The book Tom Brown's School Days was more or less mandatory reading for school-boys a couple of generations ago. I still remember one sentence: There is an end to everything in life and that is the important point. It referred to Tom Brown's first day at school when, as the newest boy, he was the last one in the list.

As the names of the boys were called, Tom Brown was getting more and more anxious whether his turn would ever come and, when it did, if he would be able to respond. The important point is, it did happen, his turn did come and he was able to respond. But that is another story.

Our Constitution-makers introduced reservation only for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in jobs and in admissions to colleges, and that too for ten years, though with possible extensions if need be.

They rejected Dr Ambedkar's suggestion that it should be for a fixed period of 30 or 40 years, with no provision for extension. Thus, the system has been extended every ten years, for nearly 70 years.

The scheme has also been extended to backward castes, Other Backward Castes and Most Backward Castes as well. It has created such a vested interest that there appears to be no way that it will ever end. Unlike Tom Brown's attendance, the important point does not seem to happen; there appears to be no end to the process of reservation.

I am reminded of this factor because of the banning of the film Aarakshan by UP, Punjab etc. The opposition to screening the movie comes from the view that no one, not even a film producer, can discuss the issue. I must confess I have not seen the film and, as I am out of the country on holiday, may not be able to see it even if it is released before this article goes to print.

However, my concern is not about what the film depicts but the issue of freedom of speech. Does our legal system prohibit even the discussion of this or any other controversial issue?

Eschewing the system

I think the reservation system is being perpetuated, not out of hatred for the upper castes, but because it has become an enormous source of wealth for the beneficiaries. It will probably come to an end not because of opposition or even criticism from the affected communities but because the beneficiaries get tired of it and give it up on their own.

For instance, Dr Arokiaswamy joined IIT Delhi after getting a Ph.D. from the Imperial College, London. Two years later, I got a note from the IIT administration to the effect that, as per government instructions, there must be a Scheduled Caste member on the selection committee for appointment to reserved posts and would I release Dr Arokiaswamy, the only such member in the Institute.

I asked Dr Arokiaswamy why he never said he belonged to the Scheduled Caste. He just laughed. He was an outstanding engineer who demonstrated how linear motors — the basis of modern high-speed railways — could be built. Unfortunately, our railways are very conservative; they would not listen to him. Otherwise, we would have been ahead of the Chinese in developing such systems.

I have heard of another social scientist who — along with all others — was removed from a prestigious think-tank when a new director took over. After hearing that one of the persons he had removed was from the Scheduled Caste, the Director called him to assure that his job was safe. The social scientist cut him short by saying ‘I know why you have called me and I do not want to work in an organisation that makes such a distinction'.

There must be thousands of such people who do not want to make use of the reservation system. The persons we hear of and see on the TV are the different kind; they insist all the time how badly they have been treated. For instance, IIT Delhi introduced recently a special course for Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribe candidates. It was a tactless move but not really a bad one because, even after forty years, many of those students were at the bottom of the class. What a furore there was on the discrimination they received! But nobody realised or thought it fit to point out they were in the IIT only because they were discriminated against in the first place.

Different parameters

Caste is a permanent attribute that cannot be removed or lost. Thus, reservation based on caste has identified certain communities as deserving and some others as undeserving of government patronage for all time.

If reservation had been based not on caste but on income — for instance, for all BPL families — practically no Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe would have been excluded, but the beneficiaries would have changed every generation. Further, it should not have been at the tertiary level; but at the primary and secondary level in the best schools in the country. Then, the bitterness of caste divisions would not have been politically perpetuated as they are now. As matters stand, I am not sure when the important tipping point — that there is an end to everything in life — will ever occur in this case.

(The author is a former Director, IIT Madras. > and > )