On Thursday, less than 24 hours after the Rajya Sabha passed the Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-Fourth Amendment) Bill to introduce a quota for economically backward candidates, citizens’ organisation Youth For Equality challenged the legislation in the Supreme Court.

The petition cited laws and older judgements to argue that economic backwardness cannot be the only criterion for reservation and that a 10% reservation in addition to the existing 49.5% reservation in admissions will breach the Supreme Court-imposed cap on reserved seats. It also contended that the new policy contradicts existing judgements on reservation in private institutions that receive no aid from government in any form. However, Youth For Equality’s main objection is not so much the introduction of a quota for which income is the sole criterion but the increase in the total number of reserved seats because of it.

“Now more and more political parties/caste groups will claim for increased percentage of reservations, both at centre and state level,” said Youth For Equality in a statement. “The timing suggests that this step has been taken for electoral gains.”

Despite this, the organisation does support the decision to make “deprivation, not the caste… the basis of protective discrimination”.

Youth For Equality was born during the protests against the implementation of reservation for Other Backward Classes in 2006-’07. In 2007, the Central government had introduced a 27% quota in higher education for the Other Backward Classes. This was in addition to the existing 15% for the Scheduled Castes and 7.5% for Scheduled Tribes, both historically marginalised communities that were long excluded from education.

The minimum score for admission into reserved seats in colleges is typically lower than for the general category. This had led opponents of reservation to argue that it results in dilution of “merit”. Many refer to general category seats as the “merit quota” although the notion of “merit” in the context of higher education has been questioned repeatedly.

The protests against the 2007 policy were initiated and led by students of medicine in Delhi who went on to form Youth For Equality. But its president and orthopaedic surgeon at All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Kaushal Kant Mishra, has been protesting against caste-based reservations since 1993. That year, the government had announced it was ready to implement reservations for Other Backward Classes in government jobs. Mishra was then a student in Kanpur.

He said Youth For Equality has a membership of four lakh online but its support is expanding with the constant demand for new quotas. In 2009-’10, it contested a few elections – general, municipal and for panchayats – in several states. It even won a few panchayat seats in Jharkhand in 2010. It has stayed away from elections since but will contest the Delhi University Students’ Union one in 2019. In the past, it has occasionally supported the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad – students’ wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and a close relative of the Bharatiya Janata Party. But Mishra said the two have “nothing to do” with each other.

Edited excerpts for an interview:

Why do you oppose the amendment?

If we compare caste-based reservation with economic [or income-based] reservation, the latter is any day better. That is what we want, our Constitution demands that a casteless society be formed. But if we give any benefit on the basis of caste, it will never end. The amendment bill has two basic points. One is that the economically weaker sections should be supported by the state with reservation. We support this principle. The second point is that the 10% will be in addition to the existing quotas making 60% of the seats reserved. This, we oppose.

The Constitution says “other backward classes” and unfortunately, that has become synonymous with other backward castes. Economically backward section is a separate class altogether. This 10% should be subsumed within the existing 27% reservation for Other Backward Classes so that with all quotas combined, reservation does not exceed 50% and there is balance between quota candidates and merit-based candidates. This is what we want from the court and this is what our petition says.

Apart from the arguments in the petition, what do you make of this sudden introduction of a new quota?

This is a political compulsion of all political parties. Because of vote-bank politics, they cannot come out and say they are not ready for quota. They are catering to small sections of population and they are only trying to come for the next five years. They are not bothered about the future of the country. That is why, in the face of all the opposition against the BJP, the quota Bill passed within two days. It shows there is very strong compulsion for political parties – we understand that – but it should be subject to judicial scrutiny.

So, you would not mind all caste-based quotas being replaced by the income-based ones.

A professor and I designed a “social deprivation index” which was filed [in the Supreme Court] in 2010 during our case against the OBC reservation. We considered around 10 indicators such as the level of mother’s education, place of birth (in a village, town or city), the type of dwellings, and vehicles owned to determine the standard of deprivation experience by a candidate. That could be used to allocate reserved seats.

In fact, we will accept any system in which the individual beneficiary’s claims are considered and not a group’s. Whenever there are group-based benefits [, available to all members of the group,] there is a vote-bank. We want individualistic criteria.

What to do you think the effect of the 10% quota will be?

Right now, there is balance between the merit and quota seats. But if reservation exceeds 50%, it will become a problem as the number of people getting in on merit will reduce.

If there is just one post, you have to develop some criteria to select a person for that post. Any criteria the government chooses should consider the individual candidate rather than the group to which he belongs.

If we stop putting our caste name in front of our name in government documents, caste will never end.

What other campaigns has Youth For Equality undertaken?

In our case against the OBC reservation, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court ordered the implementation of the Right to Education Act 2009 in 2010. Secondly, the maximum expansion of seats in higher education took place due to our efforts. Despite the 27% reservation for OBCs, there was no reduction in seats for the general category but and sanctions seats in public education doubled. We have fought for “49-O” [a precursor to the “none of the above” option available in elections now].

Our judicial section is very active and that is why we have at least 25-30 petitions running right in the Supreme Court and various High Courts. I think around 15 petitions are challenging various caste-based quotas. Maratha reservation was challenged by us, before that the Jat reservation as well.

We have started a Mission 2020 campaign to end Parliamentary reservation as well.

Read more:

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