India’s top court on Thursday upheld an affirmative action program reserving more than a quarter of the seats at the country’s top government-funded schools for members of the lower castes.
The Supreme Court, however, ruled that lower-caste students belonging to financially well-off families should not be allowed to benefit from the program.
A complex hereditary system divides Hindus into castes, and those on the lower rungs of the ladder still face discrimination, even though the system was made illegal nearly six decades ago.
Last year, the government announced that 27 percent of seats at India’s prestigious state-run professional schools would be set aside for lower-caste students. That was in addition to 22.5 percent of seats already reserved for India‘s indigenous peoples and its dalits, or untouchables, who have no caste and have suffered centuries of severe, often violent discrimination.
That announcement was met by countrywide protests, mainly led by upper-caste students, and the program was stopped by a court panel until its legality could be reviewed.
The government hailed Thursday’s court ruling.
“This is a very historic judgment,” Human Resources Development Minister Arjun Singh said.
It was not immediately clear how soon the program would be implemented.
Lower-caste students from families with an annual income of more than $6,250 and children of top government officials and lawmakers would be excluded from the program, the court said.
Supporters of the policy say it is needed to right social and economic wrongs. They are also pushing for quotas at privately run schools, which the government is considering.
Critics argue that lower castes should be helped through better basic education, pointing out that many jobs and university spots already reserved for dalits remain empty.
Hindus make up about 84 percent of India’s 1.1 billion people. There are also caste-like divisions among Muslims, who account for 13 percent of India’s people, and Christians, who make up 2.4 percent.
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