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Last Updated: Saturday, 20 May 2006, 02:19 GMT 03:19 UK
Furore reflects India's caste complexities

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Delhi

Protesting medical students in India
The proposal is bitterly opposed by students at top universities
A plan to set aside places at some of India's best-known professional colleges for low-caste Indians has bitterly divided the country.

Angry students at elite institutions across the country have been taking to the streets in protest and doctors at major hospitals have gone on strike to show solidarity.

Business leaders and teachers have joined the students in decrying the move saying that it would lead to a drop in academic standards.

But the move also has the support of millions of low-caste Indians who have faced years of social discrimination and are poorly represented in leading professions.

In recent years, low-caste Hindus - who form a significant percentage of the population - have also grown politically influential, particularly in north India.

It is one reason that no political party - from left-leaning socialist parties to centre-right parties such as the Congress and the BJP - can afford to ignore them.

Historic divide

The caste system in India is centuries old and derives from ancient Hinduism.

A complex social order which assigned people a place in the social hierarchy based on their occupation, it has remained entrenched in modern India - particularly in the villages.

Low-caste Indian women
Lower castes have become politically influential in recent years
The very bottom of the social hierarchy is made up of Dalits - once known as untouchables - while the top consists of Brahmins, once the priestly class.

Despite laws banning discrimination, caste violence continues to occur at regular intervals across many parts of the country.

It is also not limited to Hindus - the caste system exists among other religious groups such as Muslims and Sikhs.

However, many argue that over the years their political influence has grown leading to some emancipation.

One of India's leading sociologists, MN Srinivas, has argued that urbanisation and industrialisation have helped to break down caste barriers to some extent as people moved out of traditional occupations.

More significantly, he argues, many Dalits and tribals were represented in local government bodies after the constitution was amended to set aside a percentage of seats for them.

Increasing quotas

At present, 22.5% of places in government-funded academic institutions are set aside for Dalits and listed tribes who make up roughly 25% of the population.

Rickshaw puller, Calcutta
Social and economic divides still exist across India
Similar "quotas" exist in parliament, state assemblies and local government bodies, as well as government jobs.

The government now wants to set aside an additional 27% of college places for low-caste Indians known as Other Backward Classes (OBCs) as well as some other disadvantaged groups.

The OBCs are placed higher than the Dalits in the caste hierarchy although they do not enjoy any affirmative action benefits except in government jobs - a move that was introduced in 1990 amid violent protests.

But the move has invited a backlash from many who say it will only lead to a lowering of standards at the institutes.

Those opposed to extending them benefits say that the system only benefits those members of the lower castes who are already economically independent or socially powerful.

Sociologist Dipankar Gupta believes the concept of caste has outlived its utility in modern India.

"For the most part, reservations have become a kind of holy cow in public circles.

"Nobody dare question its relevance, and, what is worse, many are more than willing to extend reservations to cover other groups by arguing that they had been victims of some kind of historic injustice," he says.

Cultural capital

But others argue that poverty is not the only issue.

"You must take into account social and cultural deprivation," says political analyst Yogendra Yadav.

Low-caste women in India
Many have been left out of India's economic development
"Along with economic capital, the absence of cultural capital can make a huge difference to people's ability to compete," he adds.

The reason that the issue has taken such an emotive turn is explained in part by the fact that admission into elite professional colleges in India is highly sought and heavily competitive.

Less than 1% of the hundreds of thousands of Indians who apply to get into the top colleges every year are successful.

There are only seven Indian Institutes of Technologies, the country's most prestigious engineering colleges, many of whose graduates have flooded Silicon Valley and are leading the country's information technology boom.

And there are a total of 242 medical colleges for the country's billion-strong population.

One proposal being discussed is increasing the numbers so that more people can get in.

But college administrators question whether that will be possible without a massive increase in infrastructure, including quality teaching staff.

Some like Yogendra Yadav believe the only way out is to also bring poor upper-caste and other such groups under the affirmative action umbrella.

Whatever the outcome, the debate illustrates the deep social divisions that still exist in modern-day India.

While the country is one of the world's fastest growing economies, it has still to win the battle over some of its deep-rooted problems.

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