From 1951 to 2008, India moved toward an embrace of caste quotas, or reservations, as a necessary mechanism of recompense and redistribution. At the same time, the focus on the appropriate criteria for determining “backwardness” left largely unaddressed the social bases of “merit.” The effects of this asymmetry are evident in the popular politics around reservations in which the claim to merit on the part of upper castes is taken largely at face value. Across this period, we also see the consistent stance of the southeastern state of Tamilnadu as a political outlier in its disregard for the liberal norm of formal equality and embrace of a model of demographic representation. In this article, the author takes up the tensions between these different approaches to democracy and their implications for addressing historical inequalities.

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