Indian universities, like most other institutions in the country, were historically the exclusive preserve of a privileged caste elite. It is to make them more inclusive and representative of the larger social matrix of castes and communities that the country has legislated reservation policies, with emphasis on clear-cut quotas.
Considering the unique hierarchical character of the caste system, the founders of the Republic legislated for public policies that would ensure equality of opportunity and outcome. The transformation has been slow since many underprivileged groups suffer from centuries of historic social disadvantage and are lacking in a large pool of educationally empowered persons.
The University Grants Commission’s new norms on reservation in faculty appointments, based on an Allahabad High Court judgment of April last year, threatens to undo even the marginal gains that the country’s affirmative action programme has achieved in making university faculties truly representative of India’s social diversity.
A projection by Banaras Hindu University (BHU) regarding vacancies reported in May 2017 reveals that the number of persons belonging to Scheduled Castes and Tribes and OBCs among academic staff will fall drastically if it were to implement the new formula on reservations — UGC wants the department to be treated as the unit while deciding the quota instead of the university as a whole.
Accordingly, the number of posts reserved for SCs in BHU will fall by half and those for STs by nearly 80 per cent. This newspaper had reported that only one of the 52 vacant positions at the Indira Gandhi National Tribal University in Madhya Pradesh is now available for a reserved candidate — as per the old norm, 20 of these positions would have been kept for persons from SC, ST and OBC communities.
The principle that outlines India’s affirmative action programme is that in a stratified society every strata ought to be truly representative of the country’s diverse population. The Centre should not allow this principle to be compromised. It has already pleaded before the Supreme Court that the high court order “drastically reduces, and in many departments completely wipes out, the representation of members of SC/ST community”. The Centre must now advice the UGC to put its directive on hold pending the apex court’s ruling on its plea.
Any dilution of the reservation norms would be deemed by the SC and ST population as a challenge to their constitutional rights and upset the fraught social relations. The Dalits, especially, are aggrieved over the rise in violence against them and the Supreme Court’s ruling on the SC/ST Atrocities Act. A restive Dalit community indicated during the April 2 protest that it is deeply concerned and suspicious of the political mainstream’s commitment towards its welfare. It is a perception the government’s needs to proactively allay.