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Caste away

The government must spend more money on the education of the deprived sections and grant them more fellowships to pursue higher studies, writes Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: Apr 10, 2006 01:35 IST

The spectre of a major agitation against the Union government’s latest reservation policy, similar to the one in 1990, when then Prime Minister VP Singh had played the Mandal card to checkmate his deputy Devi Lal, appears to be in the realm of possibility. The decision, which is yet to be formally announced and is believed to have the backing of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and all major political parties, is a step in the wrong direction. Rather than achieving its stated goal of providing incentives for higher education to OBCs, it has the potential to divide society and could lead to a major law and order problem.

Further, this step will begin to erode the credibility the prime minister has built among a sizeable section of the people, especially among the middle-classes. These sections had abandoned the BJP to hail him as their new icon. They may start having second thoughts once it is known that he is behind what is being projected as Arjun Singh’s latest political move. In the process, with this single decision, the BJP’s unsuccessful attempt to tarnish Manmohan Singh’s image will be achieved by a self-goal from his own government.

It is true that the issue of affirmative action is an emotive one. There are strong arguments both for and against any move that seeks to keep 50 per cent seats out of the reach of the general category of students, where merit gets replaced by caste, lack of competition gives way to mediocrity and where institutes of excellence start to slip towards deterioration. No one is against the government doing something for communities that have been deprived of opportunities. But at this stage, when the country is striving to match world standards in areas of bio-technology, IT, management and other spheres, such a step is bound to create a strong resentment among a sizeable section and, therefore, could lead to the creation of an atmosphere not conducive to the growth and development, as well as the education, of a large number of our youngsters.

The government must spend more money on the education of the deprived sections and grant them more fellowships to pursue higher studies. It should also strengthen standards at the primary and secondary level. But a sudden announcement that 49.5 per cent seats in all central universities as well as institutes of excellence such as the IITs, medical colleges and IIMs will be reserved for one section or the other is bound to evoke a strong reaction. If political parties are keeping quiet on the subject, it is essentially because no one wants to speak the truth and harm their chances of tapping into the potential vote banks that lie beneath this seemingly pious decision.

After all, politics in this country has changed dramatically since 1990, when VP Singh’s Mandal card unleashed strong forces of caste and community, which continue to influence national politics. The supreme irony is that the politics of post-Mandal implementation has led to the overall deterioration of standards of development, law and order and economic growth in states where caste divisions are most pronounced, such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Once the latest move is implemented, one can only imagine what will happen to universities like Delhi University. If students from adjoining states are admitted on caste lines, this may bring in muscle power and other elements that will not contribute towards enhancing the reputation of this university.

The Delhi University example is just to drive home the point that life on campus will change for all times to come and social tensions may get reflected in everyday life. And even if this were not to happen, where will residents of the capital city send their children to study? As it is, the rich and upper middle-classes have already started sending their children to foreign universities, but the scope for the ordinary citizen is going to get limited. Where is the wisdom in enacting a law that will not help the country in anyway but will lead to multi-dimensional problems?

The Congress and other national parties are respected because they, unlike regional outfits, look at problems from a national perspective. But when such parties, too, start having a myopic vision, where will the remedy lie? The government proposes to introduce the decision in the forthcoming academic session. Just imagine what will happen when parents and children take to the streets. Somebody should realise that the consequences of this decision are far-reaching and bound to have an impact on the general life in this country.

For instance, in this age of privatisation, when jobs in the government and public sector are decreasing, why would anyone in the private sector employ someone whose educational credentials are doubtful? How many people would want to be treated by a doctor who has made the grade on account of reservation or by paying capitation fees? It is logical that the private sector will set up its own institutes to train and educate people and not go by what government-funded universities may produce. They may only pick the best out of the government-funded institutes. This will lead to many other problems.

Politically too, the PM must realise that such decisions are not going to help his party. The OBCs are never going to thank him since their leadership has already evolved in the shape of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Om Prakash Chautala, Ajit Singh and others. The Congress tried its hand at  caste politics in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh before the last assembly polls and failed miserably. People expect governments to govern well and strengthen the economic and development infrastructure so that education, health and other necessities are taken care of. It is not expected from any government, least of all from the one headed by Manmohan Singh, to initiate a step in a wrong direction. Between us.