The die is caste

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 April, 2008, 12:00am

In 1990, a New Delhi student Rajeev Goswami, 20, poured kerosene over his body and set himself ablaze in the street to protest about a new policy setting aside places in universities and colleges for India's lowest castes.

The idea behind the policy was to give low castes a helping hand to recover from centuries of oppression and disadvantage at the hands of the high castes. But Goswami and his fellow malcontents were angry that, given that a percentage of places were reserved for the low castes, it would become harder for privileged, high-caste students like themselves to gain admission to university.

Riots erupted, students fought pitched battles with police wielding water cannons and tear gas. The debate over affirmative action, known as 'reservations', became the most divisive and explosive issue in Indian society.

Goswami, a member of the elite Brahmin caste, survived his protest despite sustaining debilitating burns. His death four years ago attracted little notice.

Earlier this month, when the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the 27 per cent of places already kept aside in government-funded universities and colleges could be raised to nearly 50 per cent, the reaction was different. There was no public outrage and no attempts at self-immolation.

The reaction showed the distance that Indians have travelled on affirmative action in education.

It is now accepted that people who have been deprived of opportunities for millennia need help to catch up with more advantaged communities.

The court's historic verdict was in response to a petition filed by a group called Youth for Equality, who, like Goswami, opposed a 50 per cent quota as undermining a merit-based system. In 2006, when the 50 per cent proposal was first mooted, they launched a high-caste student agitation.

Junior doctors went on strike, closing hospitals across the country. The Supreme Court stepped in to consider the petition. Its ruling two weeks ago dismayed Youth for Equality.

'Students feel angry and betrayed. It goes against talent and merit. Fifty per cent reservation is just a cynical stunt by politicians who want the low-caste vote,' said Anirudh Lochan, founder of Youth for Equality. The court's verdict means that many more places will now be reserved for young Indians from the 'backward' sections of society who make up 27 per cent of India's 1 billion people.

Similar quotas exist in parliament, state assemblies and local government bodies, as well as government jobs. These quotas have helped low-caste Indians to pull themselves up in terms of income, social status and self-esteem.

'My father got a job in a government health department because of quotas. With that income, he was able to educate me and my brothers. Now we live in a town, in our own home, not in some segregated corner of our village with the pigs,' said Surinder Dadra, a 26-year-old computer engineer in Hoshiarpur, Punjab.

Having come down firmly on the side of expanding affirmative action, the Supreme Court also intervened in another contentious issue. For some years now, it has become apparent that decades of quotas have benefited primarily the better off sections of the low castes. The poorest among the low castes have been left out.

Observers have argued that while these more-advantaged groups may be low caste, they have risen socially and economically and therefore should no longer be eligible for affirmative action.

In the northern states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, for example, low-caste groups such as the Yadavs (land-owning cow herders) dominate state politics. This community has used quotas as a means to spread its patronage.

No caste wishes to lose any perks, but the judges categorically agreed that the more prosperous sections of the 'backward' castes must be excluded from the 50 per cent reservation policy.

Commentators and many ordinary Indians welcomed this distinction. Politicians, however, were silent. They have become accustomed to using reservations as a tool for winning votes. The standard promise of any politician at a rally is to promise to categorise yet another community as 'backward' so that they, too, will be entitled to enjoy quotas in government jobs and education. In a strange inversion of social snobbery, some middle-level communities in the caste hierarchy have even tried to get themselves categorised as 'backward' for the sake of quotas.

'The last thing politicians want to tell voters is 'sorry, but you are off the list as you are now too well off to quality for reservations'. That is not going to make them popular because people don't like perks being snatched away,' analyst Inder Malhotra said.

Bikram Khajur, 32, an engineering graduate from Bihar College of Engineering who belongs to the Yadav community in Bihar, said he was grateful for the reservation system.

'Getting a place at university made me the first graduate in the family. It took me two extra years to finish my degree because it was a struggle. Students from rich backgrounds who have grown up with books and knowledge have no idea how difficult it is for people like me. But I succeeded and it changed my life,' said Mr Khajur, who now works for a large engineering firm in New Delhi.

A few years ago, Mr Khajur's father sold a chunk of the family land in Bihar to a property developer and used the money to open a leather factory in Muzaffarpur.

The family is reasonably affluent, despite being low caste. Mr Khajur's younger brother, Nitesh, 17, who wants to study economics, will not be able to avail himself of reservations at college because the Supreme Court has said affluent low castes are no longer eligible.

Nitesh will have to compete with everyone else for a 'non-reserved' seat. 'I feel anxious,' he said. 'I'll be competing against the elite, the top students. But I realise that if I'm given a reserved seat, it's unfair to people at the bottom of society.'

The court's decision to exclude more affluent students such as Nitesh stems from the recognition that Indian society has changed beyond recognition in recent years. In the past, caste used to be the single most important determinant of a person's social and economic status. Brahmins, at the top of the pile, were better off in every way. Dalits (or 'untouchables') were the worst off. But now, as the judges observed in their ruling, Brahmins can be poor and some low castes can be prosperous. Even India's most famous low-caste leader, Mayawati Kumari, said recently that the criteria had to change.

'We need a new index of backwardness that takes into consideration not only caste, but also gender, economic conditions and other factors. If some Brahmins are poor, why should they be excluded from reservations,' said Ms Mayawati, who rules Uttar Pradesh.

Shiv Khera, a New Delhi management consultant who opposes reservations as 'atrocious, anti-national, unpatriotic', agrees. 'It's time we looked at other indicators of poverty such as income or the number of calories a person gets every day instead of merely caste to assess need,' he said.

Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan, part of the five-judge Supreme Court bench, said: 'Determination of backward class cannot be exclusively based on caste. Poverty, social backwardness and economic backwardness are all criteria as well.'

For many Indians, the whole debate about affirmative action in higher education is a distraction from key issues. Such policies would have been totally redundant if Indian policy-makers had opted instead for providing good primary and secondary education for India's low castes so that they could compete on equal terms for university education.

'That is real work, a grind, a task that will take decades of hard, grass-roots work. That's no good to politicians. They want quick fixes and gimmicks that will get them votes,' said Anjali Sachdeva, who works with low-caste children in Delhi's slums.

Most state schools attended by the low castes are shabby hovels where little education takes place. Teachers are usually absent, too busy giving private tuition to richer children to turn up.

'My seven-year-old daughter has been at school for two years and still can't write her name. I've taken her out now so that she can help her mother in the fields,' said Asit Kumar of Mundogari village in Haryana State, not far from the capital. 'We don't want any special favours, just a good education so that our children can escape the poverty we've seen. They are as bright as any rich child. They just need an opportunity.'

Equal opportunities are the crux of the controversy. One reason why some high-caste Hindus oppose reservations is that it's extraordinarily difficult, even with their privileged backgrounds, to get into a good college. Fewer than 1 per cent of the hundreds of thousands who apply to the top colleges every year are successful. India has 370 universities, seven Indian Institutes of Technology (the country's most prestigious engineering colleges), and 240 medical colleges for a nation of more than 1 billion.

'We need a rapid expansion in education. We need 1,500 universities instead of 370. Right now only 10 per cent of our children get a college education,' said Sam Pitroda, chairman of the National Knowledge Commission.

The government proposes building more colleges and universities so there are enough places for everyone, but whatever the final solution, caste shows no sign of vanishing into history any time soon.