‘Reserve Vs Deserve'?

  Looking Back at the Anti-Reservation Agitation

  [In the last issue of Liberation, we looked at how the question of 27% reservation for OBCs ought to be a settled debate, and the key issue ought instead to be that of making education affordable and accessible to all. Now, we look at some of the contours of the anti-reservation agitation, and address some of the questions raised by it. ]

  Doctors in major hospitals, along with engineering students, were the mainstay of the agitation. The agitation, ‘managed' by various private agencies, and funded largely by major private hospitals, styled itself ‘Youth for Equality'. The entire campaign hinged on certain powerful elements of faulty ‘common sense'. The foundational myth of this campaign hinged on an inverted view of the caste system: that projected reservation as the prime instance of caste discrimination, that militates against ‘merit' and ‘equality'. According to this campaign, it is the politics of reservations that has kept caste artificially and anachronistically alive, and therefore the greatest youth movement for ‘equality' and an end to caste oppression is a movement against reservation. In the inverted worldview of the ‘Youth for Equality' campaign, there is no room for the admission that caste discrimination, prejudice and violence predate and therefore necessitate reservations.

The war cry of ‘merit' has tried to escape the tag of elitism by a claim that quotas based on ‘economic criteria' would be acceptable. But in doing so, the anti-reservationist campaign has actually exposed its own contradictions. After all, if quotas themselves go against merit, wouldn't a quota for the poor equally militate against merit?

There is more to the anti-reservation phenomenon that an upper caste backlash alone (though the anti-reservation platform has countenanced some ugly instances of such casteism, as discussed below). Students look around them and see a system which forces them to compete desperately for rapidly shrinking opportunities in education and jobs, and where their fate depends on the whims of marketable merit measured by a ‘cut-off' mark. But the answer to this crisis must lie in challenging and expanding that system, rather than internalising its values and blocking the entry of hitherto deprived sections. Students must realise – isn't the ‘cut-off mark', after all, quite arbitrary, and defined more by the number of seats available' than by the actual ability of the competing student? If there were more seats all around, wouldn't our notion of ‘merit' be more inclusive and flexible? Don't dozens of students every year commit suicide, pressurised by their inability to be ‘meritorious' enough? Isn't the entire structure of privatised and commercialised education, where exorbitant fees and capitation seats rule the roost, a reservation for the rich? Wouldn't it make more sense to join the students' movement to force the Government to stop making education a scarce saleable commodity reserved for a few, and make it a right for all instead?

Some of the anti-reservationists have declared that caste ought not to have a place in the modern nation, and have dropped their surnames as a gesture. A laudable sentiment – but one that ignores the fact that caste has a material, not a mental existence, and cannot be denied by an act of will power alone. If class is what allows the owners of wealth to exploit the labour of the vast majority of those who are condemned never to own wealth, caste is a phenomenon that has facilitated and ossified the exploitation of labour; it has blocked social mobility, by fixing a division of labour (with supposedly divine sanction) based on birth. And of course, this class society, which speaks highly of merit, does not allocate wealth and resources based on merit. Those who till the land may be best qualified to own it, those who toil to make grains grow, surely have the merit to eat the best of food; but these meritorious sections are landless, poorest, hungriest.

In fact, the ‘economic criteria' argument is quite misleading. It is a fact that the poor of all castes are uniformly deprived of education, and even quotas for the poor would be a very token solution to this issue: the real answer lies in nothing but equal access to an equitable level of schooling and higher education, at affordable cost. The question is, if the poor of all castes are deprived of education, why is it that the relatively well-off of all castes are not equally well-represented in higher education ? Why is it that upper castes who constitute one third of the population, dominate a disproportionate 2/3rds of the seats in higher education? If we don't subscribe to the racist notion of inborn ‘merit', then we must accept that social discrimination of caste is blocking access to higher education.

It is in this context that we must see the question of the need to keep the ‘creamy layer' within the OBCs from appropriating the benefits of quotas. Many point out that the very few among the poorer sections within the backward castes actually make it through school – and it is therefore the relatively well-off who are in a position to avail of the quotas in higher education. One suggestion can be that the 27% quota be filled by OBC who do not fall in the ‘creamy layer' category' but in the event of seats remaining vacant, they can be filled from within the creamy layer, rather than being turned into ‘general' seats.

In the face of the anti-reservation stir, especially from the corporate sector, the UPA Government seems all set to go-slow on implementing the proposal. It has shelved all plans for introducing reservations in private sector jobs, and has set up an Oversight Committee which is talking of a ‘phased or staggered' implementation of 27% reservations in higher education. This is nothing but an effort to delay and eventually scuttle the proposal, and must be firmly resisted.

At the same time, expansion in seats and an end to privatisation and commercialisation must be demanded. It is notable that recently, a Parliamentary Standing Committee submitted a proposal favouring private universities, “aggressive and proactive” efforts to woo FDI in higher education, and calling for the UGC to be replaced by an “independent accreditation agency with the participation of industry (on the lines of CRISIL, ICRA, and ISO)”! Such measures would make a mockery of social justice, and would effectively shrink the spaces of higher education for all. Reservations would then hold out a comforting myth of a share – but a shrinking share in a rapidly shrinking cake!

The dominant media's acted as a proactive ally of the anti-reservation agitation. This is hardly surprising, as a study be independent researchers has revealed that Hindu upper caste men, who constitute about 8 % of India's population, nevertheless command a disproportionate 71% share among the key decision makers of the national media (Survey of the Social Profile of the Key Decision Makers in the National Media, by Anil Chamaria, Jitendra Kumar, and Yogendra Yadav).

The Supreme Court too indicated to the anti-reservationists that it would articulate their questions to the Government. Further, the Supreme Court has also sought to muzzle all demonstrations of support for reservations – even human chains, processions and hungers strikes which do not disrupt any services – rather in the manner that it sought to muzzle demonstrations on the Clemenceau issue. A similar study of the social profile of the Indian judiciary would be bound to reveal the upper caste domination there too; studies have already shown the widespread gender discrimination prevalent among judges. Certainly, the time has come for affirmative action and reservation in the media and the judiciary!

Meanwhile, on the JNU campus, the anti-reservationist Youth for Equality is holding a Hunger Strike, while AISA is holding a Relay Hunger Strike for Social Justice for the past several weeks. On 12 June, the Youth for Equality in JNU released a leaflet that was offensively anti-dalit, inflammatory and racist in its content. It made the baseless claim that a banner of the YFE had been destroyed by pro-reservation students. What is worse, it claimed that the incident is proof of why dalit students should not be admitted to University; boasting that they would “tell the Supreme Court, ‘Look, what kind of people your reservation system has been recruiting'!” It used racial stereotyping to vilify and taunt the “kind of people” recruited by reservations (i.e., dalits), calling them “sub-standard groups of people”, “undeserving men and women”, “inferior mortals” who “do not deserve a seat in JNU or in any educational institution” but should rather “opt for the profession of stealing in which they are very smart and proficient, which may ultimately offer them something for their living”! AISA protested against this anti-dalit slur, taking the initiative of complaining to the SC/ST Commission. Such blatant prejudice against dalits in a premier university eloquently vindicate the need for reservations, and the need for a campaign to defend reservations against all elitist opposition, while mobilising the student community for expansion and democratisation of educational spaces.

– Kavita Krishnan