Presidency University, Kolkata is dismantling affirmative action

Presidency University is seeking permission to begin the process of “de-reserving” its seats. For many, this may be the first time they have heard such a term. However, this is not something new. Since 2014 the university has started the process of dereserving its seats. The result is that there is a steep demographic difference on who gets access to the state’s prestigious university. This demographic change affects everything: what sort of politics festers in campus, what is taught as part of the syllabi, and who gets to call the campus their own. We can see that this move comes in the context of Presidency’s long history of being a hostile space for women, Dalits and Muslims. If one is committed to the task of social justice, one can’t help but be suspect of a move such as dereservation.

To have an organic understanding of the context, a recent graduate of Presidency’s esteemed Department of Sociology (also reported to have high numbers of de-reserved seats) tells us the experience of being in a classroom with no students from marginalised communities: “In my batch in the department of Sociology, there were a total of 0 SC/ST/OBC students, and I was the only Muslim. Islamophobic jokes were made constantly because people thought I was ‘not really Muslim’ because I did not fit their idea of what a Muslim woman looks or must be like. Anti-reservation memes were shared in the class whatsapp group and I, as the lone dissenter, was considered humourless by some others. The idea of a ‘safe space’ was turned on its head to mean a space where people can be openly casteist and Islamophobic- all in the name of intellectual productivity. To no great surprise, the faculty also considered this batch to be one of the best that they had taught.” We see that the climate is already harmful, to say the least, towards students from marginalised communities. Moreover, the situation is in danger of facing a structural surge of unjust action.

Recently, The Telegraph reported that, acting on a West Bengal Notification issued on 2nd January 2014, while a percentage of seats are stipulated to be reserved according to the Reservation Act in Higher Education Institutions, it also entails quite a curious clause in section 8:

“Where reservation of seats for one or many courses or streams in a particular academic session becomes unavoidable, the following procedure of dereservation shall be followed:

(a) If, after duly entertaining all applications to fill up reserved seats, it is found that some seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes, Category-A and Other Backward Classes, Category-B remain unfilled during the academic session for want of suitable number of candidates from the respective categories, those seats may be de-reserved and filled up by general candidates where it is specified that due process for filling up of the seats by the candidates of the specific categories have been followed by the institutions concerned and no suitable candidate for the reserved categories is available to fill up those seats. No vacant reserved seat shall be carried forward to the next academic year, under any circumstances;”.

Even a cursory reading of the stipulation sits at odds with the language of affirmative action. The term “unavoidable” seems to suggest as if reservations are a burden on academic institutions. It is a constitutionally sanctified law to enforce reservations in colleges and universities as one of the many ways to address the historical injustice perpetrated by caste. It is “unavoidable” because generations of students from marginalised sections have been systematically denied entry to these institutions, that to this day, remain a hub of upper caste control. This is a statistically proven fact. Therefore to use the word “unavoidable” as if to imply that reservations are a “denial” of rights rather than the assertion of rights, is misplaced but not an uncommon sentiment.

Dereservation itself as it is defined here is articulated as if to not allow seats to go wasted. However, it seems, that there are many assumptions being made about why seats go vacant in an educational institution. The assumption is clearly that if the seats go vacant, they must be of the reserved category and hence the need to “dereserve” and make them open to general students. Not only is this factually wrong, it is also ideologically fraught. The Telegraph reporting itself mentions that of the about 300 seats going vacant at Presidency, only half are from the reserved category. Therefore the issue of vacant seats has nothing to do with reservations as a significant number of seats are in the open category. One has to assume that this has to do more with the apriori biases of the makers of the notification than any empirical reality.

One can argue that the dereservation is a last resort measure. SC seats are first offered to ST and OBC – A seats are first offered to OBC – B candidates. After which they are offered to general category students. This again assumes that either there aren’t enough reserved category students applying to colleges, or not enough reserved category students that “deserve” to go to these colleges, both fallacious arguments. Secondly, a move such as this will make anyone who knows Presidency’s past quite nervous. It already has a dismal record when it comes to accepting reserved category students and almost all administrative positions are occupied by upper castes. If the situation is such that even after multiple attempts, a college is failing to fulfil its reserved category seats (especially in a state that has significant unemployment and illiteracy), then it is indicative of a much deeper problem with the entire structure of higher education. Higher Education is clearly failing to provide to the most marginalised of the society, failing our radical and progressive hopes enshrined in the Constitution.

Secondly, if the issue of unfilled seats, and let’s assume for argument’s sake, the issue of unfilled seats in the reserved category, why is the first impulse to fill these seats with general category students so as to the seats don’t go waste? Isn’t it more prudent to see why reserved category students are unable to fill these seats? If that was truly the interest of the Notification, it would be making substantive provisions as to how to level the playing field (e.g. the system of “deprivation points” in JNU till 2016 ). Clearly, the issue is not that not enough students don’t apply for the seats. If that was the case, everyone applying would get in. The issue is that not enough students from marginalised sections manage to qualify for these seats. More often than not, this has to do with extremely high cut-offs and subjective bias of the examiners all wrapped in the neat logic of merit.

The logic of merit is a seemingly harmless yet pernicious facade for maintaining the status quo in education. Who “deserves” or does not deserve is not a given, but a culturally ordained, economically transferred systemic abuse of privilege. Writers much articulative to this one have detailed the damaging effects of the argument of merit again and again, for e.g. here, here and here.

Further, on the issue of the legality of such a provision, the facts couldn’t be clearer. Dereservation is unconstitutional and unambiguously illegal. According to R. K. Sabharwal And Ors vs State Of Punjab And Ors on 10 February 1995, the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court considered the question of appointment and promotion and roster points vis-a-vis reservation and thereby held:

“When a percentage of reservation is fixed in respect of a particular cadre and the roster indicates the reserve points, it has to be taken that the posts shown at the reserve points are to be filled from amongst the members of reserve categories and the candidates belonging to the general category are not entitled to be considered for the reserved posts. On the other hand, the reserve category candidates can compete for the non-reserve posts and in the event of their appointment to the said posts; their number cannot be added and taken into consideration for working out the percentage of reservation…

No general category candidate can be appointed against a slot in the roster which is reserved for the Backward Class. The fact that a considerable amount of members of a Backward Class have been appointed/promoted against general seats in the State Services may be a relevant factor for the State Government to review the question of continuing reservation for the said class but so long as the instructions/rules providing certain percentage of reservations for the Backward Classes are operative the same have to be followed. Despite any number of appointees/promotees belonging to the Backward Classes against the general category posts the given percentage has to be provided in addition.”

Any move to de-reserve that aims to give assigned seats to general category students would, therefore, be flouting the Supreme Court ruling that noted in no uncertain terms that only reserved category students can avail the reserved seats under all circumstances, while the thus named open seats are for that reason: open to all categories.

Further, in 2008, A Central Government Bill called The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Reservation in Posts and Services) Bill, 2008 made reservations a statutory right and effectively banned anything of the likes of dereservation. It reads:

“The Bill seeks to reserve a prescribed percentage of posts in the civil services for members of the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) in certain establishments. The establishments include any government department, any public sector undertaking or statutory authority constituted by a Central Act, a university established by a Central Act, government-owned or aided primary, secondary schools and other educational institutions, any business owned or managed by the government, or any autonomous body receiving money from the Consolidated Fund of India….

Vacancies reserved for direct recruitment of SC/ST may not be filled by anyone not belonging to these communities. If anyone knowingly falsely claims to be a member of the SC/ST community, he will be punished with imprisonment of up to 3 years and/or a fine of Rs 50,000.”

As Education falls in the concurrent list, a central government stipulation would supercede any state notifications. While this bill pertains to jobs in the public sector, there is a similar case to be made for seats in educational institutions as well. Perhaps, the case would be much stronger for Institutions of Higher Education as it an access point intervention.

While many are supporting the move on the pretext that vacant seats mean that the taxpayer’s money is being wasted, we know that this argument is more often than not a red herring. As detailed above, when both reserved and open seats are lying vacant, how are only the vacant reserved seats a waste of taxpayer money? It is for this reason that many Calcutta colleges have not gone forward with dereservation as it does not address the issue at hand. Further, it has also been reported that a number of reserved seats that go vacant are generally higher for the humanities department as compared to the sciences. Clearly, there are some internal trends that Presidency needs to monitor as to why it has failed to not only attract applicants, it has also somehow managed to keep out students from marginalised sections.

While Presidency has seen a steady decline in applicants for almost a decade, the university spent an extravagant amount on its bicentennial celebrations, even when infrastructure in the campus and in the hostels lie in shambles. The setting up of the Mentor Group with Prof. Sugata Bose in charge has done little to help. Prof. Bose blames the decline of the University on the Left government’s anti-education policies, but one wonders why the decline has continued ever since. Vacant seats look bad for the university but ascertaining all the blame on “unavoidable” reservations seems like an attempt to obfuscate real and material problems plaguing Presidency and Higher Education in West Bengal. A self-proclaimed bastion of left-progressivism, Presidency is currently protesting (as it should) against the installation of 500 CCTV cameras on the campus premises. But one has to be self-reflexive and wonder about the exclusivity of the very spaces we commandeer to protect. Privacy, but for whom?

The past four years have seen the central government introduce a number of policies to privatise higher education as well as dismantle progressive affirmative action policies. There has also been a concerted effort from the supporters of the ruling party to disqualify dissenting voices that emerge from the university spaces. What we then see is a small, increasingly beleaguered community of students taking on the mighty forces of the state, pushed out of the limelight and demonised in popular consensus. Presidency’s move, therefore, comes as a fresh assault on social justice. It tells us that even the loudest critiques of the ruling dispensation end up taking a similar route because of a lack of conscious commitment to making education a more equitable space. The dereservation clause in the notification must be rescinded and Presidency’s attempt to act on its worst impulses must be stalled.

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Sargam Sharma Written by:

I am a recent Sociology postgraduate from Jawaharlal Nehru University and enjoy reading and writing on gender, popular culture and history.

3 Comments

  1. Sanjeeb Mukherjee
    September 5, 2018
    Reply

    This is part of a larger and long term problem of denying the existence of caste and more important denying caste to be an important basis of progressive politics. Caste, it was argued, would divide the people. Hence, West Bengal was perhaps the only state where till a decade back had no reservations for other backward classes.

  2. Sargam
    September 6, 2018
    Reply

    Yes, I couldn’t agree more. And this is reason behind the dismal state of all state institutions and the extremely wide gap between different groups. Tells us why WB has the worst record when it comes to who holds positions of power in all fields – be it education or industries.

  3. Sayantan Das
    September 8, 2018
    Reply

    Who said 50% of the vacant seats are general?
    Out of 182 seats vacant in presidency university third year 90% vacant seats are reserved categories.

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