INDIA DIARY BY COOMI KAPOOR
ONE OF the most emotive issues in free India yet again came to the fore, with the highest court in the land slamming reservations for backward castes in central educational institutions, including top engineering, management and medical colleges, for want of credible data about their actual numbers.
In a verdict which forced the Manmohan Singh Government on the back foot, the two-judge bench of Justice Arijit Pasayat and Justice Lokeshwar Singh Panta of the Supreme Court nixed the scheme which sought to reserve 27% of the seats in institutions of higher learning for members of the electorally-dominant Other Backward Castes (OBC).
The court rejected the argument that the lone caste-based census conducted by the British imperial government in India back in 1931 was an adequate basis for arriving at the percentage of OBCs in the population in 2007.
It however, did not reject the principle of caste-based reservations. But it insisted that the statistical foundation of reservations be credible and not based on mere conjecture and interpolations of ancient data.
“What may have been relevant in the 1931 census may have some relevance but cannot be a determinative factor, “ the court ruled.
Remarkably, Justice Pasayat, writing the judgment for the bench, drew inspiration from the landmark decision by the US Supreme Court in a case of affirmative action in admission to an institution of higher learning.
In the Grutter V. Bollinger case in 2003, the US court had ruled that race can be used in university admissions but cannot be the sole criterion for such admission as a matter of right.
Barbara Grutter, a white student, had challenged the University of Michigan Law School’s policy upon being denied admission even though African-Americans and other ethnic minorities with lower marks had been admitted.
She challenged the race-based admission policy since it violated the constitutional provision barring discrimination on grounds of race, among other factors.
The verdict in the Grutter case clearly informed the Indian Supreme Court’s decision last week. The apex US Court held that an institution can take race and ethnicity into account but admission policies should be “narrowly tailored” so as to harm as few people as possible.
Also, race could not be “the defining feature of the application for admission” though it could be a plus in conjunction with other desired qualifications necessary for all students regardless of race, ethnicity or other individual factors.
Thanks to the rejection of reservations in higher institutions by the Supreme Court, the admissions for the next academic year beginning in late July would take place under the old policy.
Though the government and opposition politicians spoke of finding ways to neutralise the impact of the court order, there was wide consensus that a more tenable basis for reservations in institutions of higher learning, including prestigious Indian Institutes of Management and Indian Institutes of Technology and various medical colleges, would be required.
Indeed, there was growing realisation that the apex court would not accept a reservation policy that failed to exclude from its ambit the “creamy layer.” A poor high-class Brahmin should be as deserving of priority in admission in educational institutions as a poor Dalit or OBC boy.
Conversely, a rich Dalit boy whose parents had had the benefit of reservations since the inception of the Constitution ought to be kept out of the reservations net in order to ensure that others more needy than him gained from the policy.
Last May when the Manmohan Singh Government announced its decision to grant a 27% quota for OBCs in centrally funded institutions of higher learning, there were countrywide protests.
Junior doctors at the capital’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences went on protest strikes and picketed main thoroughfares. The decision was challenged in the Supreme Court that, pending the decision, stayed the implementation of the 27% reservations.
The verdict last week underlined the concern of the highest court for a rational basis for such reservations.
The Constitution provides for 15% reservations in educational institutions, government jobs, etc for the scheduled castes (SC) and 7.5% for scheduled tribes (ST).
Notably, the founding fathers had provided for even the SC, ST reservations for only 10 years. Since then successive governments have extended these. It is unlikely that any government would have the political will to end the SC, ST reservations anytime in the foreseeable future.
Reservations for the OBCs, however, are relatively new. In the current form, the beleaguered government introduced these in 1990, when in an abortive bid to retain power it dusted off a 10-year-old report of the Mandal Commission to provide for 27% reservations for OBCs in government jobs.
The countrywide protests that followed, especially by urban youths, were quelled. There were a couple of well-publicised cases of self-immolations but to no avail. The Mandal reservations were implemented. The resulting fragmentation of the society on caste lines led to the rise of many OBC leaders.
The Supreme Court bar on 27% quota for OBCs in higher educational institutions seemed to have united the entire political class that did not want to alienate the numerically stronger OBC constituency, especially on the eve of a crucial election for a fresh Uttar Pradesh Assembly.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, whose Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam is a key ally of the ruling Congress Party in New Delhi, sought an immediate reversal of the court order through a constitutional amendment.
Yet, ordinary people uninfluenced by the demands of an increasingly caste-conscious electorate, fully endorsed the court verdict.
An SMS poll by a leading English-language newspaper found that 83% of respondents supported the court order.
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