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Merit on backseat, politics at the wheel

As long as the politics of reserva- tion persists, so will the anger of the excluded.

india Updated: Apr 11, 2006 09:23 IST

One day in December 1980, a former Bihar chief minister named BP Mandal walked into Union home minister Zail Singh’s office and presented him with the fruit of two years of labour: a report by a committee he had chaired, on affirmative action for India’s legions of socially and educationally backward. Among other things, the report recommended 27 per cent reservation in public sector jobs for Other Backward Classes.

For the next 10 years, this report lay half-forgotten in a corner of a government vault — until it was pulled out of obscurity by Prime Minister VP Singh in 1990. News of its implementation led to angry protests in campuses around the country.

Now, 16 years on, Mandal is back. This time it’s the institutes of higher education — including the IITs, IIMs and AIIMS — that are the targets for 27 per cent OBC reservation.

The move is causing widespread disquiet.

Virkein Dhar is a Class XII student at Modern School, Barakhamba Road. She says, “Fifty per cent reservation is scary and unfair to general category students.” Anshul Chaturvedi, a BTech civil engineering student at IIT Delhi, says, “Fifty per cent reservation is a joke. It will undermine the status of the IITs.” Even the students who get into the IITS with this quota will have a hard time coping in class, he says.

Professor PV Indiresan, former director of IIT Madras, says 49.5 per cent reservation in the IITs can ultimately lead to their collapse. This is because any institution that takes students of lower ability has no option but reduce academic standards, he says. “Once reservation is imposed for admissions, it will logically follow for faculty selections too. In that case, why should world-class teachers join the IITs or IIMs when they know that they are liable to be superseded by less able teachers on caste grounds? Once able teachers stay away, quality will go down further,” says Indiresan.

He is opposed to caste-based reservations because “two injustices do not make justice”. He says: “First, quality primary education is denied to poor people irrespective of community. Then, the government tries to cover up this injustice by reservation, which is another injustice against those excluded.” Professor Arvind Sharma of McGill University, Canada, is the author of a book on ‘Reservation and Affirmative Action’. He also says that “the extensive system of reservations which has had to be introduced is the price we are paying for reneging on the constitutional promise of introducing free and compulsory education soon after Independence”. In the long run, this alone will ensure the equality of opportunity that could end the need for reservations, he says.

That’s what it’s about in the end, at least in theory: equality of opportunity. The aim of affirmative action is promoting social equality by giving a helping hand to those who have been historically discriminated against. However, there are questions about who these “historically discriminated against” people are, and whether caste-based reservation in jobs and institutions of higher education is the best form of affirmative action.

In a paper titled ‘Caste Based Reservations and the Issues of Ctizenship’, sociologist Dipankar Gupta writes: “The backward castes are agrarian communities who never suffered discrimination in villages like SCs did… . After Independence and the abolition of landlordism, this so-called caste of backwards rose in the rural economic and political hierarchy and many of them became substantial landowners… .

In village India, today they are politically the most strident castes and are well represented in many elected bodies as well as in the local administration.” So is it then right to have reservation for these people? Especially because the logic of such reservation raises an ethical dilemma. Why should a poor Brahmin or Bania student today suffer for the sins of their ancestors? “I think it is morally and ethically justified to temporarily favour certain groups if it can be demonstrated that they were discriminated against as such,” says Professor Sharma.

“But there are two impor tant points to be considered in the present context. One, whether the historically wronged group is a caste, class or some other entity like a gender-based group, should be defined historicallytheoretically. And and empirically and not assumed two, one should accord priority to those groups who have suffered more systematically and pervasively than others.” The Mandal Commission followed social, economic and educational criteria in deciding its list of back ward castes. However it based its report on the 1931 Census — data that was already half a centu ry out of date at the time the report was submitted to the Centre.

India has changed a lot since 1931. In fact, it has changed a lot since 1990.

Ajay Kumar is a travel agent in Delhi. In 1990, he was a student of the College of Vocational Studies who participated in the anti-Mandal protests. He was there that day when Rajiv Goswami set him self afire. “There are hardly any students coming out on the streets and protesting now,” he says. “We had reacted within 24-48 hours. Students know from our example that there is no use protesting.” Kumar was one of the 10 students who had tak en part in the Mandal Commission agitation and had nine cases registered against them. It took them 10 long years to be cleared.

This time, there have only been small demon strations and a few text messages. “The response has been muted so far,” says Devika Sethi, an MPhil student at JNU. She says, “Political parties here don’t know which horse to back as it does boil down to vote bank politics. If you protest, you lose votes in the constituency and are termed casteist.” Reservation should be based on economic crite ria, she says, and “though the most common argu ment opposing economic-status-based quota is that people can obtain low income certificates really easily, I’m sure it’s the same with getting a fake caste certificate”.

The market may well be the final arbiter.