The Supreme Court has ruled against reservations in the appointment of teachers in advanced courses in engineering and medicine. The Centre has reacted predictably. Although it by and large supports the rule of law, it is jealous of intrusions on its monopoly to make laws. While the founding fathers were defenders of justice, they made an exception to redress a past injustice: they allowed special favours in government appointments for castes that have been discriminated against. This redressal has now lasted for two-thirds of a century. Politicians have found it a fine football to play with; they have built reservations inside reservations, and bought votes from castes of doubtful disadvantage. The Supreme Court has by and large played more of a neutral observer than a referee. But now it wants to reserve a small area of the playing field where the politicians would be disempowered and merit would determine who can run and teach in the most meritorious institutions.
The government’s protest is not entirely without merit. Till now, the politicians have had the field to themselves; they have played the game of chase-the-votes without any rules. If anyone got hurt in the game, they told him to go and join the private sector. Many disgusted people simply left to play in other countries. Indian society has adapted itself to government discrimination. But to say that caste-based discrimination must prevail against merit even in jobs that call for merit is going too far. At the same time, it should be recognized that the government has been so tardy and inefficient in providing quality elementary education to anyone that the number of scheduled caste students who could aspire to tertiary education has been far below the quotas reserved for them. And because so few have graduated, job quotas in the government have also gone unfulfilled. So it is possible that the quotas in high faculty positions that the government seeks will also be substantially unfilled. The Supreme Court has raised the question whether caste reservations must go on into eternity. There is some evidence that scheduled castes have caught up with Muslims, and are on the way to catching up with other backward castes. But they will never catch up unless the government ensures high quality of primary education without regard to caste, class or patronage.