designated quota but may even use lobbying to obtain the position. In a minority group that has an inherent hierarchical structure implied from birth, such a quota system would simply be a symbolic mechanism of empowerment but wouldn’t uplift the most marginalized in society. The moral hazard of such rent-seeking is the support of a quota policy by other groups who do not get reservations. The economically poor person of a historically high status social group would see the economically well-off person of a historically low status group getting reservations as unjust and would develop resentment toward such a system. Instead of engendering social cohesion, such an elite-capture of the quota policy results in social fragmentation and stigmatizes those that get reservations. Thus, it is prudent to buttress the quota system with multiple criteria to preserve its dignity. A simple criterion along with identity could be economic status whereby only people that are categorized as coming from a poor background are eligible for a quota position. The complexity of the system can be accentuated through other criteria to ensure it is not only a policy for symbolic representation but also carries a transformational dimension.
A quota system shouldn’t be an end in itself whereby it is considered the reparation for past marginalization and the panacea to reduce future discrimination. It needs to be a means through which the marginalized group develops an equal standing in society and are able to assert their capabilities without the baggage of any preconceived notions of inferiority. The corollary to this is that recipients of quota spots need to be treated as agents of change and not mere patients in need of help. The stigma of incapability doesn’t hold when external factors induce it; competence can only be judged when there is a clear equality of opportunity. The requirement of a quota system is indicative of external factors that hinder participation not an inherent lack of ability.
A reservation system needs to have a graduating mechanism whereby the main goal of the policy is to eventually not have a quota system at all. However, it takes time to create equalization in society and is mostly an intergenerational policy that gradually removes barriers for participation for marginalized communities. One shouldn’t be quick to judge it as unfair when historical atrocities were maintained for centuries.