A question of merit

The upper castes must give the backward classes their rightful place
It is now time for reconciliation in society. Upper castes should warmly welcome backward caste brethren into the portals of higher education along with the SC and ST brethren who are already there. The Supreme Court judgment of historical significance of April 10 2008, upholding reservation for SC, ST and BC students in higher educational institutions, was inevitable and foreseeable. There was no chance for the writ petitions to succeed in view of the Constitutional mandate and Supreme Court precedents. Social justice measures, including caste reservations, are part of the ongoing process of democratisation of the highly inegalitarian, traditional caste-based Indian society. Efforts to stop it are doomed to Canute-like failure.
The prospects of upper caste students are protected since government has maintained unreserved seats in undiminished numbers. This has been misinterpreted by the media and columnists as the price paid for OBC reservation. OBC students have also accepted that reservation policy will be implemented over a period of three years because that would be the time needed to create the necessary infrastructural facilities. Unfortunately, this gesture of the OBC students had not been appreciated.
Upper caste students will have to learn the lesson of equitable and fair sharing of opportunities with historically deprived and disadvantaged categories. Upper caste youth should not any more allow themselves to be egged on by some self-seekers to fresh and baseless controversies, which will only keep hostilities unabated.
Identically worded writ petitions were filed in three High Courts even after the Supreme Court’s judgment of April 10 which had upheld reservations for OBC students in central educational institutions. The main argument in all the three was that a majority of Supreme Court judges had disentitled BC graduates to reservations in post-graduate institutions. The Kolkata High Court had issued a stay order on May 14 in a petition filed before it. The government moved with alacrity and within 48 hours the Supreme Court suspended the stay order as the basic premise of the writ petitions was a misinterpretation of its April 10 judgment. It was dealing not with individuals but one of the criteria or guidelines for identifying whether a particular caste/social class is socially and educationally backward or not.
The landmark nine-member Bench judgment in the Mandal case has ruled that it is for the identifying authority to adopt the appropriate approach and procedure for identification of BCs and the Court has no say in the matter. There are different parameters — social, educational and economic — on which each caste or community is compared with the state average or the level of advanced classes and on the basis of all of which a cumulative view is taken whether a particular caste/community is backward or not. In fact, whether a particular caste/ community has a percentage of graduates significantly below the state average have already been laid down by the National Commission for Backward Classes in its guidelines of 1994.
The upshot of the Supreme Court’s judgment is that all Central educational institutions, including post-graduate institutions and courses, do come within the ambit of reservation except those specifically excluded by the Act, and BC graduates are eligible for further reservation even up to doctoral level if they are not disentitled by any of the criteria laid down for socially advanced persons/sections (usually referred to as “creamy layer”).
Another sharp practice is the blatant flouting of reservation rules in appointment of teachers in IITs until now. The argument that the ministry had not given instructions to implement reservation is disingenuous. The Constitutional mandate and national policy are clear. No government or an educational institution has the option of rejecting or ignoring the Constitutional mandate.
India’s upper caste-dominated civil society, including professionals and media, should mount pressure on the IITs to comply with the Constitution in this regard and not allow old arguments to be raised based on the slogan of ‘merit in danger’. Meritorious teachers can be found among the SCs, STs and BCs if there is no subtle conspiracy to discredit them.
Is it not time to eschew all pettiness and for upper castes, BCs, SCs and STs to come together on the basis of equitable sharing of opportunities and move on to jointly pressure government to vastly increase quantity and enhance quality with equity — remember JP Naik’s elusive triangle of “Quantity, Quality and Equity” — which will increase the availability and opportunities for every category? Pettiness and intransigence will have a Kurukshetra-like fallout for India’s optimal economic advancement.
The writer is a former bureaucrat and honorary advisor to the HRD ministry on reservations. The views are his own
PS Krishnan
Saturday, July 19, 2008 23:09 IST


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