| Striking medical students play Ludo at AIIMS. Picture by Ramakant Kushwaha
New Delhi, May 28: The image of Rajeev Goswami, the Delhi University student who attempted self-immolation in 1990, is not yet history.
The anti-quota protest that has shaken the political establishment 16 years after that incident has rekindled public memory, if only as a reflection of middle class desperation.
But are political elements exploiting the outpourings of middle class anger over the reservation policy'
In 1990, the year of Mandal, Goswami’s attempted self-immolation captured middle class anguish in a way that few images have. In more recent times, the capital has seen middle class mobilisation of a more cinematic kind with people from Gurgaon and Noida and south Delhi lighting lamps and candles to demand justice for murdered model Jessica Lal.
Yet, in terms of sheer numbers and depth of feeling, the middle class mobilisation against the Centre’s decision to introduce quotas for Other Backward Classes in institutions of higher learning has few parallels. The overwhelming perception is that the policy of reservation strikes at the root of the merit system that the middle class believes in.
“The super-rich who waste their time deciding which malls to visit and the extremely poor who worry about earning their daily bread are not affected by this. This is something that bothers the middle class who can’t afford to send their children abroad. These are the best institutions in the country. They have to fight to save their right to go to these institutions,” said Karan Bharadwaj of Delhi University.
Bharadwaj is one of the students whose parents work 9 to 5 and seek to ensure quality education for them.
Mahashwetha Burma,another activist, is the daughter of university professors.
Students like them grow up in salaried households with their parents as examples to follow, men and women who have got jobs and hold on to them by virtue of their education.
Says a Delhi University teacher: “It’s a matter of merit. These are innocent students who are fighting for their rights. They have no financial backing, nor do they have a hidden agenda. They are not like the politicians who do things behind closed doors.”
Education in India’s metros is middle class turf. Most students in higher education courses are from the middle class. In Delhi itself, the number of bureaucrats, politicians and businessmen who can afford to pay for the education of their wards abroad do not hesitate to do so.
“This is not a question of class or caste. It’s those in the education fraternity that are coming together to fight for this cause,” says Dr Jumang, a senior resident at AIIMS.
It is little wonder then that many middle class parents are actually encouraging their children to participate in the anti-quota movement. Several participated in the protest themselves, a far cry from the times when parents discouraged their children from getting involved in politics.
But there is still lurking suspicion that this middle class sentiment is being exploited by political outfits.
“Many people want to know where they are getting the finances for all of this. There is speculation of external support, maybe that of a political party,” says Burma.
One junior doctor wondered if aspiring politicians have joined the protests. “Some students here have joined because they nurse political ambitions. These are mainly students from arts colleges, like the students of Delhi University. We are going to become doctors at the end of the day, why should we need to be in politics'”