Monday, August 23, 2010

The only option

Ashe Brooks-cook
It has been called many names—reservation, special privilege, quotas, affirmative action, etc.—but whatever you’d like to call it, this concept is currently in deep debate amongst academics and politicians of Nepal.
Depending on who you are the perception of reservation is seen as either the eliminator of individual rights or the great equaliser of the people. Those in congruence with the ruling elite of Nepal, regardless of caste or ethnicity, are for the most part against the idea of reservation. Opponents argue that it infringes on the rights of individuals and therefore is counterproductive. Proponents of reservation believe that reservation is a way of bridging the gap of inequality between the have and the haves not’s, as well as providing an outlet toward bringing about democracy for a country that craves it with such intensity.
Reservation has the potential to benefit more than half of the population of Nepal mainly Dalits at 14.99 percent, indigenous groups at 36.31 percent and women at 52 percent of the population, and by benefiting these groups it will undoubtedly benefit Nepal as a whole. Reservation is an endeavour that would allow individuals access to opportunities that they otherwise would never have had based solely on a criteria measured by their genetics. These individuals would have right of entry in sectors such as education, civil service, government, the Army and most importantly a chance at a better life. People shouldn’t be questioning the legitimacy of reservation, what they should be doing is questioning why it has not been implemented sooner.
I recently encountered first hand the fear that will stifle Nepal’s nascent modernity at a conference on Dalit issues last month. During a break I spoke to a participant who commented that since the implementation of reservation in Nepal that certain castes were actually being turned down from opportunities over less qualified applicants due to their ethnicity. What I thought was interesting about the statement was that for one, it was coming from a Brahmin who had just received a Fulbright scholarship to study and live in the United States. Secondly, that she automatically assumed that those persons who are getting job opportunities over other castes were undoubtedly less qualified, and therefore were receiving these positions only due to their ethnicity and not because of their merit. The concept of merit is a structuralised concept, created by the elite to keep others out. What they fail to realise is that ethnic preferences in sectors enhance the experience not only of minority students but of elites, too.
There is no denying the fact that there is a need for reservation in Nepal. Statistics overwhelmingly show that Nepal has been dominated by a small minority in any and all sectors, both public and private, historically as well as currently. For example Brahmin/Chhetri make up 88.8 percent of the Supreme Court justices, 68.4 percent of ministers, the mass majority of majors and above ranks in the Army, 70.9 percent of the Nepali Congress, 87.5 percent of CPN-UML and so on, but only consist of 30.89 percent of the total population in Nepal.

Since reservation in Nepal is so new there is not much empirical data on whether or not it has made any difference or what the implications of it will be with regards to the future. But what I can derive based upon my own research in Nepal and my observations of reservation in other countries is that although controversial, reservation can and has been in many areas highly beneficial. As an African American I know all too well the repercussions of oppression and the benefits as well as controversies that affirmative action has caused in my country.
Affirmative action was first established in the United States in 1961 as an executive order. Many people in the United States were greatly affected by this order but if not for affirmative action, if not for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or even the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862, my race would potentially still be stuck in a past filled with injustice and inferiority with even greater limited opportunities to education and jobs. I personally would still be made to drink out of a coloureds only water fountain, or still would not be able to vote, or even still be an enslaved person as others that have come before me have faced. As a result of the implementation of affirmative action in the US the percentage of African Americans began to increase in higher education, job placement, as well as the middle class.
Prominent American figures whose advancement were in part the result of affirmative action are Sonia Sotomayor (Princeton, Yale), Barack and Michelle Obama (Columbia, Princeton, Harvard), and Eric Holder (Columbia) - all of whom who have advocated for the importance of considering ethnicity in judicial selection, hiring and admission. Bill Gates, another prominent American figure, has acknowledged the need for affirmative action by creating the Gates Millennium Scholars programme. This programme grants scholarships for 1,000 minority students to attend college each year for the next 20 years.
I have heard many times during my stay in Nepal of a concept of a “New Nepal” and how Nepal has transcended from a Nepal of exclusiveness and oppression to that of inclusion and democracy. It is not truly possible for Nepal to become a “New Nepal” if only a small percentage of Nepalis are benefiting from this
so-called newness. Nearly 250 years of elite rule does not change overnight, but in order to effect true change and come to a point of equality, certain provisions need to be made and various forms of dominance by particular ethnic groups needs to be neutralised. The only way to do this in a pace quicker than the 250 years that it took to get there is to implement reservation as an amendment to the constitution as well as put into practice protocols that would ensure that it would be followed. It is true that eventually these issues will work themselves out, the bridge of equality in Nepal will eventually be built, domination by elite ethnicities will eventually quell, but until then reservation is the only answer.
Brooks-Cook is a graduate student at The New School University, New York. He recently spent the summer in Nepal researching contemporary Nepali politics

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