Quota: Old debate for new generation

Patels’ demand has reignited passionate discussions in campuses over quota policy


Shishir Tripathi | September 18, 2015 | New Delhi

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At a makeshift tea stall, set up beside an array of photocopiers and bookshops at the ‘Patel Chest’ market – a stone’s throw away from the law faculty, Delhi university – three boys in their rugged jeans and t-shirts discuss the Patel quota agitation in Gujarat, while sipping their over brewed tea.

The discussion soon turns into a heated argument as each one of them put across their point – for or against the reservation system – passionately. Amit, one of them, lives in an adjoining residential settlement called Christian Colony, where students  mostly from economically weaker sections live in dingy 10x8 ft rooms. He asserts, “When you have led a comfortable life, you can easily reject the idea of affirmative action. But when you come from a small village in Bihar, with little resources to ensure good education, you know you have already lost the race. That is when the reservation policy helps in achieving your dreams.” The other two – Sandip and Piyush – are impatient to cut his argument short, and talk of all the ills of the quota system.

READ: Interview with Hardik Patel

In 1990, a section of students came out on the streets when the VP Singh  government had decided to implement the long-forgotten recommendations of the Mandal commission and grant 27 percent reservation to the other backward classes (OBCs) in jobs. Protests turned ugly when a young student of the Deshbandhu college of Delhi university (DU), Rajiv Goswami, tried to immolate himself, and many  others tried to follow him. [The decision could not be implemented immediately due to the fall of VP Singh government. However, in 1993, the decision was finally implemented under PV Narasimha Rao government].

In 2006, the DU again witnessed massive protests against the UPA government’s decision to extend the OBC quota to educational institutions. In the first week of May that year, more than 1,000 students from five premier medical colleges, DU and several schools staged nonviolent protests against reservation. The long march from the Maulana Azad medical college to Jantar Mantar was enough to tell the policymakers that a large section of students were against what they saw as ‘caste politics’. The protest, however, failed, as the supreme court in April 2008 upheld the government decision.

In recent years, we have witnessed agitations not against quota but asking for quota. In May 2008, Gujjars in Rajasthan sought scheduled tribe (ST) status, instead of the OBC tag that they have, and jammed national highways and railways routes for weeks. Their agitation spread to several  states, even as the Jats started protests seeking the OBC status in 2013-14. With an eye on elections the UPA government immediately granted their wish, only to be negated by the supreme court in March this year.

Beginnings of backwardness, writes Gyanant Singh

The latest in this race for backwardness are the Patels of Gujarat. Since July, the community led by 22-year-old Hardik Patel has been holding large rallies to press their demand. Though this agitation has so far been limited to a state, it has rekindled old debates in the capital’s campuses. While the vigour of 2006 is lacking, groups like the Youth for Equality (YFE) have become active once again.

YFE was “galvanized into existence in April 2006 in opposing the politically motivated divisive OBC reservation policy of the UPA government”. The organisation says on its website that, “The month-long sporadic protests that continued thereafter united citizens across the nation in a forceful voice of reason. The voice reverberated from the streets to inside the parliament and found support even in the highest judicial body of the country”.

YFE president Dr Kaushal Kant Mishra, who spearheaded the movement in 2006, says, “First of all, there are a few standard principles which we adhere to. If there is an option between reservation and no reservation, we always want that there should be no reservation. I feel that in the current situation our society is becoming habituated and addicted to reservation. I, as a doctor, feel that reservation is like a ventilator. After a point of time, the patient cannot survive without it. If you remove him from it, he will die. It is the same with reservation.”

Tending to his patients at an upscale private hospital in central Delhi, Mishra explains further with another analogy: “You saw that I told my patient to try and walk without the walker, just with the help of a stick. I also told her to gradually start walking without any support. You cannot depend on external support throughout your life.”

He adds, “We feel that if reservation has to be given, it should be time-bound and the identification of the beneficiary should not be based on caste. We proposed a ‘social deprivation index’; it is a multi-dimensional tool to identify the people who really need some kind of affirmative action.”

Stressing that any stand against reservation should not be guided by prejudices, Mishra adds, “See, I don’t have any personal issue with reservation. I have never faced any disadvantage because of that. I was the medical entrance exam topper and never suffered because of the reservation policy. My opposition to it is because of the way reservation has been used. Every caste wants the benefit of reservation. Our society is becoming fragmented on the basis of caste.”

While some see it as a larger socio-political issue, many feel that it is pure vote-bank politics. “What is happening in Gujarat is a reality check. It is happening because in the last 60 years, our polity has given reservation irrationally and it has been thrown like an electoral carrot to create favourable vote banks among particular castes that do not deserve that,” says Jiten Jain, a software engineer who heads Indian Infosec Consortium and is the general secretary of the YFE.

He adds, “Because of this irrational distribution of the reservation benefits, now the upper caste is facing reverse discrimination. Every single community who has been politically and socially dominant is demanding reservation. A mad race to become backward has been unleashed. Maybe it is time now to look beyond caste and rationalise it before this reservation war turns into a civil war.”

The reservation debate is creating a divide among students. As there is a section who feel it is required to rectify the historical injustice, others feels that it is the biggest demotivation in a merit-based society.

Aarushi Verma, a student of DU’s law faculty, says, “Reservation must be done on the basis of economic status. Circumstances of the birth and the caste you are born into should not determine whether you deserve reservation. There are many people who fake their creamy layer status as OBCs (non-creamy) and take undeserved reservation. Moreover, there are many well off STs and SCs who have been taking undue advantage of the reservation since generations. These people take the seats of not so financially strong general category students who also did not have access to decent schooling and have studied in government schools or sub-standard private schools which in most of the cases lack basic facilities.”

She adds, “Instead of focusing on seats for reservation, the government should focus more on providing a more accountable and standard quality education that is at par with the international school systems common for all students in India, so that all the people, even rich, send their children to government schools. This will lead to a uniform quality of education and need for reservation based on caste and backwardness would become obsolete.”

However, Meghna (name changed), a law graduate, says, “I got admission through reservation. I am often embarrassed to tell people that I am from an ST category as I feel SCs and STs are still degraded by the upper castes. Hence I feel reservation is important. It is not only about economic emancipation alone. Reservation has helped us to get in respectable positions which elevate our social status in society.”

And then there are those who, while acknowledging the historical injustices inflicted on castes and accepting reservation as a means to rectify it, feel that the policy of reservation needs to be rationalised. Suraj Suryavanshi, an MBBS doctor, who teaches civil service aspirants, says, “Since a few sections have been negatively discriminated for centuries, I genuinely feel there is a strong case for positive discrimination for those sections which have been left out. Now an important question we face is what constitutes positive discrimination? And for how long such positive discrimination should be continued? Reservation or quota can be considered as one among many strategies of positive discrimination. Reservation directly provides a chance to a person to get admission or job with ‘less merit’ as compared to general category.”

He adds, “Now this less merit selection creates a lot of resentment among people from general category who feel the heat of quota in the form of reverse discrimination as they are being denied job/admission even after securing good marks. This, I suppose, is unintended negative consequence of the prevailing quota system. This forces us to think for a better or an alternative system of positive discrimination which is not only good in its intent but also in action and practice. For me, any affirmative action which empowers the weaker section and gives them equal opportunity is a better alternative over the one which assumes the weakness of a section of society and so provides compensation to them based on less merit.”

Then there are many who believe that reservation has been used by vested interests. They point out that in spite of so many years of affirmative action the backward class still lags behind, making reservation a necessary evil. Ajay Kumar, a political science student of DU, says, “Reservation is one of the essential ways to bring people, who have been historically deprived, out of oppression and misery. It is not only about raising economic status of historically backward class but also about raising their social status. Even after the reservation policy, we see that many posts reserved for SCs/STs remain vacant because there are not enough eligible people to apply for it, as they lack the required education. SCs/STs constitute two-third of the population but are disproportionately represented in government jobs.”

He adds, “Atrocities against dalits continue unabated. Just because there are some irrational demands from particular quarters, we cannot do away with reservation. However, at the same time, I agree that we need to rethink about the criteria to identify the beneficiaries. It should not be such that it divides our society.”

Much water has flown down the Yamuna since the two agitations against reservations rocked the country - almost 25 years after Goswami tried to immolate self and nearly a decade after the 2006 protests. Those who participated in those agitations have moved on in life, and most in today’s generation have little clue of the past debates. However, the latest agitation by the Patels has once again revived the debate on reservation.


(The story appears in the September 16-30, 2015 issue)



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