Manipur University protests: Centre's reservation norms will deny tribal students their rights

Manipur University, a central university in Imphal, is in huge turmoil. It was shutdown for quite a few days among protests, mass exodus out of the university by tribal students and an unfortunate arson incident. But this is not “India’s problem”. If this had happened in a central university in Delhi, that would have surely been “India’s problem”.

To Indians, Delhi’s problems are India’s problem while Manipur’s problems are Manipur’s problem, except when people of Manipur say that. When Manipuris say that Manipur’s problems are Manipur’s problems, that act of saying but not the problem itself becomes India’s problem.

To understand the origins of the problem in Manipur University, let me lay out the context and then the timeline of events. Manipur University was founded in 1980 as a state university. This means that the basic infrastructure, land and the most important resources were paid for by the resources of Manipur, by the people of Manipur. During the long period as state university, Manipur University followed the State Reservation Policy of 31 percent for ST and 2 percent for SC for admission into various courses of the university. This was perfectly natural and in keeping with the demographic reality of Manipur. In 2005, the same Manipur University was converted into a “central university”, thus its administration passing from the hand of the state government in Imphal to the Union government in Delhi.

 Manipur University protests: Centres reservation norms will deny tribal students their rights

Manipur University. Image Courtesy: University's website

It is important to understand the political context of creating or declaring a central university anywhere. It is typically a political sop from Delhi to counter the disaffection among the local populace. The more a state is alienated from the “idea of India”, greater are these soft sops to keep them in check. Thus all states in the restive and alienated North East have central universities. The reason of this geographical distribution is for the Union to signal to the state people that Delhi cares.

This care, however, makes sense only if a central university has some special connect with the host state and not just an occupant of a large parcel of land in the host state. Hence, though these are called central universities, it is tacitly understood that such institutions are “of the state” in spite of being a “central” entity. Any aim for equitable distribution of resources only succeeds if the distributed commodity belongs specially to the state. Central universities lie in this grey zone where they technically are Union government funded enclaves in a state but practically belong largely to the host state, as part of political understandings.

The whole problem starts when central universities are considered “all India” institutions, “all India” being a figment that does not exist anywhere on the real ground where these universities exist. Manipur University, after being taken over by the Union government in 2005, implemented the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Act, 2006. This resulted in a reservation distribution that gave 15 percent for SC, 7.5 percent for ST and 27 percent for OBC, as in prevalent in all Union government offices. The problem with these numbers is that these percentages are completely different from the actually existing demographic reality of Manipur.

Manipur is a state with a high tribal population and a very small SC population and much lower OBC population compared to this “all India” idea. Thus, these new reservation numbers completely sidelines the actual needs of Manipuri society in the context of Manipuri University.

A 2012 amendment to the 2006 CEI Act, provided an out from this problem and in accordance with that, Manipur University declared the reservations as follows — 31 percent for ST, 2 percent for SC and 17 percent for OBC. This was much closer to the demographic reality of the state. However, due to incompetency of the Manipur University authority, the correct procedures of ‘state seats’ declarations not being followed and other issues, this solution was scrapped when on 23 March, 2016, a UGC letter arrived that directed Manipur University to follow the Union government reservation norms, after which the Manipur University academic council reverted back to the unrealistic 15 percent for SC, 7.5 percent for ST and 27 percent for OBC formula. Thus, in one blow, a huge number of tribal students were deprived of their right. And they erupted in protest as a result.

All tribal students have essentially walked out of the university – in a scale that never happened in mainland India even during MK Gandhi’s much eulogised call in 1920 to boycott mainstream educational institutions. In the context of Manipur’s fragile tribal-valley relationship, this has the potential to snowball into an issue much bigger than simply university affairs. If the “all India” reservation numbers stay, that would effectively mean shutting the door of higher education in Manipur University to most tribal students in Manipur and nearby regions, which also have huge tribal populations.

The concept of a “central university” is fundamentally incompatible with the realities of a diverse multi-national, multi-ethnic, federal union like the Indian Union. All central university campuses, including that of Manipur University, looks like a Hindi-Delhi enclave. All over Manipur University, there are huge number of signboards that contain Hindi but no Meithei, the primary language of Manipur. In a recent lecture visit to the university, I saw notices of a student essay competition where submission was possible in Hindi but not in Meithei. The least the Union government can do to benefit central universities is to limit their role to funding it while the academics and administrators run the institutions according to the reality of the land on which they are situated.

It is also not the case that central universities don’t impose local culture and code to students coming from outside. For example, Delhi university, another central university, has made it mandatory for all of its students who have not studied Hindi till Class 8 to pass a paper in Hindi, the imperialistically named Compulsory Test in Hindi (CTH) in order to get their undergraduate degree. Thus states of the North East as well most non-Hindi states where Hindi is not compulsory in school due to its irrelevance in their lives are forced to learn a language alien to them in order to gain a degree in say Botany or Political Science in a programme of study conducted in English.

Students don’t go to these universities in a female unfriendly and especially north-easterner unfriendly city like Delhi to learn Hindi. They go there to study subjects in universities set up specifically in and around Delhi with huge resources, the kind most universities in the subcontinent can only dream of. Thus if Delhi University can act as Delhi’s local university by imposing compulsory Hindi, why can’t central universities in other states govern themselves and set policies autonomously to cater to the needs of the states they are situated in?

Why do students from all over come to Delhi? Because the Union government has chosen to use revenue funds extracted from other states (and non-Hindi states provide a disproportionately higher part of that revenue) and shower it in and around Delhi. It is an artificial construct that is made possible by the immense centralising powers that the Union government has grabbed for itself. This was hardly the original vision of the constitution where education was solely in the state list and Union government was to have no role in it. The way for unbridled entry of the Union government was made possible by a constitutional amendment that placed education in the concurrent list. This happened during the Emergency regime of Indira Gandhi, the darkest days of Indian Union’s democracy.

The idea of a central university or for that matter, a central board like CBSE, is to create a homogeneous elite that is deracinated and alienated from their homeland’s realities, and only identifies with the vague idea of something “national”. Hindification and saffronisation are important parts of that process. And this is sold under the name of fostering unity. By all measures, this is an evil design. The time has come to hand over affairs of education, both school education (like CBSE) and university education (like central universities) to the respective states and Union Territories on which they are situated. The Indian Union cannot continue to suffer from an autocratic decision taken during the darkest period of its political democracy.

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Updated Date: Oct 27, 2016 11:30:19 IST