Reservation - The Touchstone of Education in India

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The monsoon has set-in over the Indian peninsula, the rains are upon us and so is the admission season. Schools, Colleges, Universities are all gearing up to process hordes of applications from prospective students. These days, your merit counts less than your caste. Because, whether you like it or not, reservations are here to stay!! It is an interesting epoch in every student’s life and this is the time when you really care about reservations- either you like it or you hate it.

India’s caste-based religion system is an old and archaic form of stratification of society. This system which segregates Hindus into disjunct hierarchical factions based upon their karma (work) and dharma (duty) is generally accepted to be more than 3000 years old. This brings us to the very basic question- How did all this originate? What are the roots of this system?

Manusmriti, a book that records the discourse of Manu and widely touted as the most significant and cardinal book on Hindu law, acknowledges and justifies the cast system as the basis for maintaining order and regularity in the society. Who is Manu? Manu, according to Hindu tradition, is the first of Brahma’s sons - Brahma is the creator of the universe - and is considered to be the progenitor of human race. The caste system divides Hindus into four main categories viz. Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras. It is believed that the groups originated from Brahma, the Hindu God of creation.

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At the top of the hierarchy were the Brahmins who were mainly pedagogues and scholars and were believed to have come from Brahma's head. Then came the Kshatriyas, or the warriors and rulers, supposedly from his arms. The third slot went to the Vaishyas, or the traders, who were created from the stronghold of his thighs. At the bottom of the heap were the Shudras, who came from Brahma's feet and did all the menial jobs. Those who did not fit into any of these, were branded as outcast, acchhoot- the Dalits or the untouchables (considered outside of the Hindu caste system). These main casts were further subdivided into about 3000 castes and 25000 sub-castes. Historically, the system bestowed many privileges on the upper castes while sanctioning repression of the lower castes by the privileged groups. Indian constitution banned the discrimination on the basis of caste, and, in an retrospective attempt to correct historical injustices and provide a level playing field to the traditionally oppressed, the government promulgated quotas in government jobs and educational institutions for scheduled castes and tribes, the lowest in the caste hierarchy, in 1950. The Constitution laid down 15% and 7.5% of vacancies to government aided educational institutes and for jobs in the government/public sector, as reserved quota for the SC and ST candidates respectively for a period of five years, after which the situation was to be reviewed (Click to read further). Furthermore, in 1989, these quotas were extended towards the OBCs (Other Backward Classes).

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However, after introduction of these reservations, the legislators politicized it and used it as a means to influence vote bank to gain unjust stronghold on certain sects of the population and the ensuing governments and parliament blatantly extended the 5-year period without any free and fair revisions. As a result now, you have reservations much more than the original deemed percentages. So much so that the Supreme Court had to step in and pass a ruling that reservations could not exceed 50% (which would violate the Constitutional right to ‘equal access’). Reservation in most states is at 50%, but certain Indian states like Rajasthan have proposed a 68% reservation that includes a 14% reservation for forward castes in services and education. However, there are state laws that exceed this 50% limit and these are under litigation in the Supreme Court.

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The Mandal Commission (chairman B.P.Mandal) was established by the incumbent Janata party government in 1979 under Prime Minister Morarji Desai, with a mandate to identify the socially or educationally backward communities. The central motive of this task force was to evaluate the possibility of reservation and quotas to address caste discrimination. The commission adopted 11 criteria under social, educational and economic headings to identify OBCs. The findings estimated that 52% of total population belonged to OBC. One of the reasons justifying reservation was that, by increasing the representation of OBCs in Government services, it will grant them an immediate feeling of participation in the governance of this country. Also, when a backward class candidate becomes a Collector or a Superintendent of Police, the material benefits accruing from his position are limited to the members of his family only. However, the psychological spin off benefits of are tremendous; the entire community of that backward class candidate feels socially elevated. Furthermore, in a democratic nation, by not involving the 52% of backwards castes, it was seen in violation of the fundamental constitutional rights.

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Apprehensions about the quality of the outcome of the service by such reservations were also addressed. As per the Mandal commission, reservation for the backward castes was envisaged commensurate with their respective population. As an outcome, the SC & ST which constituted 22.5% of the country’s population were provided pro rata reservation of 22.5%. A further of 52% reservation for the OBC, but it contradicted the total quantum of reservation (50%) as per Constitution of India. Hence the OBC reservation effectively was (50-22.5=27.5) 27% as we come to terms with it these days. There was a controversy regarding the estimation of the population of backward castes, nevertheless it was approved by the Parliament. According to the Mandal commission, 52% of the Indians belong to OBC category, while according to National Sample Survey 1999-2000, this figure is only 36%. (Click to read Mandal Commission report).

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It is unfair to accord people special privileges on the basis of caste, even in order to redress traditional caste discrimination. Reservation only in higher institutions and jobs, without improving primary and secondary education, cannot solve this problem. A more pragmatic approach to this conundrum should be focussed upon uplifting and enrichment of the backward classes from the grass root level. There is no point in providing a seat in IIT to a reserved candidate scoring 40 marks in IIT JEE instead of a candidate who has scored 160 marks, just because the seats are reserved. It is an unfair disadvantage to those who deserve the seat through merit. It has also given rise to a disheartening trend - the so called brain drain- wherein under-graduates and graduates move to foreign universities for higher education wherein merit is the sole criteria being adjudged for admission.

The government in association with private entities, NGOs, educational bodies should formulate plans on a national scale to promote and nurture education. The reservation should be made only for the economically weaker sections of the society. For the rest, teaching aids, coaching, education at every level should be subsidised, encouraged and improved upon to truly uplift the backward castes. By offering reservation through relaxed entry criteria, we are fuelling inflation of moderate credentials as opposed to the promotion of merit based education system, which is the foundation of many progressive countries. Meritocracy should not be polluted by injecting relaxation of entry barriers, rather should be encouraged by offering financial aids to the underprivileged. A comprehensive scheme of Affirmative Action would be more beneficial than reservations for addressing concerns of social justice.

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In my opinion, Equality through reservation is a myth. It is akin to a cyclic function without boundary conditions. The reservations were implemented with a view to bridge the gap between the upper and lower castes; however, watering the seed of reservation has given rise to a forest of incongruity. And it isn’t getting any better in the future. The way out, the way forward – Up for debate!!

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