With Aarakshan resurrecting the reservation ghost, we revisit the issue through a generation that was part of anti-quota protests and another which is feeling its impact
Aarakshan agitation, a blast from the past
On Friday, the Supreme Court lifted the ban on Aarakshan in Uttar Pradesh, but by then, Prakash Jha’s film had already resurrected the discrimination debate that shook the national consciousness two decades ago.
As the debate raged on once again about the Supreme Court judgment legitimising 27 % quota for other backward classes, for a generation, it meant revisiting painful memories of the protests.
The year was 1990. The first National Front government had been sworn in after Bofors Gate. LK Advani was about to set out on his Rath Yatra. Mohammed Azharuddin was the cricket captain. U2’s Where the Streets Have No Name was the youth anthem and the streets of Delhi were about to witness student protests of the kind not seen before.
Before the summer of ’90, for many urban youth, caste was an alien subject, recalls Maruti general manager
Kanwaljeet Singh, then studying at the Delhi School of Economics. “For the first time, we became sensitive to the fact that a section of society had been wronged for so many years. ”
Socialogist Shiv Viswanathan says the protests of 1990 have a distinct place in Indian history. “It was a battle between equality and affirmative action.”
On August 7, students at Mansarovar Hostel were discussing an announcement made by VP Singh. “The implementation of the Mandal Commission was decided without taking the youth into confidence,” says social worker Arbind Singh, then a student of Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics.
The next morning, Singh, a prominent face of the Anti Mandal Commission Forum, led a group of students from class-room to class-room, mobilising support.
At the Gwyer Hall hostel meanwhile, Suraj Yadav, grandson of former Bihar Chief Minister BP Mandal who scripted the original Mandal Commission report, could sense tension building between upper caste students and their ‘backward’ friends. “I was among the few people who spoke in support of the government,” says Yadav, 42, who now teaches history at Shraddhanand College.
Across the city, Sarojini Nagar, Netaji Nagar and Nauroji Nagar — a cluster of government colonies named after freedom fighters — became the hub of Delhi's anti-Mandal protests. As tensions rose, communications consultant Bhaskar Majumdar, 37, then a student of literature at Motilal Nehru College, saw a cop shoot a 15-year-old onlooker opposite his flat. “As children of government servants, before the opportunities that liberalisation brought with it, we believed jobs were shrinking for us.”
LESSONS FOR LIFEFuelled by the self-immolation bid by Rajeev Goswami, the fire of the anti-reservation movement was spreading to other cities. Still, outside the Capital, it did not have a distinct anti-Mandal tenor. Dhirendra Pratap Singh, 50, then a firebrand Students Federation of India leader, was fighting elections for president of the Allahabad University students union. "The elections, polarised on caste lines, paved the way for leaders such as Lalu and Shivraj Chauhan. It taught us you can’t do politics in north India without keeping the backwards in the centre."
Most of Maharashtra was insulated from the anti-Mandal protests, says Milind Kamble, chairman of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Pune. “I learnt not to rely on the government to grant us favours,” says Kamble.
But the protests also left an indelible mark on the minds of those involved. Social worker Suniti Wadhwa, 45, was then president of the Miranda House union. Does she feel the protesters were fighting for the wrong cause? “No, I can never favour reservations. It is a tool used by politicians to disintegrate society.”
Publisher S. Anand is not so sure. Then, he joined anti-Mandal protests as a student of Nizam College Hyderabad. Today, he has launched India’s first publishing house with an anti-caste perspective. “Born a Tamil-Brahmin, my mind had been conditioned to believe our entitlements were being taken away. ”
Singh, who later set up an NGO for informal workers, says the anti-Mandal movement was projected in a distorted light. But he has no regrets. The movement gave him lessons for life. “Leading a large agitation taught me how to keep political agendas at bay.”
Youth have reservations, still
An equally important change is the attitude of youth towards reservation. “It is not as black and white as it was in 1991,” says Vivek Kant Mishra, a student of Ambedkar Centre For Biomedical Research, former president of his college union. “It is more accommodating.”
Youngsters experiencing reservation at every step do not oppose it vehemently. But they do not support it in its entirety either. They feel it is a practical instrument to uplift the disadvantaged section, which is being misused politically.
Reservations should be reviewed periodically, says Mishra. “In theory, saying reservations will be reviewed periodically is one thing but putting it in practice is a different matter,” he says, referring to the quantum of reservation which has been adding up.
Although the number of castes in Other Backward Class has increased from 1,200 odd in pre-Independence days to almost 2,300 in 2006, doubts over whether the real disadvantaged class is benefiting from it, remain.
Amit Sharma, assistant professor at Centre for Social studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University puts it like this. “Reservations to the disadvantaged like SC/ST is not the issue. But with their political might, well-off OBCs are eating into disadvantaged pie,” referring to protests by Gujjars in Rajasthan.
To provide equal rights to every section of the society, reservation in educational institutes is crucial, is the popular view. “Measures like scholarships can not remove prejudices and discrimination,” says Anoop Kumar, a post-graduate in International Relations from JNU, who runs a helpline for distressed Dalit and Adivasi students. “Reservation is representation. It is not charity.”
Recently, Jamia Millia Islamia became the first central university to reserve 50 per cent seats for Muslim students. Jawed Aslam, a fine arts student at Jamia, puts forward an argument for other disadvantaged sections. He says, “If minorities have right to reserve seats in their institutions, why should disadvantaged sections be denied that?”
While many believe that reservation is the only practical solution in bringing the disadvantage sections to the fore, others disagree calling it discrimination against those who have not committed any wrong by scoring better. Says Esha Rahil, a media graduate from Mumbai, “There’s nothing positive about discrimination regardless of what higher purpose you may try to sweeten it with.”
Rahul Jha, a management graduate, could not qualify for MBBS owing to reservations, even after scoring better marks than reserved category students. But he still doesn’t resent the reservation system. “Reservation should be reviewed periodically so that the beneficiaries don't take things for granted.”
THE CREAMY LAYER
Even as most people support reservations for the disadvantaged class, it is reasonable to exclude those who are economically sound, says Sandeep Gera,
former president of the student union of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. “If someone deserves it on the basis of economic criteria, he should be given the benefit of reservation.”
There is a section of students that refuses to use reservations. When she applied for her Masters in English at Jamia Millia Islamia, Ima Kazmi did not opt for the Muslim quota. She contends that since she is from an economically well-off family, she doesn’t need a quota. “It is for the disadvantaged section of the society.”
The debate about reservation has been re-ignited with the release of Aarakshan. The perception of reservation among the modern Indian middle class may have changed a little, but the political situation hasn’t changed drastically. The movie has attracted protests in many parts of the country. Professor Sharma shrugs it off by saying, “Media is powerful now with a very deep reach. These are all publicity stunts.”
The reservation debate will go on, but what is needed is a more informed and mature understanding of the issue. The youth are leading the way, but they need the support of the political class.