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The Next Partition of India

By Subhash Kak
May 24, 2006 16:55 IST
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The die is cast. Manmohan Singh's government has announced that the legislation to reserve additional 27 per cent seats in higher educational institutions will be introduced in the monsoon session of Parliament. This is the beginning of India's second partition, which follows the one that took place 59 years ago. That one was geographical; this one will go right through every town and city.

Some are surprised at this decision that appears to create problems for the government needlessly. But there is a logic to this that goes back to the 93rd Constitutional Amendment, which was passed last December. At that time the Opposition, with cynical calculation, chose not to oppose a law that effectively limits autonomy and free association in colleges and universities, even those that do not receive public funding.

'We can't build the nation with a 19th century mindset'

Although citizens' taxes underwrite public colleges and universities, in the current dispensation the Indian government sits on top of the management like a colonial overlord. Teachers, students or the community are not consulted about the administration or future plans. The minister says, do this, have so many more students -- no matter what their preparation --- and the serfs, that is the professors, must deliver. It doesn't matter that the IITs are already short by 20 to 30 per cent in their teaching staff.

Indian liberals claim that such curtailment of freedom is necessary for social good. But liberal values contain elements that can endanger liberty and progress. Morality gets sacrificed at the altar of electoral politics.

Ironically, liberalism was originally a moral project that required the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Imperialist and high-priest of liberalism, John Stuart Mill, recognised that a free society required moral restraint. Indian liberalism, however, is literally and figuratively the rule by license, which recognises no obligation to others.

Fifteen years ago near financial bankruptcy compelled the Indian State to loosen License Raj in the economic field. Strangely, as the world transitions into a knowledge economy in which learning and training will have the highest value, the Indian State has come back with vengeance to expand License Raj in the field of education.

The middle class deserves what it is getting

Nothing is forever. The great centres of learning in India before independence -- like the universities in Allahabad, Calcutta, Madras, Delhi and Bombay that produced some of the world's leading scholars of the first half of the 20th century -- are pale shadows of their old selves. One would expect that the IITs, IIMs, and AIIMS would also soon slide into mediocrity.

Perhaps the Indian elite are not particularly worried about all this. They don't need excellent institutions in India as much as they did twenty years ago. The world has become a village, and the rich will adjust by sending their children to colleges overseas in Europe, America, Australia, or Singapore.

The idea of partition is like the word 'divorce' in a marriage. Once it is out of the mouth, it can set forces in motion that make it unstoppable. One would expect that since the UPA government has now made an official statement about the quota legislation, it will come to pass sooner or later. Let Us remember that a year before the first partition, Gandhi announced that the 'partition will have to be over his dead body.' The government assumes that the opponents of the new partition will, like Gandhi, eventually learn to live with it.

It is obvious that since the principle has been conceded, there will be an attempt to expand reservations in private companies and then to expand them further based on religion.

Meanwhile, students who are agitating against the reservations and call themselves Youth for Equality have announced that their strike will continue. But the powers of the government are so vast that it is hard to see how the students who seek equality and autonomy will win.

At Ground Zero of quota protests

It seems such an unequal struggle: the cold apparatus of the government on the one hand, and the passion of the students on the other. The students appear to echo the words of the Hindi poet, Ramdhari Singh Dinkar:

Man ki bandhi umange asahaaya jal rahi hain
Armaan aarazoo ki laashen nikal rahi hain
inake liye kahin se nirbheek tej laa de
pighale hue anala kaa inako amrit pilaa de

(Our mental aspirations are burning
desires and wishes have become dead
let the light of fearlessness be brought
let us drink the nectar of molten fire)

The students are already in; they are obviously fighting for principles and for morality.

The thought of something higher than personal gain brings to mind the writings of the British essayist-doctor Theodore Dalrymple, who has chronicled the contemporary sense of hopelessness in British youth in spite of material comforts at home. He claims that drugs, gratuitous sex, and breakdown of family are a consequence of the liberal State's focus on just the material and the internalisation of this value by the citizens. Dalrymple insists that one needs the transcendent also for meaning, and morality is part of the sphere of the transcendent.

'Middle class only bothers about itself'

Like their doctor-colleague in England, perhaps the agitating doctors in India are crying out for something much more than just the reservation of seats in colleges. They are fighting against the impending partitioning of India's soul.

The Reservation issue: Complete coverage

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Subhash Kak