In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi wrote to the British viceroy, Lord Irwin, saying he would be compelled to break the unjust Salt Laws, under which the British government had a monopoly on salt, controlling both its production and distribution. The government ignored him and Gandhi responded with the Dandi March, which paved the way for India's Independence. When Gandhi met the viceroy, he took some duty-free salt from his shawl and said, with a smile that it was 'to remind us of the famous Boston Tea Party.'
The marches by the Youth for Equality are a challenge to a similarly unjust government's monopoly on education, in which it controls schools and admissions. They are about much than the 23 per cent quota that affects barely a few tens of thousand students. At the heart of the student revolt is the 93rd Amendment, which disallows Indians (excepting minorities) from opening schools and colleges without onerous government regulation.
The 93rd Constitution Amendment Bill is dangerous.
The Amendment has already made vast majority of Indians second class citizens in their own country, without recourse to redress. The right of citizens to form association for many purposes, including teaching or business, has been curtailed. Someone named Ram Kannan cannot open a school even with his own money, even on his own property, but if he were to change his name to Rob Keenen or Rahim Khan, he would have no interference from the government.
To me this is intolerable intrusion of the government into individual human rights. If I open a school, why should I have to tell the government bureaucrat what my religion is? And if my personal faith changes in the course of time will the conditions under which I am allowed to operate my business or school will change? Who will do the policing of my personal faith?
There have been earlier laws discriminating based on religion. Hitler had the dress code for the Jews. Aurangzeb instituted the jiziya tax in 1679, but this, as we all know, led ultimately to the collapse of the Mughal empire.
There are no signs that the government is willing to revisit the quota decision. The agitation by the students is likely to fail. Very soon there will be final examinations for the medical students, and the pressure on them to quit will increase.
The government did not have to go the quota route even if its purpose was social equity. It could have changed the admission system at the elite colleges to help increase the enrollment of students from poorly represented regions. One rule that has been used in the West is to guarantee admission to students from the top ten percent of the graduation class from any school in the state, no matter what the standardised test scores. The logic behind this is that children from disadvantaged families may not do well at tests, but if they are best in their own environment, they should be able to do well at college.
The Indian education system is a relic of the old socialist model that the government put in place in the 1950s. The government has neither invested sufficiently into its own schools; neither would it allow the private sector to invest freely. The drop out rate, by the end of high school, is an astonishing 94 per cent. Of those who get college degree, only around 15 percent have any skills of worth to an employer. In short, only 1 percent of the youth get effective education.
The IITs, IIMs, and AIIMS are often cited as shining lights of India's higher education system. Although it is much harder to get into these schools than the best schools in the West that does not mean that the education imparted there is of the highest class. As research universities, they do not figure in any world ranking. If the graduates of these institutes have done outstandingly well internationally, that is because they were outstanding to begin with.
It is amusing that the government should suddenly have thousands of crores of rupees ready to be invested in increasing enrollment in these institutes to offset the quotas. But this will only divert investment away from primary and secondary school education, where it is needed much more.
The charter of demands of the striking students is a reasonable document, and it asks for a non-political commission to explore all avenues for affirmative action. But even if this is done, the greater problem of the repeal of Amendment 93 will remain. The Boston Tea Party was held for a much lesser provocation!
External link: Youth for Equality: Charter of Demands