An Indian court has put on hold a controversial government plan to raise the number of college seats set aside for lower caste Hindus. As Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi, the government had introduced the measure to fulfill its pledge to assist disadvantaged groups.
A two-judge bench of the Supreme Court has asked the government to provide more accurate data on the educational and economic status of India's lower castes, for which the government wants to set aside nearly half the seats in federally funded educational institutions. The court says the government has used 70-year-old data to justify its plan.
The plan was to take effect this year. It would have doubled the percentage of seats, from about 25 percent to 50 percent, that Indian public colleges have reserved for lower caste Hindus under an existing affirmative action program.
Hinduism divides people into many castes, and those in the lower ranked castes face discrimination. The government says it wants to increase the quotas to give social and economic opportunity to those in what are known as the "backward classes."
But the plan triggered widespread controversy, and angry street protests by students who say entrance to universities should be based on merit alone.
The protesting students and other critics charge that the government is raising quotas only to widen public support for the ruling Congress Party. They say many of those who would have benefited from the new quotas have already moved up the social and economic ladder.
Independent political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan notes that the court has not yet ruled against the quotas, or "reservations," as they are known.
"There is no doubt that the tone of the judgment was critical of reservations as a practice and an idea, but they stopped short of ruling it as unconstitutional," he said. "The court has leaned against the way in which reservation policy is being implemented: in particular, they have objected to the way in which the groups who are classified as eligible for this benefit are being chosen."
Government ministers who spearheaded the plan say they will press ahead with the affirmative action program, and are confident that the court will finally allow its implementation.
Opponents of the plan say it will lower standards in the top professional colleges, which have produced some of the country's most skilled doctors, engineers and managers.
Supporters say quotas are essential to give the lower castes a better chance at quality education, and ensure that more of the population is included in the country's surging economic development.