A Tale of Two Indias
India’s Supreme Court recently upheld a stay against a quota system in higher education for historically oppressed Indians. Upper- and lower-caste Indians are at odds over the ruling.
By Jonathan Sidhu
The latest battle between India’s increasingly successful haves and left-behind have-nots is playing out in the country’s educational system. This past May, the Indian Supreme Court upheld a stay against a quota system for low-caste and historically oppressed Indians, who are officially called Other Backward Classes.
The decision could halt quotas for central government-financed universities. These universities have reserved 27 percent of their seats for OBCs, affecting such elite institutes as the Indian Institutes of Management, whose acceptance rates are already well below .04 percent.
Upper-caste Indians almost universally oppose the quota system and support the court’s ruling, but lower-caste Indians and education activists call the decision a major blow to educational equality. For now, admission committees have been barred from using the quota-system for the 2007-2008 class admissions.
The term OBC isn’t a simple categorization, but it generally includes India’s most historically disenfranchised caste groups. And the term is often informally used to abbreviate “Other Backward Castes” in addition to “Other Backward Classes.”
“There is wide variation in their status,” says D. Parthasarathy, a professor of sociology at IIT Mumbai. “There are several castes among the OBCs who are well off, but the majority are categorized as very poor in economic terms. It depends on which part of the country they come from and what their relationship is to land-owning.”
Rekha Thakur, an OBC and a Mumbai-based political activist, explains that though OBCs had historically been artisans, they were allowed to do only manual work and were prevented from educating themselves. Historically, they were considered one wrung above “untouchables” — the lowest caste of Indians.
“They produced the wealth but had no right to the wealth,” she says. “They were always poor. They could not store their wealth.”
The term OBC has its roots in a 1979 central government commission survey that sought to identify India’s most “socially and economically backward” groups with specific regard to caste-based discrimination. The survey report, called the Mandal Commission, is the most recent by the central government, and used 1931 census information. Indians on both sides of the argument contest that the official figures — which peg OBCs at 52 percent of India’s population — are wildly inaccurate.
And the crux of the court’s argument against the quota-system seems to lie in the apparent weakness of official OBC estimates.
“If they don’t have data, whose fault is that?” asks Thakur. “Whose duty was it to collect this data?” Since the 1990s, countless OBC activists have asked the Supreme Court for a caste-based census, but their requests have been consistently denied.
“If they don’t have the population data, it’s not the OBCs’ fault,”
Although the Mandal Commission identified specific communities as OBCs, there appear to be competing definitions of “backwardness,” and central government criteria differ significantly from specific state-level policies.
“The way in which the OBCs have been defined, there has been a lot of politicking,” says Parthasarathy. To collect votes, he says politicians will often wrongly include certain caste-based communities as backward.
The standards for defining backwardness in modern India are incredibly unrealistic, argues Dr. Gunjan Sharma, a spokesperson for Youth for Equality, Mumbai, a leading group supporting the Supreme Court’s decision.
“For example, according to policies in place, if the percentage of women who work in a community is only 20 percent, that community is considered backward,” he says. “If you apply this criteria to the poshest parts of India, they too would be considered backward. Mumbai, Delhi or even New York would be considered backward.”
Such identifications by the central government will only strengthen the fetters of the caste system, says Sharma.
“The number of castes in India has tripled since independence, while not a single caste has been removed,” he says. “We do not want India to be divided along caste lines.”
The OBC quota debate is particularly contentious in light of India’s increasing global influence. The country’s gross domestic product is estimated to have increased by more than 9 percent during the 2005-2006 fiscal year. India is currently among the world’s fastest growing economies.
“The opportunity structures are quite different from what they were 20 years back,” says Parthasarathy. “For those who are educated, the opportunities are opening up more and more. But for those with little education, there are few new opportunities.”
Thakur agrees. “One should expect that the situation should change after independence. But the situation has not changed; disparities, in fact, have increased.”
Education among OBCs remains a central concern, Thakur says.
“In higher education, we also want our share. That is, we demand equal status,” she says. “All of us pay our taxes. Wealth comes from that. The IITs are run on these taxes, and we want equal share of these resources.”
Yet the Supreme Court decision caught many by surprise because it contradicts the principles of a previous ruling that upheld a quota system in central government jobs. “In both cases, this is for the central government,” Parthasarathy says. “Quotas exist at state levels; this is for central government jobs and education.”
Supporters of the stay often argue that students accepted by OBC quotas are significantly less qualified than their non-quota peers.
“This is reverse discrimination,” Sharma says. “Historical wrongs cannot be corrected by doing wrongs in this age. We are not against quotas, but we want every Indian to be treated as an Indian — and be given equal opportunity.”
According to Parthasarathy, studies have been largely inconclusive about the quality of quota-admitted students compared to their regular-admission peers.
“In our own studies there is hardly any difference in the performance of these students,” he says. This is because students who are accepted through quotas receive special targeted coaching. “It is only the initial lack because of their social background. Once they enter, they perform well,” he says.
Critics of quotas also argue that the system benefits only the wealthiest OBCs, sometimes referred to as the “creamy layer.”
“We have no hatred toward reservations for those that are actually underprivileged,” says Sharma. “But caste cannot be the only form; for example, what about the rural/urban divide? All these forms of lack of opportunity should be taken care of.”
A ruling in the 1990s limited OBCs with an annual family income of 300,000 Rupees (US $7,300) from benefiting from the education quota.
“But we think that the creamy layer are the leaders of the OBC community,” Thakur says.
“The wealthier ones are the ones who can complete secondary school,” agrees Parthasarathy. “If you keep out the creamy layer, these quota seats are not likely to be filled at all.”
Though the recent Supreme Court decision is only a stay on the quota system, it is perceived as a major blow against OBCs, as it is expected the decision will be caught in lengthy appeals and counter-appeals.
“The Supreme Court is our highest court. Even then, we see this as an unfair judgment,” says Thakur. “It is against OBCs, and they have favored the upper caste of India.”
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