For about a month now, I have been following the quota controversy as closely as is humanely possible by a person residing in the U.S. My opinion over the issue, thereby, has undergone several cuts and chips over this period of time. Begining from an intense emotional backlash and ending in a much more rational interpretation of the situation, I think I am in a good enough position to comment over the issue now.
A few months back, the coalition Government of India headed by the Congress party introduced 27% reservations for OBCs (Other Backward Classes) in all the institutes of "national importance" (later extended to all institutes of higher education). This decision was promulgated by the HRD (Human Resource and Development) minister, Arjun Singh. Summing with the already existing 22.5% reservation for SC/ST, this decision took the total reserved seats to 49.5% (just .5% shy of the upper limit of 50% reservation set by the Supreme Court of India). This decision came just before the assembly elections which are supposed to be held in 5 states. Caste politics which has always been the most important vote garnering means in India seemed to be the reason behind this sudden decision. When enquired (and to some degree reprimanded) by the Election commission over an alleged breach of the model code of conduct (which prohibits parties from promulgating populist measures just before an election is due), Arjun Singh took refuge in the argument that the present decision was just a natural succession of the 93rd constitutional amendment passed in the winter of 2005 (which was unanimously passed in the Parliament). Although sound, the argument failed to explain the fact that the constitutional amendment was just an enabling act and unlike many other such acts which are languishing and begging for attention, what was the reason that this particular act had to be implemented at such a crucial time.
The Mandal Controversy
There is a very important reason behind the nationwide political support to the reservation issue. The Mandal Commission, constituted in 1980s to assess the composition of India's caste fiber among other factors, came up with a figure of 52% OBC. The commission in an effort for suggesting ways by which the oppressed majority of the Indian population could be brought in par with the upwardly mobile middle class supported the implementation of limited reservations. The commission however went on to suggest other steps like improving primary education, land reforms etc also. It was not until 1990 that the suggestions of the Mandal commission were given a thought. The then Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh decided to incorporate 22.5% SC/ST (the most oppressed classes) reservations in higher institutes neglecting all the other suggestions owing to their low political visibility. By doing so, he opened the pandora's box. The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) which has traditionally ridden on the upper caste votes vehemently opposed the move then. They were made to bite the dust as caste emerged as the latest dividing and polarizing factor in Indian politics. The move created huge uproar among the general public and culminated in the self immolation of several youths. Following this, V.P.Singh resigned as P.M and was succeded by P.V.Narasimha Rao. The caste division of politics got wider and uglier as national politics came to be dictated by caste leaders like Lalu, Mulayam, Mayawati and many more. Due to this BJP lost power in one of her stronghold states, Uttar Pradesh. Now that caste is very much the deciding factor in most of the constituencies across India and SC/ST+OBC votes range from a pessimistic estimate of 50% to an optimistic estimate of 80%, no political party dares to raise her head against the increase in reservations this time around.
The present agitations
The latest move angered the influential minority which comprises basically of the middle and the upper classes. Begining with strikes from the medical students of AIIMS in delhi, the protest as of today has engulfed the IMA (Indian Medical Association which has purview over other medical facilities across the country), the IITs along with many other engineering institutes, the chamber of commerce, the knowledge industry in general, the lawyers' association, trade unions, shops etc. Despite repeated pleas by the Govt. and the president (and once by the Supreme Court), the strike continues today, thus hampering critical services like medical etc. The quota move triggered the resignation of 2 of the 6 members of the knowledge commission (especially comprised by the Prime Minister to assess the education scenario of the country). The matter has now been taken up by the Supreme Court which has asked the central government about the rationale behind this decision in addition to asking the strikers to stop their protest.
Rationally speaking, I feel that in a highly heterogeneous society like India, reservations, if used judiciously, can serve as a strong means of achieving social equality. The fact that after 50 years, the need of reservation has only increased goes on to indicate that its implementation has been done from behind politically coloured glasses. The fact of the matter is that no political party (especially today's Congress) wants a rationally developed vote bank. The reason behind the widespread poverty and illiteracy in India is not any physical constraint but an underlying politican gain which stems from an impoverished majority. In such a scenario, political parties can garner votes over baser issues like caste and religion rather than more important topics like development and education. In this context, the present move is more the case of breaking the leg of a patient and providing him with walking sticks than striving to improve his condition and enabling him to stand on his feet. The whole issue stinks of political murkiness and I pretty much support the ensuing protests.
On the other hand, one has to keep in mind that SC/ST/OBC comprise atleast 50% (possibly much more) of the 1 billion Indians. These classes have traditionally been discriminated against and there is a genuine need to provide them with help and assistance. The help might come in the form of reservations but it should be based more on economic backwardness than the now abstract notion of caste backwardness. Moreover, any such move, which threatens to change the face of the country should be backed by more concrete numbers rather than the whims and fancies of one HRD minister.
Finally, over the apparently cold governmental response over the present strikes, I can only say that the middle class deserves such a treatment. The reason is the utter apathy which the middle class (sadly including me) displays over other issues of national importance (like the Coffin scam, Gujarat riots etc.). Now when it has suddenly woken up and started protesting, everything seems so selfish. How many of us really go and vote? If we are too busy to voice our opinions, the political parties would be more than happy to ignore our presence because as I already said, the oppurtunists called politicians thrive on an illiterate and divided India.