The balance controversy raging in the country centering around the near unanimous amendment to the Constitution by the Indian Parliament providing for reservations to Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in all educational institutions except those defined as minority institutions by the Constitution must be seen in a larger context. This context is the eternal quest to achieve an equitable balance in the triangle between quantity, quality and equity in the Indian educational system. This, in itself, must also be seen in a still larger context of the effort to achieve social justice in independent India.
During the course of the debates in our Constituent Assembly when this Republican Constitution was drafted, the issues of social equity and social justice predominated. That these could not be satisfactorily resolved was evident when B. R. Ambedkar stated in the Assembly on November 25, 1949, the following:
“On 26th January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics, we will be recognising the principle of one man-one vote and one vote-one value. In our social and economic life, we shall by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man-one value.
“How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life?
“If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has laboriously built up.”
While Ambedkar’s warning is applicable to all spheres of our social existence, we confine ourselves here to discuss how to achieve this twin objective of social justice and social equity in Indian education. An elitist attitude that merit and social justice are incompatible has unfortunately dominated the discussions on Indian education. All civil societies have recognised the fact that education must be a right for every individual and cannot be reduced to the status of a commodity that can be bought and sold in accordance to the vagaries of the privileged sections.
It would be interesting to recall the origins — and history — of public education in modern civil society. Both in Britain and the United States of America the public education system was conceived, administered and financed by the State. Soon after American Independence in 1779, Thomas Jefferson with the far sightedness of the rising bourgeoisie moved the bill for “more general diffusion of knowledge”. Though the bill was defeated at that time the philosophy behind it was to influence the development of the US education system in later years. Jefferson argued for a three-tier education system preparing the young people for one of the two groups in society, “labouring and the learned”. The expenses for this entire system were to be borne solely from the State treasury. In the 1840s one Reverend George Washington Hosmer, who contested from Buffalo, USA, led a struggle for public education saying, “thousands among us have not dreamed of the effects of popular education; they have complained of its expensiveness, not foreseen that it will diminish vagrancy and pauperism and crime, but it will be an anti-dote to mobs; and prevent the necessity of a standing army to keep our own people in order. Every people may make their own choice, to pay teachers or recruiting sergeants, to support schools, or constables or watchmen.” The network of universal school education and publicly funded higher education that exists in all the developed countries today is the result of this accumulated experience that a healthy trained youth workforce is an asset for nation building and not a liability.
In independent India, to meet the above consideration as well as to redeem the aspirations of the people who, during the freedom struggle, sought an egalitarian social order, the newly formed government of Jawaharlal Nehru set-up, in 1948, a university education commission under the chairmanship of Dr S. Radhakrishnan. Its report speaks of reorganising higher education in the country to face the “great problem, national and social, the acquisition of economic independence, the increase of general prosperity, the attainment of an effective democracy overriding the distinctions of caste and creed, rich and poor, and a rise in the level of culture. For a quick and effective realisation of these aims, education is a powerful weapon if it is organised efficiently and in public interest. As we claim to be a civilized people, we must regard the higher education of the rising generation as one of our principle concerns”. The report further states, “many of these proposals will mean increased expenditure, but this increase, we are convinced, is an investment for the democratic future of a free people.” These views were reinforced by all subsequent education commissions, the Laxmanaswamy Mudaliar Secondary Education Commission of 1952, the DS Kothari Education Commission of 1964 etc.
In independent India, however, instead of moving towards providing education for all, education continued to remain a privilege of the few. The Kothari commission recommendation that at least 6 per cent of the GDP should be spent for education was never realised. The rates of illiteracy climbed steadily. Though in absolute numbers, India today may be producing more trained manpower than the whole European Union put together, in absolute numbers again, India leads the world of illiterates. Under these circumstances, the inherent social and economic inequalities in the country reinforced by the caste system found reflection, as a consequence, in accessing education. That the caste system perpetuates inequalities generally and in the sphere of access to education in particular, is validated by many empirical studies. Ashwini Deshpande (Economic and Political Weekly, June 17, 2006) has created a Caste Development Index (CDI). It shows using the data of National Family Health Survey (NFHS) that the CDI for the OBCs was less than the non SC/ST ‘others’ (ie upper castes) in all states of India. For the SC/STs, the CDI is much, much lower. Therefore, in order to achieve the objective of social equity and social justice in the Indian education system, it, thus, became inevitable that reservations be introduced.
The question of reservations in educational institutions arose in this background and, initially, a 22.5 per cent reservation for SC and ST categories were announced. This was accompanied by reservations in government employment. This was subsequently extended to reservations in government employment for the OBCs in 1990 and with the present Constitutional Amendment, it has been extended to educational institutions as well.
Strangely, when reservations in jobs for OBCs was announced in 1990, the outcry of opposition to it also came in the form of suggesting that reservations should first be made in education, so that these sections are equipped to fill the quota of reservations in jobs. The argument ran as follows: Give a man a fish and he is hungry again tomorrow; give him a rod and teach him how to fish and he is set up for life.
That the same sections today oppose reservations in education speaks volumes of their inherent upper-caste bias. This is further attested by the fact that currently, in an overwhelmingly large number of private educational institutions, there exists the system of capitation fee. What else is this, but a reservation for the rich!
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Sitaram Yechury is Member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). A strong voice of conscience, he is among the most influential of the younger leaders in all of Indian politics. He lives in Delhi