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Mandal Redux

By Ram Kelkar
April 10, 2006 16:55 IST
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Memories of the turmoil that followed the Mandal Commission were revived when the honorable minister for human resource development suggested that 49.5 per cent of the total seats in IITs, IIMs and central universities be reserved for OBCs, SCs and STs. The blogosphere and the media erupted with stories of students, alumni and faculty of the IITs and IIMs protesting, and expressing their strong opposition to the proposal.

As one would expect, the self appointed standard-bearers of the have-nots decried this as yet another example of the elitist IIT and IIM types protesting a tad too much about a well-deserved comeuppance. The anti-elitists may be well advised to remember the age-old dictum of caveat emptor. The potential impact of the 104th Constitution Amendment bill, which appended Clause 5 to Article 15 of the Constitution, goes beyond the IITs and IIMs, since it brings all private institutions under the purview of the 'Reservations Raj.'

This is not a matter of concern just for the IITs or IIMs, since it potentially impacts all educational institutions, whether public or private, and aided or unaided. Minority run institutions were exempted, since sauce for the goose is clearly not sauce for the gander in India, and woe betide the politician who dare suggest applying laws uniformly across divisions of language or religion.

Subhash Kak's prophetic column titled The 104th Constitution Amendment Bill is dangerous begins to sound very much like another memo famously ignored by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

HRD Minister Arjun Singh has subsequently denied announcing plans for reservations in educational institutions. He told the Election Commission that 'the quota system by itself is not a new announcement' and added that 'the percentage of quota is yet to be decided.' These comments, confusing as they are, are especially intriguing in the context of what he told the press earlier per published reports, that 'the Centre has taken a decision to implement reservation for OBCs as per the Mandal formula in all central educational institutions.'

India undoubtedly needs to do more to uplift the poor and backward classes, and to provide better opportunities for all her citizens. However, the risk in imposing arbitrary quotas on admissions to educational institutions is two fold. Any deterioration in the quality of Indian college graduates can put India's nascent economic growth story at risk. And any subsequent slowdown in the economy will only end up hurting the chances of economic upliftment for the people who are at the bottom of the economic ladder.

India has to focus on developing new and innovative ways of enhancing primary and secondary level education for the backward classes so that they can compete on an equal footing for merit-based admission to Indian universities, which should strive to become truly world-class. But trying to play catch up at the college level, and cramming down quotas on education institutions will help no one, and certainly not the very OBC students whose welfare is ostensibly being sought by the politicians.

The actual results for existing quotas are quite disheartening. The web site of one of the IITs points out that 'as the seats for the SC/ST students are often unfilled because adequate number of students do not qualify JEE with relaxed norms, a further relaxation of JEE norm is made to select students for a one year Preparatory Course.' Even after completing the Prep Course, many of these students are still unprepared for the maelstrom of intense competition and 'grading on a curve' that they get thrown into.

Unless the HRD ministry plans to mandate lowering of grading standards for those who do make it into the IITs and IIMs, the quotas may actually do a disservice to many a promising young SC/ST student who may have thrived in a less competitive institution.

Meanwhile, the demoralising impact on the psyche of the qualified individuals denied admission to these colleges is the other side of the coin. Matters can only get worse once the government starts imposing 49.5 per cent quotas not just on the IITs and IIMs but also on the many other unaided private institutions that have proliferated across the nation.

Speaking of quotas, it is interesting to note that there is no quota for OBCs in Parliament. And many of the same MPs who voted for the 104th Amendment have opposed having a 33 per cent quota for women in Parliament. Evidently, the champions of the 'Reservation Raj' have never showed any interest in applying the concept of quotas to their own institution.

Charity should begin at home, so it would only be appropriate that the government move an amendment to Article 334 of the Constitution to add OBC quotas to the 'reservation of seats for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes and the representation of Anglo-Indian community by nomination in the Lok Sabha and in the Legislative Assemblies of the States.'

Astute readers will have immediately noted a curious anomaly. Article 334 of the Constitution does not have any mention of Other Backward Classes (OBCs). In fact, former Chief Justice of India V N Khare, who presided over the key Pai and Islamic Academy cases, has pointed out that 'the Constitution doesn't define... OBC, it's a government interpretation.' The process for designating OBCs, including the deliciously defined 'creamy-layer' OBCs who are ineligible for reservations, was established following the Supreme Court's Sawhney decision in 1992.

It is important to note that the 104th Amendment was expressly passed to roll back the Inamdar ruling by the Supreme Court, which prohibited state-imposed quotas on unaided educational institutions. However, Chief Justice Khare has also noted that 'another 11 judge bench has to hear the challenge and will decide the validity of this amended provision.' In other words, the jury is still out on whether the 104th Amendment can withstand a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) challenge.

Meanwhile, it is fascinating to take a look at the history of amendments to the Indian Constitution relating to reservations. And it is a long history of amendments, which has already hit the century mark in under sixty years when the much older US Constitution has only managed to reach the paltry figure of twenty-seven.

A honorable Member of Parliament, speaking during the 1999 debate on the 79th Amendment in the XIII Lok Sabha, which extended reservations for SC/STs in the Lok Sabha and Legislative Assemblies for another ten years, said that '... if you want different societies to come together, I think it is time that we decide that the use of the word 'caste' ... be banned in this country.'

Just in case you thought that these are the words of a right-wing saffronista, think again. The Member of Parliament saying these thoughtful words was Prakash Y Ambedkar, grandson of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, Father of the Indian Constitution. He also added that '... Dr Ambedkar made a demand to the Government to kindly make a process where the reservation is done away because he knew that one day these reservations are going to become in itself a hindrance to development.'

In the same session of Parliament, the erudite lawyer and Minister of Law, Justice and Company Affairs Ram Jethmalani posited that 'there are some people who have the vanity to think that they are persons possessed of merit... I think... that merit itself is not a matter of excellence... I confess my inability to define 'merit'; merit cannot be defined except by your social attitudes.' Bravo, bravissimo!

George Orwell would surely be proud, and we finally came to understand that some of us are more equal in merit than others, because the Government of India says so. Readers may wish to Google for other pearls of wisdom from Mr Jethmalani's speech, but here are some more gems from the same speech... 'Reservations, my friends, are not a system of poverty alleviation; they are a system of compensation for historical wrongs... the present generation, the people of so-called merit... must learn that the present society will have to pay for the sins of our ancestors.'

In spite of the coy denials, HRD Minister Arjun Singh appears keen to establish and enforce a 49.5 per cent quota for OBCs in both public and private educational institutions. Alternatively, the honorable minister wishes to hint with plausible deniability that such a move is likely, until the assembly elections are over. The long and short of it appears to be that Prakash Ambedkar's 'I have a dream' vision of banning the very concept of 'caste' in India is likely to remain a dream in the face of the incessant efforts of politicians aimed at perpetuating divisions along caste lines to maintain their vote banks. Class warfare is clearly alive and well in India. And so is divide and rule.

Ram Kelkar is an alumnus of IIT Bombay. He is an investment professional at a financial firm in Chicago, USA. The views expressed herein are strictly his personal opinions and they do not represent the official positions of any institution.

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