Southern record

Published : May 05, 2006 00:00 IST

South India has an enviable history of reservation in education.

THE controversy over the proposed Bill to introduce reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBC) in educational institutions has been characterised by a number of arguments against the proposal. Broadly, they have been that "reservation militates against merit and excellence" and that it harms "the interests of other communities, especially the economically weaker sections among the upper castes". There is also the fervent contention that the system of reservations does not actually help the weaker sections among the OBCs and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (S.C. and S.T.) since the benefits are cornered by the affluent among them. The sum total of the arguments is that reservations in institutions of higher, professional education such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) would be nothing short of a sociological disaster.

Ironically, this line of reasoning has been most vehemently advanced from regions that have no real or concrete exposure to reservation in the education sector. This includes the majority of North Indian States. In contrast, in the four South Indian States as well as in Maharashtra and Gujarat, which have had varying degrees of experience in this regard, the opposition is marginal or absolutely nil. The overwhelming opinion among people in these States, and even in "excellence-pursuing" academic circles, supports the principle and practice of reservation. More important, the system seems to have got so embedded in the education sector in almost all these States that the reaction is notably balanced.

All these States have had to go through periods of turbulence on this question before acquiring the balance. Social activists and vast sections of the academia in these States, therefore, refute the arguments put forward to oppose reservation. A quick appraisal conducted by Frontline correspondents in these States, in the wake of the recent controversy, reiterated this.

The concept of reservation in education for historically oppressed sections of society took roots in South India over a century ago, along with the freedom movement. That a number of initiatives associated with the freedom struggle in this region had their lineage in the social reform movement against caste discrimination. According to B.R.P. Bhaskar, a veteran journalist and social analyst, this social reform lineage is a significant factor that differentiates between regions and societies that understand and support the concept of reservation for social justice and oppose it.

This concept was first advanced by Tamil Nadu, where the social and political assertion of OBCs and other deprived sections led to the creation of the powerful Dravidian movement. Reservation in education and public service began in the Madras Presidency (much of it is now in Tamil Nadu) as early as 1831. The British Raj initiated this in response to petitions from various public groups. Over the next few decades the provisions of reservation were progressively redefined and modified, correcting anomalies and rationalising affirmative action.

The process continued after Independence too and successive governments under the leadership of Dravidian parties such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) introduced "rationalising" classifications like "economic scale" and Most Backward Castes (MBCs). The sum total of these measures was that reservation in the educational institutions in Tamil Nadu rose to 69 per cent, a figure commensurate with the total population of S.C.s, S.T.s, OBCs and MBCs in the State.

Tamil Nadu had 69 per cent reservation even before the Mandal Commission recommendations, promoting 27 per cent reservation for OBCs, were introduced at the national level. In this context, the Supreme Court came up with a stipulation seeking to limit reservation in educational institutions to 50 per cent. This order was a result of efforts by a number of anti-reservation organisations and individuals trying to bring down the reservation quota in Tamil Nadu. But the cumulative initiatives taken by various governments led by the Dravidian parties successfully resisted these counter-moves. The net result of all this is that since 1994, Tamil Nadu's 69 per cent reservation has the sanction of being part of the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution and hence is beyond judicial scrutiny. Equally important, the reservation system has the near-total support of the entire political spectrum of the State, barring a few fundamentalist Hindutva organisations.

The Tamil Nadu experience is reflected in the quota system in Karnataka and Kerala. Both these States had initiated reservations in the education sector for OBCs in the late 19th century or early 20th century, with periodic revisions and modifications. Reservation in education was initiated by the princely states of Travancore, Kochi and Mysore under the British Raj with widespread popular support. The tradition, naturally, helped imbibe schemes such as Mandal Commission recommendations as positive measures to advance social justice. According to Professor Ravivarma Kumar, former Chairman of the Karnataka State Commission for Backward Classes (KSCBC), "children in Karnataka are taught from the very beginning that reservation is very much part of the social justice system, so they learn to live with it".

In Andhra Pradesh as also in Maharashtra and Gujarat, the process started relatively late. In Andhra Pradesh, it was initiated in the 1970s while in Gujarat and Maharashtra, the schemes were formalised in the 1980s and 1990s.

At present, Karnataka has 50 per cent reservation - 32 per cent for OBCs and 18 per cent for S.C.s and S.T.s - in all institutes of higher learning. According to Ravivarma Kumar, from 1992 to 2002, over 25,000 OBC students were able to gain admission to professional colleges in Karnataka thanks to this. Kerala has approximately 50 per cent reservation for its OBC, S.C. and S.T. populations, while Andhra Pradesh has 49.5 per cent reservation.

A number of "well-known experiences" over the past few decades in these States challenge the contentions against reservation. The life and career of former Karnataka Chief Minister and Congress leader M. Veerappa Moily is evidence of how reservation helped a family from a socially marginalised community come up the ladder of society. Moily maintains that but for reservation he would not have come up in life. He recounted to Frontline how, during the first two years of his undergraduate course, he lagged behind and after that became the class topper. "We have to have an inclusive society. The IIMs can't become islands for the privileged. If this quota system is crude, let educationalists re-engineer and restructure it," he commented.

Well-known writer and social analyst Professor Kancha Ilaiah, who is a faculty member of the Political Science Department of Osmania University, and T. Devender Goud, former Andhra Pradesh Home Minister and a senior leader of the Telugu Desam Party, support Moily's views. Prof. Ilaiah said that but for reservation, OBC members would have been living in the medieval age. Goud pointed out: "It is because of reservation people like me could make a mark." The TDP leader added that in all the four south Indian States, various OBC communities have registered a steady rise in education and social status.

Commenting on the merit versus reservation debate, Dr. M. Anandakrishnan, Chairman, Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), pointed out that the assumption that reservation per se would lead to an erosion of excellence and quality was based on insufficient evidence. Anandakrishnan, who is a former Vice-Chancellor of Anna University, Chennai, said it was erroneous to argue that those who came under reservation were generally incompetent and could not cope with the level of performance expected in the IITs and the IIMs. He added that the reservation issue had been dealt with as an emotional one and was being unnecessarily politicised. "Reservation existed in many well-known universities in India, including those in Tamil Nadu such as Anna, Bharathidasan and Tiruchi universities and Osmania and Andhra universities in Andhra Pradesh. Yet the quality or prestige of these universities has not been vitiated," he said.

Anandakrishnan argued that it would be a fallacy to imagine that OBC communities cannot throw up sufficient number of bright students to fill up their quotas in institutions of higher education. He said: "Assuming that 5,000 students were to be admitted to the IITs every year and 27 per cent reservation was made for students belonging to OBCs, it would work out to 1,350 seats for the OBCs. The number of IIT aspirants from the OBC communities is about one lakh. You cannot say that out of this 1,00,000, there will not be 1,350 candidates competent enough to get into the IITs." The academician also pointed out that there is not much difference in the failure rates between the open category and the reserved category of students. "In fact, my experience as the Vice-Chancellor of Anna University showed that those who come under the reserved category tend to put an extra effort to perform better because they think that this is a rare opportunity for their upward social mobility and economic security," Anandakrishnan emphasised.

The MIDS Chairman is of the view that the urge to preserve brand-named educational institutions as ivory towers on the argument that their quality would be diluted by reservation is similar to the historical social anomaly that sought to ban temple entry for lower castes on the argument that temples would be desecrated if they were thrown open to them. No temple was desecrated after it was thrown open to them, he remarked.

Professor Anil K. Gupta, Chair Professor of Entrepreneurship, IIM-Ahmedabad, is of the view that the construct of merit in many of the merit versus intellect debates is in terms of proficiency in the English language. "This is an absolutely gratuitous term of reference, which fails to understand real merit," he said. Gupta added that in the context of this debate, one needs to take into consideration the fact that 60 to 70 per cent of those who win National Innovation Foundation Awards are school dropouts.

Prof. Ilaiah perceived the Merit versus Reservation argument as a kind of conspiracy by certain sections of the upper castes to make institutions such as the IITs and the IIMs the exclusive preserve of the English-knowing social elites. He also pointed out that, at the socio-political level, the South Indian States are credited with democracy that is more functional and economies that are better performing, despite the high level of reservation. "In a way, it is all because of reservation. After all, if the economy does well, whom do you sell your products to? It has to be to Dalits, OBCs and minorities. Only after the blacks were given equal opportunities did the American economy witness a boom. You have to make the deprived sections share power and become partners in progress," Prof. Illaiah said.

There is also nuanced criticism of some aspects of the system. According to Prof. G.K. Karanth, head of the Bangalore-based Centre for Study of Social Change and Development of the Institute for Social and Economic Change, there is no point in making available higher education without creating the path to get there: "The State governments by insisting that the medium of instruction should be in the mother tongue, confines the students to a local world. Later they are not able to communicate. They might have a degree but no employment." Karanth is of the view that reservation is benefiting only a few OBCs, especially the urban rich, the urban-educated and second-generation beneficiaries: "With people devising so many ways to earn money, the sense of social deprivation is not proportionate to the economic deprivation. We have been able to deny Public Distribution System benefits to those above the poverty line, but we have not been able to devise a foolproof method to remove creamy layer OBCs from the reservation list."

Professor Gupta emphasised the need to have compulsory universal primary education if measures such as reservation in institutions of higher education have to go beyond window-dressing. According to Achyut Yagnik, social activist and writer, there are many nomadic tribes, denotified tribes and even religious minorities in Gujarat who have problems in gaining access to even primary education. "There are 20 Muslim communities on the OBC list in Gujarat but they find it difficult to get even certificates from the bureaucracy," he pointed out.

Dr. P. Radhakrishnan, a Professor at the MIDS, is apprehensive that the relevance of the constitutional provisions on vital public issues such as reservation is in danger because of judicial delays and the tendency of politicians to manipulate constitutional provisions in some way or the other.

In spite of these concerns, the overall social atmosphere in States exposed to reservation is one of support. As B.R.P. Bhaskar points out, a number of historical, social and political factors have contributed to the general support in these States and the frenzied opposition in some other parts of the country.

"The social reform movement and the demands for reservation in these areas, especially in the southern States, had come up along with a general reform movement and the national liberation movement in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. It was a period of democratic aspirations and social churning, and one could see reform movements of all communities helping one another. The leaders of the Brahmin reform movement supported those who advocated reforms among OBCs, and both joined hands to lend a voice of solidarity to those who led a reform movement in the Muslim community," Bhaskar said. Unfortunately, that climate no longer exists, particularly in those areas where movements against caste discrimination and oppression did not develop along with the general reform movement, he lamented. In fact, he added, at present we do not seem to have the socio-economic conditions to discuss the reservation issue objectively owing to widespread unemployment. He noted: "The competition for jobs is intense and many think that reservation divests their opportunities, little realising the negative impact of historical social subjugation and oppression of the disadvantaged sections and the need to rectify such negative impact."

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