By Pradip Phanjoubam
In letter and spirit’ must be one of the most used and indeed misused phrases, especially in a place like Manipur, with deeply riven social faultlines, where sinister communal motives are read into practically every policy of the government as well as mutually amongst the numerous different ethnic groups, in any demand made by any one of them. This is a sad predicament by any standard, one which has remained a challenge for governments as well as conscientious citizens to overcome through the decades. Unfortunately, the tendency has also been for these so called conscientious citizens to choose to remain unheard and marginalised, leaving the field open for the endless shades of vested interests with a stake in keeping the fires of confrontation burning.
Under the circumstance, one is reminded of Irish poet W.B. Yeat’s sketch of a similar scenario in his beloved conflict torn Ireland of his time where: “The best lack all conviction; and the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Reminded of by the absence of its spirit is also the line from Christ’s Beatitude sermon: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God”.
Nobody will argue blunder has often been the second name of Manipur government policies, but it cannot also be said that the State’s civil society have also always civil either, or that they have not been partisan to boot. The tussle at the Manipur University, where various reserved category students, STs, OBCs and SCs, are at loggerheads over a new reservation norm, is just one example. The scene seems to be dominated by confrontationists, and yet again the pacifists are conspicuous by their absence.
In Ukhrul, another kind of unfortunate friction is developing over the government’s imposition of restrictive orders under CrPC 144 of the Indian Penal Code, after the daylight assassination of the sitting Ukhrul ADC member, Ngalangzar Malue, and subsequent raids and arrests of NSCN(IM) functionaries from Ukhrul in connection with the murder. The CrPC144 we know is a precautionary measure of the establishment against possible rioting, and it prohibits assembling of five or more people at any public place. If in the immediate wake of the despicable murder of the unarmed ADC member, and the subsequent raids of NSCN(IM) offices, such a measure was deemed necessary, we wonder why the district administration has still not thought of lifting the ban order, now that the tension has subsided with the passage of time.
From the news reports and pictures emanating from the Ukhrul district headquarters however, it does seem the CrPC144 is no longer enforced strictly. Quite ironically indeed, there were even pictures in the media of peaceful rallies held in Ukhrul against the imposition of this order which in its essence is supposed to prevent such rallies. Two wrongs do not make a right, but it does seem the government is allowing an undeclared norm which has become the standard in Imphal to take its course in Ukhrul too.
Those of us in the news business will remember that in Imphal the imposition of the CrPC144 is too frequent to keep count. Also again, the administration has seldom bothered to lift the ban orders even after the tensions which prompted it to impose the orders in the first place subsided. However, the bans lapsed invariably, not because of any official declaration of their lifting, but because they gradually fell into oblivion, both of the officialdom as well as the public, and life returned to normal. Come to think of it, if a close scrutiny were to be done today, it is quite likely, much, if not most of Imphal East and Imphal West, would be officially still under CrPC144, imposed once but forgotten without lifting them. Nonetheless, if the administration’s apprehension of riots in Ukhrul has subsided, what is keeping if from lifting the CrPC144 officially, even if it is only to please and pacify the public outrage over it?
The reservation question is sensitive. Nobody wants to give up privileges, and this has always been a huge hurdle in making amendments pertaining to this issue. Very broadly, reservation in India is two tiered. One is the Central reservation norms to be followed during recruiting and admission to Central government institutions. The other are the State reservation norms, worked out in accordance to the demographic spreads in the different States. This makes sense, for on the larger Indian canvas, the percentage of Scheduled Castes population is far higher than Scheduled Tribes population. The percentage of Other Backward Classes, too is much higher than the previous two. The population spread of India not being homogenous, and the population breakup along these lines in each of the States is different from the all India average as well as from each other, therefore, each State also has its own reservation norm best suited to its demographic pattern.
The problem is, as we are discovering now, what happens when a Central university comes to be located in a State.
If the university in question was an IIT or an IIM, or for that matter a nationally sought after institute like the Delhi University, Benares Hindu University or Jawaharlal Nehru University, it would only be fair to stick to the national reservation norms regardless of which State these institutes were located in. But in the nascent Central universities in Northeast States, where it is yet unimaginable students from all over India would be rushing to get admission, and therefore those seeking admission would be essentially and largely exclusive to the respective States, there would be a need to alter the reservation norms from the Central pattern. It should be closer to the respective State’s norms though not exactly. As Central universities, they cannot but also think of the rights of students from outside their States if fairness is the objective. After all, they are run on the tax payers’ money of not just their respective States but the entire country.
Manipur University, for instance has some unique and innovative departments such as that of Myanmar Studies which can in the future attract students from outside the State. It would therefore be far sightedness to not exclude such future possibilities, therefore the need for some deviances from the State’s reservation norms and incorporation of some of the Central norms. If it is any consolation, the problem Manipur University is facing currently is not exclusive to it. In Nagaland University, even though a Central university, there have been crippling problems even in the choice of Vice Chancellors on the issue of following Central norms or local wishes.
As an extension of this same logic, while the OBC reservation for Meiteis is meaningful for Central government institutions, where the competition would be with other advanced communities with far longer exposures to modern education, I would say it is quite redundant in State government institutions. Here, the segregation is between candidates who have studied in the same schools and colleges, grew up in the same social milieu, living more or less in the same social and economic strata. The results of various State level competitive entrance examinations where OBC candidates consistently garner large chunks of unreserved seats would bear testimony. The sense of injustice in this will do the society no good in the future. In its letter and spirit, I also do not think there is anything as Scheduled Caste in Manipur, at least nothing to compare with those in continental India, condemned as communities to clean shit at public places such as the railway stations, and live isolated as sub-humans, pursued and killed for no other reason than the hatred of their ‘polluting’ existence.
In its letter and spirit, the reservation system of the Indian constitution was also essentially meant to level out the playing fields so that the underprivileged in the society can hope for fair competition. But once this playing field has been levelled out, by the same letter and spirit of the reservation policy, the reservation system should begin to be eased out. In the OBC reservation this issue is somewhat addressed. There is a clause for the creamy layer to be absorbed into the general category so that those actually underprivileged amongst the backward classes can have the benefit of reservation. I think it is time for this clause to be applied to the reservation for STs and SCs too.
This will not only ensure a sense of justice to general candidates, but more importantly, guarantee the original spirit of the reservation system is preserved. With the creamy layer consisting of children of ministers, MLAs, Class-1 government officers, and super rich business people who had afforded the best education and exposure to the world out of the way, the competition would be fairer for ST and SC candidates who are truly underprivileged. Here too, in State level competitions, it will be again noticed that there has been a rise in the number of ST and SC candidates making it to the general lists, indicating happily the playing fields are beginning to be levelled out. New reservation norms of the near future must also in all fairness, take this trend into consideration.
Lest I am misunderstood, being struck out from the reserved category does not mean tribal elite would lose their ethnicity. They would continue to be what they were, but not in the reserved category. The two should not be confused. I mention this because in countries like Canada and the USA, there are allegations of systematic depletion of population of indigenous Native populations because they were made to give up their tribal identities on such considerations as their moving out of their Reservations, marrying a non Native, professions, economic status etc. I would still call such policy genocide. What I am suggesting here is for a clear and separate treatment of ethnic identity from economic categories in any consideration of the reservation policy. There can be a rich tribal and a poor tribal, and they are not equal.
One more thing needs to be said on the reservation issue for there is often a rather mischievous statement made either out of ignorance or else with mala fide intent, that the general seats are reserved, in the case of Manipur, for the Meiteis. This is an untruth which by the consistence of its repetition has come to acquire the facade of being factual. Under the Indian dispensation, there are the general seats and the reserved seats. The general seats are open for competition to all candidates, including those in the reserved categories. The reserved seats are exclusively for those included in the reserved categories. True it would be unfair to say competition is fair if the a child who grew up in a village with no school and therefore had to travel 10 kilometres each day on foot to another village to attend school were to compete with another from capital Imphal who had been literally spoilt for choices as to which elite school to attend. To leave the two to compete for the same seat would be discrimination, therefore reservation is necessary. However, when parity begins to be struck in the social and economic backgrounds of the candidates, it would be absolute dishonestly to still make statements that the general seats are reserved for the so called privileged classes.