The Kerala government’s decision to reserve jobs for the poor among forward communities has angered backward class leaders and intellectuals, including many fellow travellers of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist). They have denounced it as a “retrograde measure” and criticised the government for not addressing first the long-standing demand for reserving posts in state-aided educational institutions for Dalit teachers.

Upper caste Hindu organisations such as the Nair Service Society have supported the “bold decision”. Implementing the measure, however, would require amending the Constitution, and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has said his government will urge the Centre to do just that.

No reservation

Kerala reserves 10% government jobs for Dalits. As a result, 298 of the 2,335 teachers in government-run colleges are Dalit. But privately run educational institutions are not required to follow the reservation policy even though the government pays their teachers’ salaries as well as grants for maintenance. The state has 238 Arts and Science colleges, of which just 58 are state-owned. Of the rest, 120 are managed by Christian and Muslim organisations and 60 by the Nair Service Society, Sree Nararyana Trust and the Devaswom Board. While the society represents upper caste Hindu Nairs, the trust represents the backward Hindu Ezhava community. The Board is a government body that manages the state’s temples.

Most of the schools too are privately managed. A 2016 survey by the National University of Educational Planning and Administration found that just 27.31% of Kerala’s schools are owned by the Department of Education; the rest are aided and unaided private schools. Unaided institutions do not receive any financial aid from the government.

In aided private colleges, the number of Dalit teachers is abysmally low. A Right to Information request filed in 2010 revealed that of the 7,199 teachers, only 11 belonged to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, a mere 0.15% of the total.

It is no better in schools. According to the National University of Educational Planning and Administration’s 2016 survey, Dalits constitute just 5.31% of the teachers across state-owned, aided and unaided schools – 12,883 out of a total 2,65,644.

Preventing change

In May 2015, the Kerala High Court directed universities to amend their statutes to ensure reservation for candidates from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities in teaching and non-teaching jobs in all government-aided, non-minority institutions. While the case was being heard, the University Grants Commission filed an affidavit in the court stating that state universities as well as their affiliated and constituent colleges should follow the state’s reservation policy.

But the High Court’s order could not be implemented as private managements obtained a stay on it in June 2015. A plea to vacate the stay order is pending in the court.

As long as the matter is in court, Education Minister C Raveendranath said, the government cannot do anything. “The government is committed to providing reservation to Dalits in teaching jobs,” he said. “But now it is up to the court to decide.”

The stay on the 2015 ruling was obtained by college managements of the Nair Service Society and the Sree Narayana Trust. But officials of both organisation refused to speak on the subject.

The Muslim Educational Society, which runs 18 Arts and Science Colleges, said it is ready to provide 10% reservation to Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe candidates. “MES has not challenged the court order,” said its president Fazal Gafoor. “We always supported the demand for Dalit reservation in private institutions.”

Gafoor said the High Court’s order will be binding on all minority institutions that receive government aid. “No institution can claim minority status if it gets financial aid from the government,” he explained.

No dearth of talent

Dalit job seekers have been agitating for reservation since 2010, organising under the banner of the Aided Sector Reservation Agitation Committee. OP Raveendran, the committee’s convenor, alleged that successive governments have not done anything to ensure justice to Dalits. “Data speaks volumes about the systematic exclusion of Dalits from teaching jobs in government-funded educational institutions,” he said. “Political parties don’t want to address the issue as we are not a political force to reckon with.”

He said there is no dearth of Dalit candidates for teaching jobs. “More than 10,000 Dalits are waiting for jobs,” he said. “Around 2,000 of them have cleared the National Eligibility Test conducted by the University Grants Commission. But the aided college managements are just ignoring us.”

Raveendranath agreed that there are plenty of qualified teachers from the Dalit community. “It is one of the big positives of Kerala’s public education system,” he added.

Rekha Raj, Amnesty India International’s manager for Women’s Rights, said since Dalits “don’t enjoy bargaining power, so successive governments have failed to provide justice to us”. Raj’s was one the petitions that led to the 2015 High Court ruling.

She said everybody knows Dalit representation is “agonisingly low” in educational institutions in Kerala, which claims to lead Indian states in education rankings. “But no one is bothered about addressing the issue,” said Raj, who did her master’s in philosophy in 1999 and passed the National Eligibility Test the same year. “This thought worries me the most.”

Raveendran said people running aided educational institutions have “robbed more than 20,000 Dalits of job opportunities so far”. “It is the government’s duty to make up for this gross injustice,” he added. “The government should provide jobs for Dalits in other sectors to rectify this injustice.”

Referring to the quota for the poor among forward communities, he said, “Upper caste Hindus in Kerala never took to the streets for reservation yet the government was magnanimous to them. We have been out on the streets for years demanding a constitutional right, but the government has ignored our very existence.”