The caste cauldron simmered again this week as anti-quota protesters took to the streets of the national capital and state capitals. Medicos, engineers and students from various institutions were brutally beaten up, manhandled and water cannoned as they protested the Union Cabinet'sdecision to implement 27 per cent reservation in central-aided educational institutions. Hospital services were paralysed and many colleges and institutes of repute remained virtually closed as the spectre of another caste conflict stared the nation.
At a marathon meeting, marked by heated arguments, the Cabinet approved a bill to provide 27 per cent reservation for Other Backward Classes in higher educational institutes from the next academic year. However, facing wide-spread protests, resource crunch and lack of infrastructure, the Government decided to stagger the introduction from the next academic year.
The Bill seeks to implement quota in phases: 5 per cent in the first year, 10 per cent in the second year and 12 per cent in the third.
The decision to stagger the implementation of the quota faced stiff opposition from the DMK and the PMK, who wanted the 27 per cent in one go in aided and unaided institutions. Ironically, it was left to the self-proclaimed ?messiahs? of OBCs and SCs/STs Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan respectively to defend Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
They argued that the Bill reflected the Government'scommitment but a ?practical? approach, in tune with Veerappa Moily'supgrade plan, was the best course to avoid dilution of standards.
Singh and his friends also managed to confine the quota to aided institutions as against the demand of the southern allies to include unaided ones also. The HRD Ministry had initially proposed to cover aided as well as unaided institutions under the Bill. But the original Bill was subsequently bifurcated with the Cabinet approving the one for aided institutions and keeping the other for ?consultations?.
Apprehensions of a possible rebuff from the judiciary is understood to have deterred the Government from taking a decision on implementing the quota regime in unaided deemed universities.
The cabinet was also sharply divided over the ?creamy layer? issue with the backward leaders taking strong exception to the Law Ministry'sview that the economically well-off OBCs be excluded from the purview of reservations. The Ministry had referred to the Supreme Court'sverdict in the Indira Sawhney case, in which while upholding the OBC quota in central jobs, the apex court held that quota benefits should not be extended to the upper crust among the backwards.
The RJD chief argued that the verdict applied to only jobs while Telecom Minister Dayanidhi Maran and Health Minister S. Anbumani Ramadoss protested against differentiating on economic grounds. Only Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal, who had earlier too opposed Arjun Singh'smoves apparently due to his pre-dominantly upper caste Chandni Chowk constituency in Delhi, made a passive attempt against the creamy layer.
Continuing with its dubious track record of double standards, the CPI(M), which had earlier backed the exclusion of the creamy layer, chose to remain silent on the issue. Only two months ago had the party'spolitburo said that reservations should benefit only the poorer and needier sections of this community. ?For this, there has to be a socio-economic criterion which excludes the affluent and those already having access to jobs and higher education,? it had said.
The Prime Minister'sKnowledge Commission was also of the view that a criteria other than caste and other forms of deprivation should be taken into account.
The exclusion of the creamy layer would have ruled out wards of ministers, Governors, gazetted officials, engineers, successful lawyers and doctors, rich businessmen and those with huge landholdings from becoming quota beneficiaries in educational institutions.
But a disturbing question that came to the fore was why parties like DMK and PMK, which have successfully brought in and implemented quotas to a total extent of 69 per cent in their home state of Tamil Nadu, should bother about repeating the success in the rest of the country, that too with a stridency that even the other OBC friendly parties in the north find scary and hasty.
Has it got anything to do with their origins as backward class movements or are they merely seeking to win over their electorates by getting for them a sizeable chunk of jobs and seats in central institution?
While nobody including the BJP has questioned the validity of the quota system to enable the poorer and weaker sections overcome centuries-old deprivation and get their share of the cake, what is worrisome is the motive of the people behind the move. A Government that had no qualms about ordering a headcount of minorities in sacred institutions like the Army and judiciary can go to any extent in dividing the nation for the sake of votes. And the Cabinet decision does not appear to be an exception. The non-exclusion of the creamy layer and the non-inclusion of the economically backwards and unaided institutions only further strengthens this suspicion.
The differences within its ranks and the demonstrations outside also do not bode well for the opportunistic coalition, which is doggedly pursuing the British policy of ?divide-and-rule? even 60 years after they left the Indian shores.