The Bill to enable reservation in private unaided medical and engineering colleges in India has been deferred because the Bharatiya Janata Party wants minority institutions to be brought under its ambit.
This controversy arose after the Supreme Court held on August 12, 2005 that unaided minority and non-minority institutions had the absolute right to admit students of their choice in medicine, engineering and other professional courses without government interference.
If the BJP came to power, it was because of the agitation against the implementation of the Mandal Commission report. The anguish and heartburn that erupted among the dominant castes was channelised through the Ayodhya temple movement led by BJP leader L K Advani. It can be safely concluded that its main intention was to oppose reservations for backward castes than to build a temple at Ayodhya. Had it not been so, the BJP regime at the Centre would have done something in that direction during its long tenure in power.
The anomalies created by the Supreme Court judgment have given the BJP an opportunity to try and get mileage while asking for reservations in minority institutions. Though the BJP may claim to have pious intentions in asking for reservation for Dalits and backward castes, K S Sudershan, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh supremo, recently negated it when he said that reservation should go.
The intention is to pit the minorities against Dalits and backward castes, and vice versa, and to see that the bill meets the same fate as that of the Women's Reservation Bill. However, there is some force in the BJP stand asking for reservation in minority institutions.
The leaders of the minorities have to move cautiously now. Most of these institutions are held by Christians, followed by Muslims, Jains, and Sikhs. Muslims and Christians are demanding reservation in government jobs. At the same time Dalits and backward castes are asking for reservation in minority institutions. Article 30 of the Constitution protects minority institutions, but that is in regard to cultural and religious interests.
If the law is laid to allow participation by Dalits in minority institutions, that will not abrogate their Constitutional rights. The advantage minorities have will pave for a historical opportunity to bring Dalits and backward castes closer to them, which will eventually strengthen the bonds of secularism and communal harmony.
Minorities do not have much to lose, but in fact will gain a lot more. They will get a strong footing to ask for reservation in both government and private sector jobs.
A majority of Muslims are of Dalit stock and hence should not have any reservations about reservation. The head of the Syro-Malabar Church has appealed to Church schools to give preference to educating poor people. 'Our schools should not be seen as a means for job opportunities or amassing profit,' Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil of Ernakulam┬ľAngamaly wrote in his pastoral letter issued after the recent Church synod. This letter stresses the Church's role in bringing about social justice in education.
Private institutions owned by the majority will then be on a weaker footing in opposing the move. The misuse of Constitutional provisions -- in regard to minorities -- will also be put to an end. For instance, Dr Krishnaswamy of the Puthia Tamizhagam in Tamil Nadu told me that six medical colleges in the state are in the minority category but actually run by the majority.
Christians may not oppose this move to include Dalits and backward castes in the ambit of minority institutions but some Muslims may be irked by it. Most minority educational institutions are not with the Muslims but with the Christians. For instance, five of the nine private medical schools in Kerala belong to Christians. They also manage half the 14 self-financed engineering colleges in the state.
The common misconception is that providing opportunities to the poor and backward castes lowers educational standards, but it is not so when we examine the number one educational institution in the world -- Harvard. Harvard University is the Mecca of knowledge, with its medical school being the ultimate. It has a separate ethnic department which identifies women, Blacks and talent from ethnic groups.
Of the 8,402 medical educationalists at Harvard, there are 1,150 Blacks and ethnic minorities which comes to 13.68%; there are 2,747 women whose percentage is more than 32%. Has this diversity lowered standards? Or has this made Harvard top of the world? In June 2003, the United States Supreme Court decided in favour of a Black student who sought admission to Michigan University with lower marks than White students. When challenged later, the US Supreme Court upheld his admission.
Reservation is not going to solve fundamental problems, but it will definitely promote social harmony.
Thousands of years of discrimination cannot be repaired in a few decades. Hence, the argument that how long will reservations go on should not be the concern of merit-mongers. The nation is built not by a few but by all. Excellence and efficiency work in a congenial atmosphere. Where there is social tension, excellence and talent will not be allowed to manifest itself as we witness in Bihar and some backward regions.
Similarly, talent in a country is drained out because of a non-congenial atmosphere. Moreover, fetching good marks at school with the help of good equipment, facilities and teachers should not constitute the only definition of merit.
The Communist Party of India-Marxist, the CPI and other political parties are in favour of including minority institutions in the ambit of reservation. However, the Congress party is determined to introduce the bill without amending it -- that is, excluding minority institutions. There is truth that the Congress party appeases minorities more than it really gives them something.
If the bill meets the fate of the Women's Reservation Bill, the Congress appeases both the minorities as well as the majorities. If the bill is amended because of pressure from its allies, the Congress will take the plea that it tried hard but what could it do since the government needed to survive.
Congress leaders should not forget that their calculations will backfire because Dalits today are not the same as in the 1960s or 1970s. It is in the interest of the Congress party as well as the nation to bring minority institutions under the ambit of reservation.
Dr Udit Raj is National Chairman, All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations and Indian Justice Party