By Mohd. Naushad Khan

The debate on OBC quota in particular and OBC as a political force in general is once again back in public domain simultaneously. It is on two-folds: one, on the recent political developments of Uttar Pradesh in the run-up to the assembly elections, and the other, on the constitutional validity of reservation for OBC (Other Backward Classes) candidates in National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET).

The demand for quota for a discriminated class will continue to hit the headlines as long as there is widespread inequality and discrimination of the ground. Very recently, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of reservation for OBC candidates in NEET All India Quota seats for undergraduate and postgraduate medical and dental courses, while observing that quota is not at odds with merit in open competitive examinations.

“If open examinations present equality of opportunity to candidates to compete, reservations ensure that the opportunities are distributed in such a way that backward classes are equally able to benefit from such opportunities which typically evade them because of structural barriers. This is the only manner in which merit can be a democratising force that equalises inherited disadvantages and privileges. Otherwise claims of individual merit are nothing but tools of obscuring inheritances that underlie achievements,” a Bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and A.S. Bopanna observed in a 106-page judgment.

“The politico-legal discourse on 27 per cent reservation for OBC is back in public realm due to central government’s decision to implement quota for them and Economically Weaker Sections (EWSs) in postgraduate medical and dental courses in states. The Supreme Court of India while ruling in favour of extending this reservation said the ‘merit versus reservation’ binary is superfluous, as the idea of ‘substantive equality’, is not as an exception to the concept of equality, but as a facet of rule of equality. It is an important addition in the jurisprudence of reservations for the OBCs but does not holistically addresses the issues of divergent and biased methods of affirmative action,” said Praveen Rai, a Political Analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) Delhi.

Rai added, “The criteria of creamy layer for the OBC is inequitable as it is not applicable for SC and ST communities, [a] majority of OBC castes were left out of its ambit due to political indifference and poor implementation and several jobs reserved for OBCs were changed to general category on the grounds of unsuitable candidates. The skewed reservation benefits for various OBC castes and demand for caste census to address this anomaly is fraught with danger as it may lead to inter caste rivalries and political unrests that could be detrimental for India’s growth story.” 

On the ongoing OBC quota debate in particular and in general, a noted social and human rights activist said, “For far too long has the course of debate on reservations in competitive examinations, be they for jobs or for admissions to educational courses, been dictated by the so-called votaries of “meritocracy” whose perverted logic is that genuine talent is left out in affirmative action. They argue that undeserving candidates are given jobs just because of their caste. They have kept quiet to some extent for reservations given to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, partly because this was done as a consequence of the Poona pact between Mahatma Gandhi and Babasaheb Ambedkar before Independence to keep the Dalits in the Hindu fold.”

“But the self-styled upper castes have never been really reconciled to this fact. This was understandable as the upper castes had a de facto reservation in education and government employment because of the privilege of their birth. When Prime Minister V.P. Singh implemented the Mandal Commission three decades ago, we saw the violent response by the younger generation of the upper castes. Many of those who were part of the equal opportunity movements, as they called themselves, found their way into right wing parties, and the AAP,” said Dayal.

“OBCs have made their place in politics, but they still do not have a significant presence in educational institutions and government employment compared to their numbers in the population. In case of reservations, no group really eats into the cake of other groups. Reservations just affirm and fix their proportion, and after those men and women in each group – scheduled castes, tribes, and OBCs, for instance, compete in their own silos,” he said.

On the quota debate for the religious groups particularly Muslims, he said, “In some states, religious minorities are listed under OBCs and most backward communities. In such cases, religious groups particularly Muslims and Christians in such stages should also be covered under OBC quotas. Unfortunately, Muslims and Christians are denied their participation in the scheduled caste quotas though Dalits professing Sikh and Buddhist faiths enjoy the quotas. This anomaly and injustice have been challenged in the Supreme Court. The court has not made a ruling yet despite support from the National Minority Commissions and others over the past decades.”

Professor Surajit Sinha of IIT Kanpur, while sharing his perspective, said, “Supreme Court bench provided an excellent set of observations. Equal opportunity can only be guaranteed if our schools can provide similar and good quality education across the population at affordable cost. It will be most beneficial if education is made free to whatever extent possible. Providing reservation of seats in educational institutions or jobs will not resolve the issue of caste distinction and unequal opportunity.”  

“Reservation remains relevant because Indian society is based on caste hierarchy. A large population of the country known as the Other Backward Classes is socially and educationally backward. Contrary to this, a club of a few upper castes continues to dominate almost every institution of the country such as business, education, judiciary, media, film industry, etc. The Mandal Commission, appointed by the Government of India, has clearly mentioned that our institutions have got an elite character,” said Dr. Abhay Kumar, a scholar and journalist.

Kumar added, “In the wake of the prevalent inequality and discrimination, the decision of the court to uphold OBC reservation in NEET should have come much earlier. We should not forget that by denying OBC candidates reservations for many years, a great amount of injustice has been done. One of the possible ways to compensate for this loss is perhaps to launch a new campaign for filling all the vacant seats earmarked for the students belonging to the deprived communities as Dalits, Adivasis, OBCs, Muslims and other marginalised groups remain underreported till today. The diversity of the society must reflect at each and every institution.”

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