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The Rediff Special/Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi
The politics of reservation in education
January 03, 2006
It is the yummiest cake all politicians – irrespective of political stripes -- want a big pie of.
The Indian Parliament has passed the 104th Constitution Amendment Bill, providing reservations for the socially and educationally backward classes, besides the Scheduled Classes and Scheduled Tribes, in all private aided and unaided educational institutions.
The amendment is the government's attempt to offset the effect of the recent Supreme Court judgement that categorically said that in an unaided (which runs without government funding) educational institution -- whether run by non-minorities or minorities -- the government cannot implement its policy of reservation.
"This amendment is nothing short of a revolution because good education is every Indian family's dream," Indira Jaising, eminent Constitution expert, told rediff.com
"For the first time, unaided private institutions -- where better education is provided -- are now under the purview of the State. Private education institutions that are accruing huge profits and no responsibilities felt no obligation to Dalits. This is no longer the case," Jaisingh added.
The political mileage resulting from the move, which directly benefits more than 70 per cent of voters, is so huge that of the 381 members present in the Lok Sabha, 379 voted in favour of it.
The important amendment is an attempt by Congress to re-establish its lost credentials among tribals, Dalits and Other Backward Classes who have moved away from it since the emergence of regional parties and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The trouble is, as analyst Amulya Ganguli put it, when a political party eyes a vote bank, it forgets that others too are on the prowl.
The BJP can't stomach the huge chunk of the vote bank going Congress' way. It somewhat convincingly asked why minority-managed -- meaning Christian and Muslim -- institutions are not included in the amendment.
The BJP wants substantial reservation for socially and educationally backward castes in these institutions also. Minority institutions have staunchly resisted the move.
Although Article 30 of the Indian Constitution gives the right to minorities to establish and administer educational institutions, in practice they have become highly commercialised where poor or backward students can't even dream of getting education.
For example, in Andhra Pradesh alone 9,000 engineering seats in minority colleges were not filled up because they could not find students rich enough to pay for them.
The Bill is certainly going to upset upper-caste Hindus because it will shrink seats in the general category.
The BJP tried to capitalise on both these classes' sentiments by unsuccessfully moving an amendment to the Bill to get Muslim and Christian education institutions under the purview of the Bill. But the BJP move only got 110 votes out of the 382 members who voted.
The BJP's Ananth Kumar argued in Parliament that, 'I do not know why the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] government has not given this provision of reservation to the minority institutions. This Constitutional Amendment is an eyewash.
'After passing this lopsided Constitution (Amendment) Bill there would be no medical colleges, no engineering colleges, no IT institutions, no law institutions in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 in the name of non-minority institutions,' he argued.
'The UPA government is doing a draconian social injustice and creating a minority private institutions bazaar in the country. Education should not be nationalised and education should also be in the private domain.'
In reality, the minority-run institutions have not been above board.
During the debate, politicians cited an example that in Mumbai, more than 70 per cent of the majority-run institutions claim a minority status.
BJP leader Bal Apte argued in the Rajya Sabha that, 'The main problem is not of religious minorities, but of linguistic minorities. They hardly have the presence of their community in a particular region, but because their language is different, they establish an institution and claim a minority status and that really gives them an opportunity to earn money.'
All over India, minorities do run a few exceptionally dedicated institutions, helping the poor and bringing social justice, but most of them are profit-making machines. The cries to include minority institutions are raised loudly because the private institutions are better managed than the government-owned institutions.
In Karnataka, at least four government colleges do not have even 60 per cent of the required staff.
Nearly Rs 450 billion is spent for professional courses, including medical, dental and engineering, in India.
The hidden question is whether education is a business, trade or a national mission and an instrument to bring social justice.
According to R L Jalappa of the Congress, "Around 85,000 seats were vacant in the engineering stream during the year 2003-04 in India. In my state alone, 400 seats in dental colleges were not filled up. It was very difficult for us to fill up the seats in the dental as well as for the MBBS courses. Now, the government is proposing to bring about reservation. Who will foot the bill for the tuition fees?"
The political issue of reservation in educational institution is so important, fundamental and explosive that every time it comes up for debate politicians get into their act.
While passing the law, politicians asked for more by arguing why there is a need to have reservations in the judiciary and the bureaucracy. Out of about 100 secretary-level officers, not even one is a Scheduled Caste, they complained.
There are approximately 16 to 20 million Dalit Christians who have been denied reservation. Already, a powerful section of the government, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, are contemplating reservation in jobs in the private sector.
Many MPs cutting across party lines argued that there should be reservation for the economically backward. One MP said, "A person who migrates from one state to another should be provided reservation in that state also."
Like it happens in the case of most issues, opinions got vertically divided when the House passed the bill. It is now being argued that a new kind of reservation will pit Muslims and Christians against Dalits and tribals.
Dr Udit Raj, chairman, All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations, says, "I am happy that the Bill has been passed but we wanted to include the minority institutions. But the Congress is indulging in appeasement of minorities. There is a truth that the Congress party appeases minorities more than it really gives them something."
Maneka Gandhi, MP from Uttar Pradesh, said, 'The government is manufacturing fertile ground to sow, nurture and harvest the evils of separatism, keep people divided on religious grounds. The present attempt is not only short-sighted but antithetical to any hopes of narrowing India's religious divisions.
'By keeping religious segregations alive, the government is going against the very purpose of the inception of these institutions,' she added.
Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh, who moved the Bill, could not hide his glee when he replied to the BJP on why minority institutions cannot be included.
'Minority rights, as specified in Article 30, should, in all circumstances, be protected. This Article has a great historical necessity. Therefore, it cannot be deleted,' he said.
'In the light of the trauma of Partition, Article 30 was put into our Constitution as a Fundamental Right because this country, this republic, gave the assurances to these people that they will not be discriminated against and that they will be protected, and, therefore, it was better for them to stay where they were.'
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