The issue of caste-based reservations has been a controversial one in India. Part of the disillusionment can be attributed to the blatant electoral motives of the Congress party. Its objective to garner more votes at the next polls will fail since caste-based policies reward casteist, not national parties. However, the concept of reservations in itself is not flawed.
Some maintain that educational standards will decline with reservations. Others allege that state interference in the private sector's ability to hire and fire individuals will compromise the open market.
Let me reflect here. The UPA had widened the ambit of reservations to include private fee-levying educational institutions. It exempted minority religious schools from the new policy - a poll tactic to not alienate the minority religious vote. It then endeavored to extend reservations to Muslims but failed due to judicial intervention. It now plans to introduce legislation to make it mandatory for the private sector to hire a fixed proportion of the backward castes, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.
While I do not care for India's Prime Minister, the policy of reservations does have its merit. Education and employment standards might not necessarily be compromised. However certain caveats are in order.
India is a pluralist land with many languages, ethnic groups, caste configurations and religions. It is a county poised for economic and military take off. It is only correct that different caste groups share the best education opportunities available and the fruits of economic development. A policy of reservations would ensure greater representation of marginalized groups and would help integrate them into the national mainstream.
While not all "backward" castes are marginalized, they are under-represented in the modern urbanized economy. Integration through socialization, inter-marriage and close bonds would take place once they are fully represented in education and employment. This can only strengthen India, not weaken it.
Would this compromise the quality of education in the elite IITs and IIMs that have churned graduates only to lose them to the United States? I think not, provided rigorous admission and graduation standards are retained. Only the most qualified amongst the backward castes, the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes should get admission into the elite institutions of higher learning. And only the most qualified should be allowed to graduate. The admission and graduation standards can not be compromised. Quotas to ensure adequate representation of different caste groups would integrate India's myriad castes provided rigorous standards of admission and graduation are retained.
Some would argue that this would strengthen caste through university admissions and employment. But one can not deny that caste is already a social reality that strikes one in the face. Its existence can not be denied. Integration would only follow once different caste groups are represented in the mainstream. I provide the example of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
Reservations are in keeping with the Indic historical tradition. The Panchayat (five castes) or the basic structure of local government in ancient and medieval India was a forum where the five broad caste groups convened to jointly decide on village affairs. The five groups were the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras and the "Untouchables". All five had to jointly anoint the king upon his coronation.
This is not to deny the reservation pitfalls. The current UPA administration has arrogated the right to interfere in private university entrance fees. It excluded minority religious institutions once again in the most cynical manner. This is a dangerous precedent. Interference in the fee structure undermines private education.
The administration should instead set up an endowment to provide scholarships to India's neglected and marginalized. It needs to invest in grass-roots education to ensure the improved competitiveness of non-elite caste groups over time. Nehru failed to do so and it is high time to rectify this anomaly. Until then, caste-based reservations are needed to ensure national integration. India can only emerge stronger.
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