Social equality is one of the most important goals of Independent India. But nearly 60 years down the line, the reality is a far cry from this ideal. 95% of the scavenger jobs are done by dalits/shudras and that is an extremely skewed statistic; one that appalls me and should appall anyone who considers caste-based discrimination to be evil. The only reason why this happens is because caste is still a major divisive force in our society and in spite of our constitution banning all kinds of discrimination, it existence is undeniable and its influence unquestionably mighty.
Affirmative action is the name given to the policy that seeks to give preference to communities that have been discriminated against and whose socio-economic status is low because of that discrimination. Affirmative action or reservations, they are both the same thing. The idea is that to uplift communities that face serious impediments to their progress because of social practices that seek to keep them ignorant and subservient. So far, in India, reservations were only for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. 'Scheduled Caste' people are also referred to as 'Dalits'. It was done to bring the 'outcasts' into the mainstream and empower them as citizens of the country.
Who are the OBCs? If you read that article carefully, you will realise that the OBCs are a diverse group of people identified by the Mandal commission as 'backward' on the basis of several parameters based on social, educational and economic criteria. There goes the argument that reservations should be based on economic status rather than caste, because the OBC category already takes into consideration the economic condition. What the anti-resevationists are really concerned about is the idea that economically backward brahmins would not get any share of the pie. Most brahmins are affluent and middle class. It is a percentage of brahmins who are economically backward. Plus, brahmins have a social support system in their favour in the form of maths and priesthood. Their social status enables them to live a more dignified life than that of those people who are forced to clean toilets for a living and are ostacrised for that very reason. Yes, there are poor brahmins who struggle to make their ends meet but it seems weird to compare the situation of these few (their actual numbers may be quite large) brahmins to the condition of an entire community that does not get equal footing in society? I am all for the upliftment of the economically backward, but we are talking about upliftment of people who are backward in a lot of respects, not just economical! I think social justice is more important. And the reservation policy is about social justice.
One of the arguments given against reservations in higher education is that there is a more urgent need to improve the primary education. Anti-reservationists say that if quality of education and infrastructure should be improved because without primary education, how can one take advantage of higher education? Of course, our primary education infrastructure is not good. One statistic says that most of the primary schools in India lack toilets, which is cited as one of the reasons for high dropout rates of girl students who need a sheltered place to go and lack of toilets makes it difficult to attend school. The thing about higher education is that it is qualification that really equips you with pragmatic job skills. A graduate degree certifies you to be capable of performing a job while a school education just means that you are literate. It is conceivable for a school educated dalit to be still forced to clean toilets in spite of his/her education because a secondary school pass certificate does not mean you will get a better job. It is the nature and pay of the job that uplifts someone economically, not literacy. Look at the enormous difference in jobs that a college grad is qualified for and a high school grad is qualified for. Quite frankly, in this world, it is degrees (and the brand name of the college that gave you that degree) matter more than capabilities because that degree is taken as a certificate of capability. Also, that degree means that you have been imparted certain skills and knowledge. If you want to truly uplift a community of people, then there should be reservations in higher education.
A lot of people are against reservations because they say that this policy would "dilute" the quality of the higher educational institutes. They say that people who get admitted to colleges through the SC/ST quota are not good enough because they lack "merit". Merit is a quality that says that some people are more worthy than others but do we have a right way of measuring merit? JEE definitely is not able to judge merit. A major quantity of people who manage to clear JEE are from a few cities. Kota is called a factory because of its infamous coaching institutes and they are undeniably successful in coaching people to clear JEE. If you judge the merit of a student by his/her JEE rank, then you are, quite frankly, wrong. There are people who got a rank lower than me but are much smarter than me. Also, I know of people who did not get into IIT in spite of being 'deserving' candidates. JEE simply is an incorrect indicator of merit. What about 12th standard marks? Do they quantify merit? No, they don't. The emphasis in our schools is on rote-learning, which is a serious impediment to learning. People who get centums in board examinations are most likely to be people who have read the textbooks from cover to cover and have just vomited the entire mugged up information on the answer scripts. To tell the truth, there is no real indicator of merit. Because, in my opinion, merit is not just about brain power. It is also other things like, perseverance, determination and emotional strength. And there is no test in this world that can truly test these capabilities. I know one person who tried three times before getting into IIT and I thought he truly deserved it because he worked hard for it (and he continued his hard work in IIT). "But SC/ST students are unable to keep up with the general category people. They do poorly and they flunk out". I have seen people from both the SC/ST group and the general category do poorly in IITs. Even general category students flunk exams, repeat courses and sometime, get terminated. If they were truly more deserving, how do you explain this? And there are some SC/ST students who do really well. Besides, SC/ST really face a lot of discrimination inside IITs. In IITK, the IIT I graduated from, there was a prof who routinely treated the quota students badly. He insulted them in front of the entire class. He would call them names, term them undeserving and generally make their life hell. This has been going on for years and he is not a young prof (he is actually reaching retirement). All complaints against him were ineffective and nothing was done about this matter. We (I and a friend of mine) wrote an article about his atrocious behaviour in the campus newsletter and guess what happened -- nothing! He was chastised and that was it. No disciplinary action, nothing. There was no faculty outcry (there were some faculty who felt really strongly about this and guess what they are called in the institute -- communists), which lead me to believe that they were silently in approval of his thoughts (but maybe not his actions). This was a prof who openly discriminated against the SC/ST students. A lot of times, the discrimination is subtle and there in nothing one can do about it. Because, when you see someone getting away with overt discrimination, you generally shut up and take the crap. Even if you face subtle discrimination in classrooms, it would be understandable to not attend those classes and that gives the instructor an opportunity to fail him.
Concerns about 'quality' of the 'product' of the IITs must take a backseat to concerns about social justice. Besides, IITs are institutes of national importance and receive approximately 10% of the educational budget. They have an obligation to be a shining example of 'the better India' we want to create in the near future.
There are some people who think all individuals are capable of reaching the heights of success irrespective of their origins. They would point to a news item about a guy who managed to go to IIT in spite of being the son of a rickshaw puller. They never sit down and think why this story is news-worthy. Is it because it is an extremely rare and exceptional case where someone which such humble beginnings managed to get through the tough IIT exam? Of course it is. Why else would a newspaper devote time and money to cover this story and give it space on its pages? An individual cannot be totally free of his circumstances. The libertarian view is pretty ideal and quite commendable but in reality, a person cannot rely completely on his hard work when the retrograde practices that belong in history books are still practiced.
The only point against reservations that is worth considering is the idea that reservations only benefit people who are already well-off. It is an unsubstantiated claim of people who make this assertion on the basis of anecdotal evidence. If we started relying on anecdotal evidence when creating policies, then all would be lost. Personally, I do not think this is true. Yes, it is true that some people who benefit from reservations do come from well-off families and their use of the reservation is not morally justifiable. The thing is there will always be some who misuse some right given to them. If we do go for an income-based reservation policy, it would be much more misused than this. But we cannot rule out this concern and one should make a more detailed study about who are being benefited by the reservation policy. Venkat points out that reservation policy has indeed benefited SC/STs. He gives his own example as a beneficiary of reservation.
One other objection to the reservation policy is that it is just a government that is playing vote-bank politics. It may be something that the government is doing to get more votes in the next elections but can you dismiss the reservation policy suggested by the Mandal commission whose recommendations were given after considerable research and thoughts so? Plus, I want to know how they are going to get the government to roll back the policy decision by antagonising them? If somebody antagonises me by calling me an opportunist, I am likely to shut all doors to them and unlikely to listen/debate/respond to them. It is quite an asinine thing to do, not to mention the asinine logic behind it.
In my family, they revere a saint of the 12th century called Basaveshwara who was a social reformer who felt that untouchability was a bad practice and worked to eliminate it. Though he wasn't very successful (obviously), he is revered in Karnataka as a great man and his teaching are quite popular. People who profess to follow his teachings still reserve a separate mug/plate for lower-caste people. Why is that? They might never have a logical explanation for this but it really stems from that idea that lower-caste people are daridra (wretched) and therefore, they should not touch anything that we use lest we become daridra too. Caste is still an important consideration when marriages are arranged. To my knowledge, most (>99%) arranged marriages are intra-caste, even amongst highly-educated and city-bred. People are hypocrites when they say that they do not discriminate on the basis of caste and do not think that lower-caste people are inferior and still are against inter-caste marriages. In fact, inter-caste couples who elope because their parents are opposed to their union run the risk of getting killed, and this happens even in cities. Caste is purely hereditary, ie, I supposedly belong to this caste because my father belongs to that caste. If we want to combat casteism and destroy it completely, I think the best way to do it would be by promoting inter-caste marriages! If youth who are protesting against reservation take this stand now that they won’t marry within their own castes and would work towards eliminating this divisive hereditary force, we would probably not need reservations. Can all those youths protesting against (and for) reservations be willing to put their thalis/wedding rings/mangalya sutra where their 'anti-discriminative' mouth is? I doubt it very much.
Annie thinks that reservation is a matter of "do we want to help the backward move forward? Or not?" and she is willing to put her money where her mouth is. Personally, I don’t think the issue is that simple. I think she assumes that reservations are a step in the right direction. I think reservations are necessary and evil. They are necessary because I do not see any foreseeable pragmatic way of bringing social justice. It is evil because in its quest to deliver its said goals and unify people, it divides people into categories – general and reserved! And I do not think any kind of segregation is a good idea.
Technorati tags: Reservations, Caste Politics