The Demand for Disadvantage
Disadvantage is a popular and controversial word in India these days. In October 2007, half a million Gujars, traditionally a pastoral community of north and central India, filled the streets of several towns in the Indian state of Rajasthan demanding that they be classified by their state government as disadvantaged. The Gujars wish to be listed as Scheduled Tribes, and thereby receive greater parliamentary representation, preferential treatment in public employment and lower admissions standards in many educational institutions.1 Yet, ethnographers have cast doubt on their aboriginal descent, they share customs with other groups in the middle of the social ladder,2 and a current web site hosted by members of the Gujar community refers to the group as “a proud people” with “the desire and ability to rule the world”3. The case of the Gujars illustrates, oddly but powerfully, the ways in which culture and politics mingle to shape acceptable notions of social justice and government policy in democracies. In a poor, growing economy with academic costs well below the market value of educational training, the tag of disadvantage has come to acquire value and, ironically, the desire for mobility has brought about a demand to be classified as disadvantaged. It is this demand that I would like to reflect upon here- its cultural roots, its social rationale, the political mechanisms through which it is expressed and some of the economic implications of the policies that it has generated.
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