Elitist agenda

Published : Jun 16, 2006 00:00 IST

DELHI UNIVERSITY STUDENTS during an anti-reservation rally. - MANISH SWARUP

DELHI UNIVERSITY STUDENTS during an anti-reservation rally. - MANISH SWARUP

The agitation against the announcement of reservation for OBCs in higher educational institutions had ominous overtones.

"It is not only youth for equality; it is country for equality," proclaimed a banner at a rally organised by the Youth For Equality (YFE), a forum of anti-reservation agitationists, at the Ramlila grounds in New Delhi on May 27. On the face of it, none could object to the association of the youth with the country at large. However, one can hardly miss the distortion of value-neutral expressions such as "youth", "equality" and "country" by the elite spearheading the agitation. The assumption of the right to speak on behalf of the country in opposing a policy measure unanimously approved by Parliament has disturbing implications for the polity.

The strike by medical students brought life (especially the health services) almost to a standstill in much of northern and western India for over two weeks. In this context, a close look at the support received by the YFE may be in order.

On April 5, Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh told mediapersons that the government proposed to introduce 27 per cent reservation for Other Backward Classes in Central universities, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), the Central medical colleges, including the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), and a few other Centrally run elite institutions. Some students in the University College of Medical Sciences (UCMS), New Delhi, met at the boys' hostel to "ponder" over the situation and decided to create the YFE. They met their friends in the four other medical colleges of Delhi, who expressed similar feelings of "resentment" towards the reservation policy, thought they should do something about it, and had no hesitation about joining the YFE. Driven by "idealism", "passion", and "courage of youth", the YFE soon became almost a "nationwide movement". Soon, there were students of IITs, IIMs, and colleges of science, art, law, and engineering joining it.

The YFE's web-site said that Arjun Singh's announcement led to a combination of grief, distrust, anger and betrayal. Many young people, it said, were dismissive of the move and thought it was only another gimmick aimed at picking up votes. It claimed that parents, resident welfare associations and corporate bodies backed the agitation. Was that a hint at the source of its funding?

It seems clear that these young activists were driven more by emotions and a vague sense of resentment against the reservation policy in general, rather than by any specific grievance caused by the reservation for OBCs. The YFE's Charter of Demands, for instance, said that the organisation viewed reservation as a limited step to provide opportunities for the backward sections in education and employment. Clearly, the YFE did not realise that it was weakening its own case by saying this. There can be no dispute that reservation is only a limited step to provide opportunities for backward sections and that more such steps are doubtless required.

The YFE also demanded that government positions that are vacant because there are no eligible candidates from the reserved category should be opened for other eligible candidates immediately. This was entirely irrelevant to the present controversy, which was about reservation for OBCs, rather than for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and in educational institutions rather than government jobs.

The YFE proposed that a non-political, non-parliamentary commission with members from judicial, educational, scientific and social science backgrounds should be formed to devise a fool-proof and time-bound strategy to uplift and empower backward sections without interfering with the nation's overall development and well-being. There was no word on why the government's proposal was not "foolproof" and no substantiation of the claim that it was unlikely to uplift backward sections and that it would affect the nation's development and well-being.

One would expect a forum of students against reservation to nurture a grievance that their share in the educational pie would suffer, or even that "merit" would be compromised. Strangely, the YFE did not articulate any such grievance.

Contradicting its own stand that an independent commission should propose a time-bound strategy to uplift the backward sections, it questioned the government's motive in sticking to a time-frame for implementing reservation for OBCs from the 2007 academic year. An agitation with such an incoherent stance is unlikely to sustain itself.

The total absence of any political support was perhaps why the YFE lapped up Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advani's vacuous statement that "it was a legitimate concern that some sections of society which had lagged behind for centuries are specially promoted to bring them on a par with others, but there was a need to study the problem in a thorough manner".

The drawbacks notwithstanding, the YFE was aggressive. As the backing from the corporate sector became obvious, the elitist, neoliberal, pro-globalisation character of the movement became pronounced. The YFE proudly announced on its web-site the launching of its unit in the United States. At the Ramlila grounds rally, there was a huge presence of people from the upper middle class. The solitary attempt at self-immolation by a misguided poor youth outside the venue excited mediapersons. But the audience at the rally, including the leading speakers, remained largely unmoved. Speakers such as former IIT (Madras) Director P.V. Indiresan, former cricketer and Member of Parliament Navjot Singh Siddhu, former Secretary-General of the Lok Sabha Subash Kashyap and self-improvement teacher Shiv Khera exhorted the YFE to continue the agitation and blamed the political class, but made no attempt to explain the rationale of the movement.

As the agitation gathered momentum, two members of the government-appointed Knowledge Commission, its convener Pratap Bhanu Mehta and sociologist Andre Beteille, resigned on May 22in protest against the proposed quotas. Mehta found the decision to extend quotas for OBCs in Central institutions and the government's planned measures to defuse the tension steps in the wrong direction. He said he believed that these steps would be ineffective and would politicise education. He also felt these would be incompatible with the freedom and diversity of institutions. He wanted more effective mechanisms of choosing groups that need to be targeted for affirmative action, without suggesting any himself.

Among the government's promises to the agitating students was non-reduction of the total number of seats available in the medical institutions under the Central government for non-reserved categories, and creation of the necessary infrastructure by June 2007 when the reservation in the Central educational institutions would come into force. The government set up a 13-member Oversight Committee headed by Administrative Reforms Commission Chairman M. Veerappa Moily to monitor the implementation of reservation for OBCs in institutions of higher education and submit its report by August 31. Besides, it set up three separate groups to draw up modalities for implementing the decision in engineering and management institutions and Central universities and submit their reports before July 31.

The YFE expressed dissatisfaction over these measures, even though its new charter of demands released on May 31 clearly suggested the contrary. Broadly, its demands, including the proposed increase in the number of seats and the exclusion of the creamy layer, were in consonance with the measures announced by the government. Still, the YFE revealed a distrust of the government and Parliament and wanted a non-political commission to review the existing reservation policy. This "expert commission", to be headed by a retired Chief Justice or a retired Judge of the Supreme Court, would go into such basic questions as whether reservation on caste basis is in the interest of the country. The inclusion of many open-ended questions regarding the reservation policy in the proposed terms of reference for this expert commission suggests that the YFE would accept the policy if such a panel approved it.

The YFE has urged that the report of the proposed Commission should be tabled in Parliament and the MPs should discuss it thoroughly within a reasonable time of the finalisation of the report. Although the YFE has not spelt out whether Parliament could reject the report, it is obvious that it would not support such an option for Parliament.

An expansion in the number of seats in educational institutions would make sense in the normal circumstances, but not as a response to the anti-reservation agitation. As any new seats would also be subject to the reservation quota for OBCs, it is inexplicable how the government and the YFE see it as a solution to a perceived grievance.

There is an implicit bias in the anti-reservation agitation against the inclusion of those hitherto excluded from the education process and this bias gets its sustenance from the racial argument - expressed in private circles - that the members of the excluded group do not possess the requisite intelligence or aptitude for higher studies.

The YFE's month-long stir smacked of contempt for parliamentary democracy, and this is a frightening aspect, especially because it opposed a legislative measure backed by the collective will of Parliament, not just the majority of its members. This devaluation of parliamentary democracy in the context of the growing space for neoliberal policies raises the question whether the attack on reservation stems from the fact that the quota policy opens the door to deprived sections.

The resignation by two members of the Knowledge Commission - as economist Prabhat Patnaik pointed out during a talk at the Jawaharal Nehru University, New Delhi - underscores the elite's tendency to arrogate powers to decide on a policy of positive discrimination, rather than leave it to the state. Unlike the agitators against Mandal I (1990), the current agitators against Mandal II come from the middle class, which is part of the globalised elite. The support of the faculty of these elite institutions to the agitation shows that they value "institutional merit" - understood in terms of their global standing - more than the merit of individual candidates, which may not be compromised at all by the quota for the OBCs. A reluctance to read "institutional merit" in the sense of empathising with ordinary people characterises this blind opposition to OBC reservation.

The resistance of the IITs and the IIMs to the proposed quota has brought to the fore the question whether the Indian state should continue to subsidise these elite institutions, most of whose students seek a career abroad.

As the anti-reservation stir intensifies, bringing the democratic space under further strain, it is not just reservations for OBCs in educational institutions but their empowerment at large that seems to be at stake.

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