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Academic untouchability?

If passed, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Reservation in Posts and Services) Bill 2008 will bar reservations at the faculty level for SCs, STs and OBCs in 47 premier institutions, including the IITs and IIMs . Why is there no opposition to this proposal to close the doors of our premier institutions to the historically oppressed, asks Subhash Gatade

The historic Jantar Mantar in the capital city of New Delhi, which has become a sanctioned abode of protest, was witness to a dharna or sit-in protest in the first week of February which, at first glance, was indistinguishable from the many such protests held at this venue on the same day. However, the protest was of great importance because it pertained to the entitlements of dalits, tribals and Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in higher education and the manner in which the government is pushing legislation that will do away with reservation at faculty level in institutions of “national importance”. Not surprisingly, the protest was a non-event for the media. And that raises the question of why the articulate sections of our society who yearn for justice, peace and progress, have joined the conspiracy of silence about this particular issue.

The return of “academic untouchability” with the due sanction of parliament and the further legitimacy it would provide to the ‘merit’ versus ‘quota’ debate needs to be questioned and challenged uncompromisingly.

Nature of the Bill

What do Professor Sukhdeo Thorat, the present chairperson of the University Grants Commission (UGC), Dr Mungekar who is a member of the Planning Commission, and Professor Ramdayal Munda, the ex-vice chancellor of Ranchi University, have in common? The obvious answer is that all of them happen to be masters in their respective fields of work. Less well known is the fact that if newly independent India had not instituted affirmative action programmes in the form of reservation for the socially oppressed sections at various levels, it would have been very difficult for this triumvirate to prove its mettle.

If the proposed Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Reservation in Posts and Services) Bill 2008, which was tabled and passed in the upper house, the Rajya Sabha, becomes law, then many such meritorious students coming from similar backgrounds would not be able to even think of occupying any important position on the faculties of eminent educational institutions. For the Bill talks of doing away with reservation at the faculty level for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and OBCs in institutions of “national importance”.

Close watchers of the reservation debate in our country will say that the proposal was very much in the air and there is nothing surprising about it. In fact the directors of the various Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) have been campaigning hard for the human resource development ministry to drop its proposal to reserve posts for SCs, STs and OBCs in faculty recruitment. Directors of the Indian Institutes of Managements (IIMs) have also expressed their resistance in no uncertain terms. The sole argument peddled by the directors of these prestigious institutions revolved around the supposed negative impact reservation would have on the quality of the faculty. The prime minister, during a visit to the IIT in Guwahati a few months ago, had dropped enough hints that the “concern” expressed by the various directors would be given sympathetic consideration.

It is difficult to comprehend the silence even among the self-professed champions of dalits, tribals and OBCs over this disturbing development. Is it a sign of an emergent consensus among all political parties? In the absence of any national uproar over this legislation, there is a strong possibility that the Bill, moved by the Department of Personnel and Training in the Rajya Sabha in December 2008, will be passed by the Lok Sabha. And the long cherished demand of the “institutes of national importance” that they be exempted from reservation in teaching posts will be fulfilled.

The 47 institutes that will be exempt from faculty reservation once the legislation gets parliamentary approval include the seven older IITs, the seven IIMs, Aligarh Muslim University, Allahabad University, and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). Also excluded from reservations are 19 National Institutes of Technology (NITs), the Jawaharlal Institute of Post Graduate Medical Education and Research in Pondicherry, Banaras Hindu University, Delhi University, the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, the Indian War Memorial in New Delhi and in West Bengal, Visva Bharati, the Victoria Memorial, National Library, and the Indian Museum.

Issues around reservation

Apart from closing the doors of these 47 institutions to the historically oppressed, this legislation will drive under the carpet many issues around reservation.

The non-filling of reserved seats and the rampant use of false caste certificates by non-dalits and non-tribals to snatch posts reserved for dalits and tribals, have emerged as key issues of the social movement. We have been witness to actions at the individual and collective level which have not only questioned the non-implementation of reservations but have also brought forth innumerable cases of phony dalits and fake tribals enjoying the fruits of reservation at various levels.

Vacancies in reserved posts is a serious issue. One has been witness to the strange phenomenon of reserved posts for class four jobs getting filled with “eligible candidates” but as one moves up the hierarchy one notices a reduction in filling reserved posts.

A case in point is Delhi University. In 2001, out of a total strength of 6,500 teachers, a minimum of 1,500 teachers should have been from this section of society. However, merely 100 teachers were from the reserved category at the time of the survey (which later shot up to 400). The Delhi School of Economics, which once had Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen on its faculty, fared no better; it had only one dalit teacher out of a sanctioned strength of four (1999).

The 1999-2000 report of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes provided details of the total number of posts and the number of people working in the reserved posts, which provides for 15% reservation for scheduled castes and 7.5% for scheduled tribes:

Professor: BHU 1/360 (one post filled of 360), Aligarh 0/233, JNU, 2/183, Delhi University 3/332, Jamia 0/80, Visva Bharati 1/148, Hyderabad Central University 1/72

Reader: BHU 1/396, Aligarh 0/385, JNU 3/100, Delhi University 2/197, Jamia 1/128, Visva Bharati 1/70, Hyderabad Central University 2/87

Lecturer: BHU 1/329, Aligarh 0/521, JNU, 11/70, Delhi University 9/140, Jamia 1/216, Visva Bharati 16/188, Hyderabad Central University 13/44

Even a cursory glance at the figures makes it clear that despite 50 years of the University Grants Commission, the more than 250 universities and innumerable colleges under it have not bothered to fill the 75,000 posts meant for scheduled castes. Moreover, it has turned a blind eye to the fact that people belonging to the upper castes, or other non-dalits, have occupied these positions.

There is general disapproval in varna society (that is a society based on hierarchy whose essence is purity and pollution and which has divine sanction as well. Dr Ambedkar rightly described it as a multi-storeyed structure where you are condemned to live and die in the same ‘storey’) about providing reservation to historically oppressed peoples. While in formal discussions they will praise the virtue of tolerance practised in their age-old civilisation, in practice they stick ruthlessly to the graded hierarchy preached by the lawgiver Manu.

Affirmative action in the US

Considering the fact that these practitioners of varnadharma often look to the United Sates of America as their model, it would be opportune to know how US society views its own affirmative action programme.

The affirmative action programme was launched in the US in the 1960s to provide equal opportunities to minorities, especially blacks. Its aim was to maximise the benefits of diversity in all levels of society, and to redress the disadvantages due to overt, institutional, and involuntary discrimination. It was not a gift by the US ruling classes to the blacks and other minorities, but was a fall-out of the civil rights movement led by the legendary Martin Luther King.

The year 2002 witnessed the biggest challenge in recent times to this policy when two white students who did not get admission to Michigan University went to the US Supreme Court to challenge the policy itself. They contended that they were refused admission because of the ‘discriminatory’ policy of affirmative action and therefore asked that it be scrapped. The case divided American society. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favour of continuing the policy. Interestingly, many corporate leaders, ranging from the mighty Microsoft to smaller ones, had clearly taken pro-affirmative action positions. For instance, 65 of these companies (boasting a collective revenue of well over a trillion dollars) jointly filed an amicus curiae (friends of the court) brief in the Supreme Court in 2003 in which they maintained that a racially and ethnically diverse student body is “vital” to maximising the potential of “this country's corporate and community leaders of the next half-century”.

What is “national importance”?

The debate around denial of entitlements to dalits, tribals and OBCs in higher education would be incomplete if two issues remain unaddressed.

First, one needs to expose the various mythologies around merit, which the varna society keeps peddling to buttress its case.

Second, it is important to take a hard look at the whole definition of institutions of “national importance” and show how people’s hard-earned money made available to these institutes by the public exchequer (at the cost of basic educational needs of the deprived sections) ends up creating doctors, engineers and other learned professionals, a majority (more than 50%) of whom have no qualms in immediately moving to greener pastures, especially the USA, for good. The Economist (September 26, 2002) cited an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) survey that found that over 80% of Indian students in the US planned to stay on after completing their studies. The survey also revealed that Indian students were more likely to remain in the US after higher studies than students from any other country.

The Media Studies Group, a Delhi-based group of media professionals and social activists studied 42 batches of students who had passed out of AIIMS since its inception in 1956. It looked at where these students worked or had worked. The findings, carried in The Telegraph (December 26, 2006), revealed that more than half the graduates worked abroad, mostly in the US. Of the 2,129 students who passed out in the first 42 batches of the MBBS programme at AIIMS from its inception in 1956 to 1997, the researchers could trace 1,477. Of them, 780, or 52.81% were working abroad.

A similar picture emerged in an article in Frontline (‘The IIT Story’ by Kanta Murali, February 1-14, 2003) pertaining to IITs. The article pointed out that a glaring failure of the IIT system is that it has been unable to attract scheduled caste/tribe and women students in a progressive way. Close to half the seats reserved for SCs and STs remain vacant and of those admitted, a significant proportion, perhaps up to 25%, is obliged to drop out. Moreover, close to half the annual undergraduate output of the seven IITs, that is anything between 1,500 and 2,000 young men and women, go abroad every year — overwhelmingly to the US. It is estimated that there are some 25,000 IIT alumni in the US.

Unfulfilled promises

When the Congress-led UPA government came to power five years ago, it made all sorts of pro-social justice noises to distinguish it from the earlier dispensation. It raised the question of providing reservation in the private sector and also talked about making the atrocity laws more stringent and even announced that it would make reservation a statutory right.

The proposed Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Reservation in Posts and Services) Bill 2008 is being projected as elevating the provisions of reservations to a statutory right and supposedly instilling a greater sense of confidence in members of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. However, as discussed earlier, the Bill is based on the unreasonable presumption that those belonging to the scheduled castes and tribes are incapable of handling higher posts. It thus bars them from making any claims for adequate representation in appointments to such posts.

One can see that the Bill lacks the constitutional spirit of providing equal opportunities to all citizens. It has the potential of undoing in one stroke what has been done so far for improving the representation of SCs and STs in service by successive governments and is certainly a retrograde and regressive piece of legislation.

(Subhash Gatade is a social activist, translator and writer whose writings appear regularly in Hindi and English publications and occasionally in Urdu publications. He edits a Hindi journal 'Sandhan')

InfoChange News & Features, February 2009