The issues beyond the surface

A Commentary on the Reservation issue

- Radhika Menon

To Reserve or not Reserve is hardly the question. For hidden beneath the veneer of these questions are disturbing and challenging issues, that the HRD Minister Arjun Singh, UPA or the always-excited prime time channels would rather not address.

But first things first: The current debate on Reservation is about Quotas for OBCs— accepted by the Government of India following the Supreme Court judgement of 1992 in the Mandal case—in Central Universities. It is curious or rather self explanatory that a Supreme Court that is so fond of slapping contempt charges on the poor and those fighting by its side, does not find the academics, the IT heads and the industrialists who have spoken against quotas, worthy of accusations of contempt. It is also yet to haul up a government, which is promising to concede to anti-reservationists and allows a settled matter to be raked up again as a question. The Court is yet to take action on the NDA government that did not get the OBC survey done in the 2001 Census. While most states in the country have implemented the Mandal suggestion of reservation for OBCs (the percentages varying according to State population of the group), the Central Government has delayed it by more than 14 years, even in announcing the same— that is until the spectre of UP Elections and Congress's desperation to regain a foothold got the better of it.

Along with announcement have come pleas for merit; flung by the medical, management and engineering colleges and self-professed liberals living in ivory towers. However, what is coming to the fore is the sheer lack of liberalism. Reservation, if anything is a prescription of a liberal society that likes to imagine that it is giving an equal opportunity to all without undertaking fundamental systemic changes—thus one finds what is known as Affirmative Action in US, positive discrimination in others and Reservation in India. In brief, a meritocratic society that would like talent to flourish and aspires for a ‘knowledge society' has to make sure for reasons of its own criteria of ‘efficiency' that talent is not restrained amongst certain castes or races. Thus it has to take action and ensure that some do not run a race while shackled by historical deprivation.

Reservation is hence a small measure for ensuring that socially and educationally backward groups that have been historically marginalised from education get a chance to break out of their traditional occupations and enter the paths of social mobility. In a society like ours where massacres follow struggles by dalit agrarian workers and their hands and legs are chopped off for asserting their rights, claims of the likes of “I didn't know of caste till Reservation” is ludicrous. Caste is an existing oppressive reality and all measures for annihilation of caste must be welcome. 59 years after Indian independence, the under representation of SCs-STs, in institutions of higher learning, engineering and medical colleges and across jobs (except scavenging), inspite of quota establishes the need to continue it. In the absence of radical measures that attack the very roots of dispossession, caste annihilation may be difficult and Reservation alone cannot offer paths of social or economic mobility to all. But it is indeed an important, even if small, measure that offers the beneficiaries the chance to move out of the caste rigidities, enter social mobility besides encouraging class instead of caste formation within these groups.

Inspite of the restricted agenda of Reservation, in the last few weeks the conservative backlash (sponsored by a sympathetic media) of the corporate sector shows the casteist face of Indian capitalism. It actually cares little for the merits and efficiencies of a liberal society and would rather choose from a restricted pool of talent than risk spending on widening the net. The corporate heroes screamed out their vehemence against Reservation and an apologetic (possibly sympathetic) Prime Minister became guilty at having even asked. In another instance, medical students took up brooms and swept streets, or mend shoes and polished them—to show the menial tasks they would have to take up, if further Reservation is introduced. The trouble is that sweeping, cleaning and mending shoes are traditional occupations of castes that stand to benefit from Reservation; and the act only showed the sheer disrespect and scorn that the elite of India have for labour and still worse their attitude towards those engaged in these occupations. Evidently, the small path up towards a merit based society instead of a caste based one is being resented by those who wear liberalism on their branded shirts.

Then there have been those who are arguing that SC/STs and OBCs should not be put on par with each other. In fact they are not being put on par, but an additional reservation is being made for OBC groups. The backward communities are not all politically dominant as the anti-reservationists portray. Substantial sections of the OBCs are in situations that are equivalent to the condition of SCs. The National Commission for Backwards mandated after the 1992 Supreme Court judgement has identified a number of groups, including Muslim OBCs who could stand to benefit. It also stipulates what is known as a creamy layer and in several states where Reservation for Backwards has been implemented, the non-creamy certificate is demanded for availing the benefits of Backward Reservation. Having said that, further refinement based on periodic assessment in all quotas are necessary to ensure that the base for reservation does not get restricted amongst the assertive communities of the reserved categories.

Today, it is not OBC Reservation alone has come under attack. Reservation in principle has itself come into question, particularly with vigorous dismissal of quotas in private sector by corporate heads and industry bodies. In the meantime a couple of academics, resigned in righteous huff from the National Knowledge Commission that had been set up for advising the Prime Minister on matters of “knowledge production”, because quotas were seen as “insidious poison” or because it was seen as “an inadequate measure”.

Educationists had asked from the government, without getting answers, what was the need for such a Commission, when fundamental suggestions made by Central Advisory Board of Education(CABE), the highest advisory body have been brushed aside on issues of elementary, secondary and Higher education. Definitely then, the ‘knowledge' being offered by this Commission is anticipated to be beyond what is being offered within structures of formal education in the country—and falls in a area that is susceptible towards further privatization of education.

To the corporate devotees seeking answers from US, Affirmative Action has been propped as the solution. The trouble is those who are today rooting for Affirmative Action as against Reservation, are those very people who have sat on committees and commissions (or been supporters of the same), where all semblance of equity in education have been dismantled. The government has often agreed with them and in fact promoted ideas against Common School System and education of equitable quality for the forward and the backward castes and for the rich and the poor. The school system in the country is a divided affair, in fact the UPA and the erstwhile NDA government have put money in creating second rate schools for the poor with under educated, poorly paid volunteers. These schools have worked towards segregating the SCs, STs and OBC children further and in reinforcing their under-privileged status. The government schools where a majority of these children study have also been severely neglected.

Important as it is to have Affirmative action or preferential treatment , it must be noted that it is not divorced from Reservations or preferential selection . The two work together and not necessarily separately. Thus counterpoising the two is merely a ploy to avoid the matter altogether. Interestingly the biases that work against Reservation, also works against Affirmative Action. In fact the latter has faced such severe backlash in the US that it has periodically come into question, at various stages of its implementation, be it the anti-segregation struggles in the schools or the recent debates in the ivy–league colleges. Having said that, it must be noted that the conditions of its Black citizens continue to be dismal after years of Affirmative Action, as in the case of SCs and STs after Reservation, but reasons for that must be sought within the systemic nature of these societies.

The policies of the earlier NDA and now the UPA government have impoverished and driven to suicide not only the agrarian community but also the artisans and landless communities; most, if not all, of whom come from the backward and scheduled castes. The rampant sale of natural resources has put on the edge the tribal groups. The privatisation of education has already ensured quotas for the rich, the NRIs and the capitation fee providers. Issues of merit have already taken a beating with the rich having pushed out meritorious poor. True economic criteria would be to ensure free education to all sections irrespective of their backgrounds. But the UPA government and the HRD Minister—who is enjoying his current role as the educational messiah of backwards—has actually pushed out the socially and educationally backward and the poor by inviting foreign investment for profit in Higher Education. The same government allowed the IIMs to raise their fees, supposedly for the sake of autonomy, and made it unreachable for the vast majority. It has refused to expand secondary education, which has been massively privatised and has created inferior tracks for SC, ST, OBC and girl children at elementary levels.

The declining number of free seats, insecurities over job prospects, poor health care and educational system have pushed the insecurities of students to the forefront. And as the crumbs are being fought for, the media creates an illusion of a war between ‘Reserve vs Deserve', implying that the beneficiaries and aspirants of reservation are stealing the place of the deserving. In the hue and cry over the minimal measure of reservation which is a tiny concession made by a reluctant State, the fundamental issue is being obscured: that all people regardless of accidents of birth and wealth deserve education and employment and the vast majority are being denied it.