Let me begin by complimenting you on your letter of resignation to the Prime Minister, not just for its craft, but for the rare courage it displays. An intellectual upholding his convictions and standing up to political power fills me with admiration even when, as in this case, I don’t quite agree with the cause. Your letter enabled me to think more clearly than I would otherwise have; it gave me the courage to state my differences with you.
Before I turn to the many differences, let me begin by noting one fundamental point of agreement with you. I share your despair about there being little room for thinking about social justice in a new paradigm. It is sad that political and intellectual advocates of social justice are simply not prepared to think beyond reservation as the only instrument and caste as the sole criterion. I also agree that the government’s proposed solution — phased introduction of a quota and expansion of the numbers of seats — sidesteps some of the most serious questions: substantial differences within different jatis belonging to the OBCs from different regions, relative disadvantage of women within OBCs and the disadvantages faced by non-OBCs.
I would have liked to extend this area of agreement, if only I knew what exactly you and your majority colleagues in the National Knowledge Commission stood for. In operational terms all we got was a cryptic verdict: continuing the practice of no affirmative action in higher education is better than caste-based quota. I know the NKC said it firmly believed in affirmative action. You say that you recognise the reality of caste. But I don’t know what to make of these statements as long as there is no scheme or proposal to give effect to these. As you know Professor Satish Deshpande and I have been involved in an exercise that addressed these concerns and have proposed a scheme of calculating disadvantage points that takes into account caste and other inequalities that exist in our society. The NKC could have given a more carefully worked out solution.
While agreeing with some of your criticism of the government, I kept looking for an equally searching critique of the other player in the game, the anti-reservation agitation that seeks to question the very idea of social justice. Here we have a protest led and sponsored by a small but powerful urban professional elite and lionized by the media (both of which are disproportionately dominated by the upper caste) that uses rather crude arguments and even more crass symbolism to stall a scheme threatening their privileges.
Your silence on this matter, not just in this letter but through your many interventions in the last few weeks, has worried me. You know that I have seen you as one of the intellectual leaders of this country; you can understand my agony when I see you being portrayed as the intellectual mascot for this agitation. Let me propose a hypothesis to you: this shrill and powerful campaign against the very idea of social justice is one of the reasons why there is so little space left for thinking about social justice in a new paradigm.
Let me turn to the more substantive differences.
You say that the government’s proposed measure goes against the freedom of academic institutions and the principle of diversity, that each institution should be ‘left free to devise their own programmes’ for affirmative action. Pratap, how many elite medical, engineering or management institutions in this country can you think of that have used their freedom to introduce any serious measure of affirmative action? I need not remind you of the number of times that the SC/ST Commission has documented the tales of how all these elite and not so elite institutions of higher education have dodged legal provisions of reservation for SC/ST. I can’t believe that you want to give these very institutions the freedom to decide on affirmative action.
Similarly, your stray remarks about alternatives to quotas suggest that you would like the state to play less and less of a role in affirmative action. I am surprised at this suggestion coming from a careful student of history like you. You know better than I do the lesson of the history of struggles for social justice all over the world: more often than not radical measures of social justice result from state intervention, that too from the top.
Initially I was baffled at your remarks about ‘politicisation of the educational process’. I thought this loose expression was not available to professional students of politics like you and me who know that democracy is and should be a political process, that politics is as much a source of good as that of evil. On second thought I have come to appreciate your point better. I think you meant to point to a deep malady in our educational institutions, namely their vulnerability to political masters with their narrow-minded agenda. But surely the Ministry of HRD formulating guidelines for implementation of a national policy on social justice does not fall in this category.
There was no doubt a good deal of ‘politicking’ involved in what the ministry was doing. No doubt, the ‘clever’ political move by Arjun Singh violated an institutional norm of parliamentary government and reduced the space for fine-tuned policy on this matter. But the same can be said about the ill-timed, hastily executed and unfortunately publicised move by the National Knowledge Commission. Far from tempering the debate and facilitating a solution, the NKC’s intervention added fuel to the fire, appeared as a partisan intervention and accentuated the artificial urgency that reduced the space for thinking afresh. To outsiders like me it appeared that instead of becoming a vital link in a possible solution, the NKC became part of the problem.
This is no reflection on the rest of the work the NKC has done, nor on the integrity of its members. This simply illustrates something your own work on public institutions in India has brought to our attention: the best of our institutions suffer from lack of self-restrain leading to institutional indiscretion. The NKC’s role in Mandal II was no exception.
Towards the end of your letter you remind us, and quite rightly so, of how critical ‘public reason’ is to democracies. This encouraged me to go public with this letter to you. I look forward to carrying this exercise in public reason,
I remain, your friend and admirer
(The author is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. This letter was published first in the Indian Express today and is carried here with permission from the author.]