Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Reservation Fence

Prejudice, not being founded on reason, cannot be removed by argument

- Samuel Johnson,
English Poet and Critic.

No truer could have been this quote. We were and still are, witness to it happening over and over again. And 2006 was no different either. The Indian Government and the Indian student fraternity made their stands on the opposite sides of the fence. The reservation fence.

Both were victims of a prejudiced bias. The Government thought the upper-castes formed the crux group of the protestors and that fact to be the sole reason behind the protests themselves. The academia, a motley group of supposedly the brightest brains in the country, thought the sole reason for the reservation bill was to cater to the OBC vote bank. Well, both sides had reason, but just about.

Let me set things in perspective by examining the positions of both sides.

The Government set the wheels of the controversy rolling in august 2006. Arjun singh, the HRD minister introduced The Central Educational Institutions Bill, 2006 on August 25, 2006 in the Lok Sabha. The bill sought 27% reservation for Other Backward Classes in Govt. Higher Educational Institutions, namely, AIIMS, IITs, IIMs, Central Universities and other like institutions aided or maintained by the Union Government. This meant, in totality, 49.5% of the seats of all such institutions were to be reserved for SCs, STs and OBCs (the 22.5% reservations have been in force since independence).

The Government was well within its rights, legally speaking, to table such a bill in Parliament. However, it was based on unreliable scientific data and borne out of the compulsions of coalition politics. Nevertheless, the Government also promised to increase intake at all the institutions over a period of three years. It said that this increase would ensure a just admission policy. One, that would enable the present intake strength to be maintained for the general category students.

Now, let me jump over to the other side.

There are very few world-renown institutes in India. Incidentally, a major fraction of these institutes are Central Educational Institutes like the IITs, IIMs, AIIMS, IISc., etc. For years, these institutes were taking in roughly a few thousand students, and the exact figures remained more or less, the same. Here is the glaring anomaly. These few thousand seats are fought for, by almost 10 lakh students all over the country, every year. That makes for a paltry intake ratio of 1:100. Students put in a whole lot of effort and get into these institutes on the basis of a few percentage points. And this is precisely what infuriates them - the fact that other students with poorer scores than theirs, get into these prestigious institutes on the basis of caste.

So, the students from the above mentioned institutes got on to the streets, taking on the lathis and the water-cannons, sounding war cries and anti-government chants. They came, they saw and they fought. The media pounced on each of their protests. Every sound-bite was diligently broad-casted on prime time. Well, one could safely presume they added fuel to the fire. Anyway, the protests only made the government's resolve stronger. And eventually, the bill was passed.

But it did not end there.

Litigations were filed in the Supreme Court. Hearings occurred on a regular basis. Benches were constituted. The judges were split in sounding their verdicts. And the war raged on, the latest missive being the Supreme Court's verdict, that upheld the quota regime and in the same breath, kicked the creamy layer out of the purview of the quota. This was claimed as victory by both sides. Well, was this?

In my opinion, irrespective of my stand on the issue, we lost. All of us. We lost, because we did not debate and find a solution to the problem. We lost, because we fought and had a solution imposed on us. When debate is not allowed to be instrumental in a democracy such as ours, it is society which loses in the end.
Why did the Government decide in such haste?
Why did the students take out protest marches, do all-night candle-light vigils, fight with the law enforcement agencies and undertake strikes at central institutes?
Why couldn't both the sides come to the table, work out issues in a civilized way and then draw up a framework which could have been acceptable to all?
What then, is the difference between a civilized society and an uncivilized one?
Perhaps, the sides involved could give us some answers. But will they?
And that alone, remains the biggest question today.

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