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Challenging ‘De-Reservation’ and Reevaluating ‘Merit’: On Brahmanical Vocabulary and Praxis of Exclusion
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Challenging ‘De-Reservation’ and Reevaluating ‘Merit’: On Brahmanical Vocabulary and Praxis of Exclusion

Iniyavan MLalitha M

“Those responsible for implementing the policy of Reservation must undoubtedly understand that “Reservation is neither a policy matter, a political gimmick nor a matter of Charity. It is a Constitutional Obligation” – Dr B. R Ambedkar

In the line of policies aimed at systematic and sustained remoulding of the reservation policy in order to undermine the nature and spirit of reservation-such as subsequent attempts to introduce income criteria within the reservation, thus ultimately leading to the implementation of reservation for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), another new provision in the name ‘De-reservation’ has now surfaced. The University Grants Commission (UGC) issued draft guidelines for implementing reservation policy in Higher Educational Institutions (HEI) on 27th December 2023, which was open for public opinion until 28th January, 2024. The draft suggests a scope for de-reserving vacancies allotted for SC, ST and OBC candidates, thus, opening the vacancies up for those from the general category if enough reserved candidates are not available. Following intense disapproval from various sections of the public, including the opposition, both MHRD (Ministry of Human Resource Development) and UGC have given a clarification ruling out the chances of de-reservation being implemented. However, the proposed draft should be considered as testing the waters before devising a more armoured policy, rendering reservations weaker. Hence, a more tedious dissection of this idea called ‘De-reservation’ is required technically as well as ideologically to battle more such ideas yet to follow.

Reservation policy for SC, ST and OBCs had always been the worst nightmare for the caste elites and their legislative representatives. Even today, reserved candidates are looked down upon as ‘unworthy candidates’ and humiliated by their fellow privileged students, faculties and colleagues. Reservation ensures equality and social justice by facilitating SC, ST and OBC communities to collectively avail their rights to education and employment, which they have been denied for generations. Considering the constitutional basis that reservation policy has got and the imminent socio-political consequences among the SC, ST, and OBC communities, reservation policy will not see any explicit erasure by the State and the lawmakers. Instead, they will find insidious modes to penetrate into the fundamental structure of the reservation policy and subvert its foundational premises i.e. Social Justice. Under this context, one should view how UGC’s proposed draft resorts to reproducing the same social and structural hierarchies and inequalities in Higher Educational Institutions instead of attempting to restore social justice.

‘Unfilled Vacancies’ and ‘De-reservation’-A Social Injustice

 The very phrase ‘de-reservation’ to have found its place in the draft UGC guidelines itself is a huge setback to the social justice aspirations of this democracy. Although ‘de-reservation’ is pitched along with some sugar-coated phrases like ‘rare and exceptional cases’, and ‘in the public interest’, the arbitrariness in the proposal affirms our suspicion over the same. While the guidelines mention a “general ban on de-reservation of reserved vacancies in case of direct recruitment”, it also suggests a few conditions and modes through which de-reservation could be carried forward. This primary contradiction in the clause backed up by no substantial statistics, clearly foregrounds the imminent danger posed to the fundamental idea of reservation.

The new UGC draft itself says that provisions in the Office memorandum (O.M) issued in the year 1993 by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) with regards to OBC reservation have however come into force only in the year 2007 (in the case of Assistant Professors) and 2019 (in the case of Associate Professors and Professors). Meanwhile, the provisions of the O.M. dated 31st January 2019 regarding EWS reservation were adopted the next day itself, i.e. 1st February 2019. This legislative and bureaucratic proactiveness shown in the case of implementation of EWS reservation is contradictory to the persistent structural indifference towards the implementation of SC, ST and OBC reservation. This prejudice is further demonstrated in the draft guidelines in which only SC, ST and OBC reserved vacancies are taken into consideration for ‘de-reservation’ while there is no mention of EWS unfilled vacancies at all, leaving EWS reservation untouched, thus again benefiting the majority of the general category candidates by appropriating the reserved seats. Many contradictions can be highlighted with regards to the introduction of EWS reservation, such as the arbitrariness in introducing the policy despite the absence of a complete caste census and the irrational basis of fixing the income limit of eight lakhs rupees for availing EWS reservation which is the same income ceiling for OBC reservation. But here, the main contention is that EWS reservation is an impediment to the idea of social justice, and has distorted the conception of positive discrimination which aimed at affirming representation of socially backward communities. ‘De-reservation’ is only a corollary to this already existing rupture.

Here, it becomes crucial to contextualize the very idea of ‘unfilled vacancies’ which is being propagated as a rationale for de-reservation by the draft guidelines. Reserved vacancies epitomize the discriminatory patterns existing at various levels of intakes in HEIs, both in faculty recruitment and student admissions. Various data and reports made on these reserved vacancies in faculty posts, undergraduate, postgraduate and research admissions clearly state how the higher educational spaces have been subjectively discriminatory towards reserved category candidates and how the admission process has been objectively transforming into a more inaccessible non-inclusive ecosystem. A report compiled by the Ambedkar Students’ Association, University of Hyderabad, in 2023, clearly establishes the discriminatory marking patterns in PhD admission interviews where unreserved students were favoured over SC, ST and OBC candidates. The findings of the 7-page report were based on the RTI responses received on the entrance and interview marks of the PhD applicants across various departments in the University of Hyderabad. According to the report, “The discriminatory marking in these departments almost resembles the structure of graded inequality where marks of the students resemble their position in the caste hierarchy”. In addition to this, it is important to highlight another crucial set of data shared in the Lok Sabha by the Minister of State for Education, Annapurna Devi herself, which showed that only 30% of the reserved faculty vacancies in IITs and Central Universities were filled despite a year-long Mission Mode Recruitment drive (September 2021-2022).

‘Meritorious’ Claim on ‘Non-Availability’

Here, we must revisit what the ‘non-availability’ of candidates means in higher educational spaces. The insufficient number of applicants, as mentioned in the draft guidelines, has always been the default rationale posed to justify any unfilled reserved vacancy. However, enough data is available to refute these blatant false claims; for instance, the RTI data collected by Pranav Jeevan (IIT Bombay)apparently proves that a massive number of applicants appeared under each reserved category during the Mission Mode Recruitment. ‘Non-suitability’ is another usual claim made by administrative and academic authorities to reject the candidatures of reserved category applicants. This particular arbitrary assessment is often the case when the subjective prejudices of the interview panel reflected by caste aversion and anxiety of those in the panel renders the objective eligibility requirements fulfilled by the candidate to be irrelevant. Hence, ‘non-availability’ is a product of this Brahmanical logic called ‘merit’ -an exclusive scale invented to assess the eligibility of reserved category aspirants.

Prof. N. Sukumar, in his work ‘Caste Discrimination and Exclusion in Indian Universities: A Critical Reflection’ (2023), argues how ‘merit’ was an idea conceived by ‘the gatekeepers of academia’ to safeguard their hegemony. He points out, “When the University Grants Commission (UGC) insisted on enforcing reservations even at the level of Associate Professors and Professors, the alarm bells started ringing. The ideological differences were overridden in the concern to hold on to their socio-cultural capital by the academic lobbies”. He further highlights the incident where a panel of IIT directors approached the Ministry of Education to exempt them from reservation as they are ‘institutes of national importance’. Describing the fact that the number of SC/ST faculties in IITs is less than 3%, he says, “Positions of power are exclusively controlled by one set of castes, disallowing the Dalit-Bahujan counterparts to become equal shareholders”.

When vacancy itself is a product of caste prejudices, a counter to vacancy should be a more inclusive and accessible system of assessment and recruitment. While addressing the failure to ensure effective implementation of reservation policy in central institutions, the ‘Guidelines for Strict Implementation of Reservation Policy (2006)’ issued by the UGC highlights various procedures to be followed in order to ensure the constitutionally guaranteed reserved percentages for SC/ST candidates are met. While charting out the procedure to be followed in matters of reservation for admission, under clause 9.(c.).(VI) it is stated that “In case no eligible reserved candidates are available, the vacant seats in the reserved quota shall not be filled by any non SC/ST candidates. Every effort shall be made to re-advertise for wider publicity in the leading national newspapers”. Further, the guidelines also suggest interchangeability among SCs and STs, special coaching assistance for prospective SC/ST aspirants, prioritising SC/ST girls, etc., as modes of efforts to fill vacant SC/ST seats. The underlying spirit that should be inferred through such clauses is how maximum effort should be invested proactively by administrative units in order to keep a check on reserved vacancies. Along with such measures, an admission process devoid of subjective caste prejudices could be an actual remedy for reserved vacancies. However, the draft UGC guidelines suggest otherwise in the name of ‘public interest’.

Existing voids of inclusion in HEIs

The proposal to dilute reservations in recruitment may later be extended to PhD admissions as well. While, in IITs, already most of the PhD and faculty seats have been filled by general category applicants with minimal representation from SC, ST, and OBC scholars, this attempt further legitimizes the reservation violations that persist in IITs and central universities in the name of ‘non-availability’, ‘less meritorious’ applications.

Will the problems faced by SC, ST, and OBC students in these institutions come under the purview of UGC’s public interest? Has MHRD and UGC developed any assessment mechanism to check the enrollment status of reserved category students? Has there been any analysis and review about the rate of PhD dropouts in reserved categories? How many enrolled PhD candidates were awarded doctorates within the stipulated time period and how many of their admissions were cancelled? Is there any brainstormed data about the common reasons behind PhD cancellation of reserved candidates? Along with the everyday casteism faced by reserved category students in higher educational spaces, their material conditions including lack of financial assistance, cultural capital and academic opportunities, adversely affect their research. Gopal Guru, in his work on ‘Egalitarianism and the Social Sciences in India’ says,

One of the primary reasons that can explain this exclusion from the opportunity structure is that there is active discouragement at both ends of the opportunity structure. Dalits find the UGC and ICSSR functioning too bureaucratic and hence intimidating and actively discouraging… On the other hand, there is a constant flow of opportunities to the TTB” (acronym for top of twice born).

The non-NET fellowship (Rs. 8,000 per month) for PhD students in central universities has seen no hike for more than a decade, despite increasing JRF (Junior Research Fellowship) in 2023. Additionally, there is a provision for National Fellowships which are annually disbursed for selected SC, ST, OBC and Minority students enrolled in PhD. While UGC has transferred these schemes to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment and Minority Affairs, the Maulana Azad National Fellowship is said to have been discontinued by the Ministry of Minority Affairs. However, there is no transparency in the selection process for these National Fellowships. There is an existing ambiguity in the number of unfilled allotments and the allocated funds which go unutilized. Since it is unclear whether these unfilled seats will be carried over to the next year as per notification, it becomes essential to operate waiting lists to fill the vacancies in the same year, like any other centralized admission process.

The above mentioned are only a few explicitly faced hardships of Dalit, Tribal, Bahujan and Minority students across higher educational spaces. Apart from these, there are innumerable forms of exclusion, discrimination, hostility, humiliation and material deprivation they endure in order to secure a dignified future and to reclaim, in Ambedkar’s words, their denied ‘human personality’. The state and bureaucracy have been constantly indifferent towards the structural inaccessibility which results in vacancies, in both recruitment and admissions, remaining unfilled. Even after decades of resistance from SC, ST and OBC communities, reservation is yet to be properly implemented in order to accomplish the constitutionally guaranteed reserved percentages. Despite this, UGC attempting to insidiously introduce ‘de-reservation’ which is primarily antithetical to social justice, apparently highlights the ideological position of the current government – Upholding the interests of the Brahmanical class at the stake of SC/ST/OBC communities losing their democratic safeguards.

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References

  1. Pramod Mandade and Pranav Jeevan P. RTI Responses Provide Clear Proof of IITs Flouting Reservation Policy in Faculty Recruitment. The Wire, August 4, 2022. Available at: https://thewire.in/caste/rti-iit-reservation-recruitment-caste
  2. Guru, G. Egalitarianism and the social sciences in India, In The Cracked Mirror: An Indian Debate on Experience and Theory. Oxford University Press, 2012.
  3. Sukumar, N. Caste discrimination and exclusion in Indian universities: A critical reflection. Taylor & Francis, 2002

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Iniyavan M is a PhD scholar in Sociology at the University of Hyderabad, and he was the former President of Ambedkar Students’ Association, University of Hyderabad.
Lalitha M is a PhD scholar in Urban Studies from IIT Madras and holds a Master’s degree in Sociology from the University of Hyderabad.

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