Sunday, April 22, 2007

Reservation is driving us away!

Aman Jagannathan, 18, had never been arrested before. Neither had he ever publicly protested against the government.

Last year, the police picked him up twice -- while protesting at India Gate and outside the Supreme Court -- in New Delhi. He and his friends were in custody for 6 to 7 hours.

A friendly and eloquent medical student at India's best medical college, Aman is unsure if he wants his identity revealed as he looks back at the past year.

"I know I am not saying anything illegal but I just want to be careful," says the second year MBBS student at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, sitting on the steps of the Institute's playground. "I don't want to be known on campus as being against OBCs because I am not. I am just against the idea of reservation. I don't want to be misunderstood."

Last year, the government decided to increase the number of reserved seats in central government-run elite educational institutes like the Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Management and AIIMS by 27 per cent for the Other Backward Classes, taking reservations up to 50 per cent. Students on the campus were upset and agitated.

Aman knew he could not just sit back. He wanted to do something. He wanted to be heard.

"I am not against social justice but I feel merit should be appreciated. Reserve seats for those who don't have the economic means. Reserve seats for the children of those in the armed forces. Nobody will protest if you reserve seats for those who earn less than a lakh every year. Why should caste be the overarching factor? It's not my fault I was born a Brahmin."

In December, the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Bill, 2006 was passed in Parliament. But for the students, their fight was far from over.

The protests by the students resulted in the matter being taken to the Supreme Court, and on March 29, the court granted a stay on the government's 27 per cent reservation Bill for the Other Backward Classes.

There was jubilation on the campus, but Aman has taken the news with restrained happiness. He is happy that their agitation has borne fruit, that his hunger strike has contributed towards halting a government law, at least for now.

"Yes, it has given us some hope but we can't say things have gone our way. The court says it is a temporary status. I don't know how long the stay will remain, maybe for a year. I am rather pessimistic. I feel the government will think of a way to get past the court order."

As he had expected, the Centre moved the Supreme Court seeking vacation of its stay.

What Aman feels upset about is the government's disregard for merit and hard work.

"It's like they take you into the Institute and then tell you, you don't qualify (for higher exams). It's like stabbing you in the back."

If he doesn't get a seat for the Post Graduate course at AIIMS, Aman thinks he will be compelled to go abroad in the future. "It makes no sense in staying here then, it's not as if there's going to be a profusion of seats. Reservation is driving us away."

The uncertainty about getting a seat in the next course is the biggest concern for students at AIIMS. Some of the country's best minds feel they have to battle against reservations at every stage.

Every year, AIIMS takes in 50 students for the MBBS degree. Thirty-three seats are open for the general category, 11 seats are reserved for Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes, one for a physically handicapped student, and five seats are kept for international students nominated by the government. For the Post Graduate course, as many as 15,000 students appear for just 40 seats.

"You might be the topper and still not get a PG seat. It is tougher to crack the PG exam here. On the other hand, getting admission in America may be difficult but it has certainty," says Ekta Bakshi, a junior resident.

It was the long battle ahead at every stage of their study of medicine that made many like Ekta join the protest last year.

"If it was a one time thing I would have fought it out in the next entrance but this was going to happen at every stage of my career. For PG, residency, senior residency, getting my first faculty position and then to get promoted."

It's a feeling shared by final year MBBS student Mohit Mohanty. Sipping his coffee at the campus cafe on a Sunday afternoon, Mohit says he always wanted to be a doctor but as much as he wants to do his PG at AIIMS, he has no choice.

"I'd like to stay here but if I don't get admission in PG, I have to look at America. Half my batch is looking towards going abroad. Here if you slog for 24 hours, you get Rs 20,000. You really don't get paid in India, unless you are doing private practice but I don't want to steal or be part of a system that steals from the people," he says firmly.

Mohit, like Ekta and Aman, makes it clear that he does not want to be identified by his real name for this feature. After being a very vocal member of Youth for Equality -- an organisation set up to oppose reservation which got its name in a Delhi coffee shop -- he does not want to be in the limelight because it upsets his parents.

"They think they sent me here to study and I am becoming a politician. The fact is that I want to do something in life and that doesn't mean becoming a politician. No normal student these days wants to be a politician. It is being the very person you detest."

In retrospect, he is happy that he took a stand. "We had to get involved because no one else was at that time. People never expected a protest like this could happen in a medical college. Medical students really don't have the time for this, they already have enough to study."

What began as a symbolic gesture of protest became a large-scale movement that even took the students by surprise in terms of its impact and response.

"Actually what pushed us was that other higher institutes did not come out in protest like us. Others said it does not affect us. It was so in AIIMS too, there were many who were going to America but who still participated. Who said we may not stay in our country but it will stay our country," says Mohit. "Later we can at least say we tried -- even if it is not going to change anything."

The anti-reservation movement at AIIMS began with three AIIMS senior residents, who sat on a dharna at lunchtime every day. One of them was Dr Anil Sharma.

"Then we were 7, 11 and counting. I remember, it started on May 13," says Anil.

They would assemble every day under a tree opposite the library. Slowly, others joined them and in a month's time, there were around 80 students who would finish their lunch quickly and join the gathering.

"Many laughed at us saying Yeh kya sarkar ko badlengey? We did not want to become big netas, no -- it was a time, it was an issue and we will continue to fight for it. In the larger interest of the country somebody has to come forward. Why do we think that a Bhagat Singh should be born in our neighbour's family and not in ours?" asks Anil.

The son of a professor of genetics, Anil says his grandfather was poor and died very young. His grandmother cut grass and educated Anil's father, who used to study under a lamp post at night.

"My father did not have any reservation. When the Constitution of India, the State of India doesn't give me any advantage of being born in a so-called forward caste, why should I be disadvantaged?" continues Anil. "We are not against reservation but it should be for the needy, not the greedy. What is happening in society is not the responsibility of the Constitution. The Constitution has to be applied equally to all."

The turning point of the anti-reservation movement took place in Mumbai when the police lathi-charged protesting medical students outside the city's Raj Bhavan. The incident resulted in rallying support in different parts of India.

Meanwhile, in Delhi, water cannons were used against junior doctors at India Gate. "When they were injured and brought into the casualty ward here, it was the bursting point," says Dr Kaushal Mishra, president of Youth for Equality.

After these incidents Kaushal says all premium medical colleges went on strike. Around 150 juniors sat on a hunger strike and were joined by other medical colleges in the city.

"A week after the hunger strike began, there were around 15,000 people on the AIIMS campus every day. We had signatures on chart papers running through the length of the lawn, which is around 150 metres -- we had 15 folds of that paper. We used to meet 2,000 to 3,000 people every day. I may have been the 3rd or 4th person to stand in that anti-quota protest but today I am on top of the list."

Looking back, he feels the movement was highlighted because AIIMS provides a readymade media item for the news business. Moreover, it was not expected of doctors -- seen as sedate protestors -- to come up with such a vociferous agitation.

"Had it begun in Bombay it would not have had that effect. Because the seat of power is in Delhi, we could negotiate directly with the HRD minister and other Congress emissaries. They were expecting some action from Delhi University which has 80,000 students on its rolls, AIIMS was the last place," says Anil Sharma.

As presidents of the Resident Doctors Association and Youth For Equality respectively, Anil Sharma and Kaushal Mishra are spokespersons for the students opposed to reservation at AIIMS. The doctors ended the strike when the Supreme Court ordered them back to work and assured them that it would look into their grievances.

Sitting in the Resident Doctors Association office at the AIIMS boys hostel, they say the average middle class Indian has become a bedroom and drawing room protestor. "The mentality is that till there is no fire raging in my house, I am not bothered," says Anil.

The duo say a change has to come in society and Youth for Equality is a beginning. "We want to be political in the sense that our voice should be heard in the forum that makes the laws," says Anil.

YFE members contested the Mumbai and Delhi municipal elections this year.

"Our target is to change Parliament by 2019," says Kaushal, who spends the time after his eight-hour shift at AIIMS' Emergency department involved in YFE work.

In a high-pressure job and with wives and family living on the campus in accommodation they pay for, Anil and Kaushal say they hardly have had time outside work and the movement. "But it is a small price," says Anil.

He says the issue has also led to a polarisation on campus that did not exist before. "The feeling that he is not from my category etc has started. If the government has succeeded in dividing such an educated campus like AIIMS, think of the rest of society.

The divide between general category and reserved category students was acute immediately after the agitation, says Ekta Bakshi.

"Things have changed a little since then, but there is an underlying tension. Nobody has the time to think about caste every day but when a fight breaks then it just comes up."

Many of the students seemed to have moved on. Some like Mohit Mohanty believe that even if the 27 per cent increase was to come about, it would not make much difference.

"For most of us," he says, "the odds were already against us, so it would be marginally worse. The 27 per cent increase would affect the MBBS course most because there are not enough hostels and required infrastructure."

But the doctors all agree that had they not taken a stand last year, their grievances would never have received a hearing in court. They feel the stay order granted by the Supreme Court is a victory in that sense.

"We are hopeful," says Anil Sharma. "Even if the government appeals, the court may not allow the creamy layer to go through. And if the creamy layer is not included then for politicians the whole purpose of reservation will be destroyed -- after all, it is about vote bank politics."

The mood in the campus was generally despondent till news of the stay order arrived. "They had thought it was all over but now they feel as if they have got another life. This is not the final judgment. In practicality, it is 50% for pro-reservation and 50% for anti-reservation," says Kaushal Mishra.

"Still, it is a ray of hope."

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