Thursday, May 25, 2006

Reservation - The Order of The Day

For the last couple of days, I have been besieged with the following fwd:

Manmohan Singh (to George Bush): We are sending 10 people to the moon.
GB: Really? Who?
MS: 3 OBCs, 2BCs, 4 astronauts and a woman!

I am sure most of you would have received variants of the same message by now; after all, there are only so many new fwds on a given day. I am irritated by the whole issue, and hence my (outspoken) thoughts on the whole mess:

First of all: why do we oppose reservation? Is it because we are convinced that reservation is bad for the future for our country (i.e. moral and/or patriotic reasons), or is it more 'coz we strongly feel that a 50% reservation policy (or something of a similar vein) would severely undermine our own chances in the not-so distant future? I have to admit, I personally feel that it is predominantly the latter factor that has propelled the issue this far; it certainly is THE principal factor that makes me curse the ilk of V.P.Singh and Arjun Singh. After all, there are lots and lots of other equally inane things (reservation for women? demolition of slums? the Narmada dam issue?) that do not attract even a minor proportion of the publicity that this issue has (not to suggest that this is unimportant; it is, equally so).

If this vague feeling of insecurity were not enough, we have the fact that for the last 50 years the policy of so-called affirmative action has not helped in any way at all - we KNOW that mere caste-based reservation does not help. We have all those studies - the various ones that Karan Thapar quoted in his interview with Arjun Singh - to prove it. But do the pro-reservation dimwits care? No sir! Instead of doing the correct thing - which would be taking steps to reform our primary education and our inane examination system, which I grant is a long-term solution, but a sane one at least - our folks compound the problem by adding layers of reservations. Reservations for school seats, reservations for college seats, reservations for jobs, reservations for promotions (oh isn't that in yet? Fear not, the day is not too far away).

What makes this newfound enthusiasm for reservation even more abhorrent is that it is based on caste. Yes, you got that right - on CASTE. After 50+ years of Independence, after all those fwds of how India is 'shining' and 'improving', the elected leaders of our country still continue to think on the lines of segregating people on religion and caste. Most of us have already been privy to televised debates where students belonging to the forward classes have been accusing BC and OBC students of not being competent enough, and the disgruntled (but obviously) (O)BC students have been reacting in equally poor taste. Trust our politicians to create an issue where none existed, of course.

Now, I disagree with those who say that a reservation policy based on economic strata might be a better idea; I disagree with the whole policy of affirmative action itself. Why? Because any reservation in the educational sector is based on marks. And as anybody who has done his/her public education in one of the universities in South India (I am not all that familiar with the scene in the rest of India, but trust me, I am not too hopeful on that front either) can tell you, our examination system sucks. Big-Time.

First of all, we have an evaluation system where teachers are paid based on how many exam papers they evaluate per day; of course, they 'evaluate' a few dozen exam papers per day to earn as much money as they can (I apologize to all the sincere teachers out there, but even you know that you are outnumbered). One cannot really balme them; its their livelihood, dammit.

Then of course, we have all those horror stories of exam papers missing - perhaps, half eaten by cows and goats 'coz the driver of the university van decided to take a leak in an empty farm, leaving the door open. Of course, then there are all those stories of how all roll-numbers beginning with 'S' got exactly 93 marks out of 100 - irrespective of how many questions they even attempted.

But you might say, the good students fare well anyway. Trust me, its out of desperation - one learns to beat the system. Use lots of color-pencils and crayons and stuff to 'beautify' your answer-paper; underline important points; practice your goddamn handwriting as if you were going for a friggin' handwriting competition instead of an exam on Discrete Mathematics - sound familiar? Yes, one learns to beat the system at its own game.

My point: any student with the sheer tenacity to grind it out - 'mug' pages and pages of the textbook with not an inkling of the concept behind it - is liable to get great marks and be 'eligible' for posts in institutions of higher studies. On the other hand, a truly intelligent and interested student who goes out of his/her way to refer other books and understand the ifs and the buts will most probably barely be able to gather passing grades. That's merit for you, most of the time.

Hence any policy of reservation in education finally comes down to this: those who learn to beat the system would now face competition from those who haven't learnt to beat the system; that these others happen to be from a different caste is but incidental IMO. Hence the very idea of reservation is repugnant to me - whether it be for other castes, or the underprivileged.

IMHO (mabbe a naive one at that) one of the best ways to help would be to establish a meritocratic system (a meritocratic system does have its share of flaws, but would definitely be an improvement on what exists now). Establish scholarships for the economically backward in all schools, be they private or public, and establish norms to ensure that only the truly economically challenged get to take advantage of such scholarships. Change all examinations to an objective-based system, so that one doesn't have to carry a whole friggin' crayon factory to the exams. Insread of pushing for affirmative action, establish a policy of zero-discrimination instead s.t. we do not have Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Jainish schools. I belive a combination of these factors would help, but the implementation - sadly, that is another matter altogether!

P.S: The worst part is, do even the most hardcore advocators of reservation believe that it will help the truly underprivileged? Those who need real help - the last thing they have on their mind is attending school; they are struggling to survive. So who is reservation really for?


Anonymous said...


There is no easy solution to the reservation issue in our country. I agree. But what is worrying is the ease with which the forward castes like you want to forget the past and remain 'forward' in your thinking.

'God of Small Things' being one of your favourite books, you should read the book more closely and try to understand the plight of the untouchables that was just a fading reality even in the last centuary when the first man landed on the moon. Can you even imagine what it is to be an untouchable? I know that most of you want to believe that all this happened in the dark ages that is far and gone.

The medical and engineering graduates coming out of the various colleges (read factories) can't be expected to have a sense of history, least of all traces of kindness and concern for humanity. The striking doctors and medical students of this country remain oblivious to the plight of the suffering patients. Why should they? After all a large percentage of these patients must be BC's, SC's and ST's, who cannot afford private hospitals.

Ranjit Nair said...

@Anon:I disagree with your opinion that I 'forget' . I also resent your 'Forward castes like you..' statement - it was totally uncalled for.

You miss my point entirely: will the proposed 'reservation' policy do any good to the truly needy - like the recent case of the Jarawas, for instance? It is people like these who need our help, irrespective of caste or creed. This particular policy will help nobody, in the long run.

Also, the past is just that: the past. The history of affirmattive action in the U.S is particularly illustrative; you really learn a lot about the pros and cons of such a policy being in place.

In no way do I believe that the issues of untouchability are irrelevant today. But once agin: is reservation the solution? Is it even a plausible solution? Not in my book, sorry!

Anonymous said...

Well…I didn't quite expect that you would resent my unsolicited statements. Never-the-less, I don't see any reason to regret what I have said. May be you'll understand why in the due course.

Let us face it Mr. Nair, caste was, is and will be, for some more decades, a unique and harsh reality in India. The detachment with which you are able to approach the issue is understandable. The fierce meritocracy that you profess is just natural in the country of your present stay where winner is worshiped and the looser despised.

Let me first bring this war of opinions to some plain contexts.

I, a postgraduate dalit (Cheruman) from Kerala, did a search for 'reservation' on Google's Blog Search and bumped into your blog. And why am I dragging caste again? Well.... contemplate a little and then ask yourself if my being a dalit has made any difference in your perception of what we are engaging ourselves in. I would be glad if there is a difference. But if there isn't any, I'd not be surprised. Dalits and adivasis were not even fit to be in the four varnas of our ancestors. They were non-existent as far as social life was concerned. All the respectable jobs "reserved" (100%) for the four castes of the varnas. This reservation policy was in effect for centuries. And the result of it definitely showing. I got this SMS on my mobile from some pro-reservation activist that said that among the 400 professors in Madras

IIT, there were over 70% Brahmins. Only 2% of Indian are Brahmins. Now, that's not just meritocracy. It is the result of the 100% reservation the Brahmins enjoyed over the centuries. Ten to fifteen generations getting the best schools, the best teachers, the best food and the best cultural heritage.

But yes, when it comes to the modern era time does seem to run fast. And thanks to theory of relativity we can explain that as well. When the upper castes were having a nice time centuries seemed to have passed so fast and just when the tables were tilted a little half a century seems like a millennia!!

I don’t understand why you allude to the issue of Jarawas in the Andaman, which is more anthropological in nature than the 21st century Indian social problem that we were discussing.

And Mr. Nair.... your grand theory about those who can or cannot beat the system sounds to me very high- schoolish. And what do you mean by "incidental"?. Are you suggesting that during Evolution due to some unknown factors, some men and women became untouchables and therefore could not be IN the system to understand it first, least of all learn to beat it? IMO the French queen Marie Antoinette would have analyzed the issue in a similar fashion. Something like- if the lower castes cannot beat the system let them be out of the system as they have always been!! This must be one of your "moments of sheer genius", right?

I have no stupid hopes of changing a "severely outspoken and opinionated" Nair's dogmas about meritocracy and equality.

Ranjit Nair said...

@Anon: Let me reply to your arguments one by one, but without resorting to caste-based name-calling.

a. About my detachment: am not, am strongly anti-reservation. And to clarify,I am equally against 'reserving' a large quota of seats for Hindus in Hindu colleges, for Muslims in Muslim colleges etc; my objections have nothing to do with my caste.

b. The 'country of my stay' is India; I just happened to spend 2 years in USA. However, your comments about that country being a place where 'winners are worshipped and losers despised' had me baffled. In India, do we worship losers? No, I daresay!

c. The USA, IMO, is not truly meritocratic, though they try hard get there. And it is their laws that promote and mandate equal opportunity that will get them there; the policies of affirmative action that they followed until the end of the 1970s did not get them anywhere.

d. You being a dalit matters no more to me than it would if you were Christian, Muslim or Sikh instead.

e. You mention the IITS; let me use them to further illustrate my point. Is a student from a backward caste appearing for an IIT qualification exam a real candidate for this 'reservation' policy our government is trying to enforce? Or, to phrase it in a different manner, is (s)he the most deserving candidate for the kind of help the government is trying to provide? Again, I say not.

f. Societal inequities have haunted India since centuries, as you have stated. But, to quote from your example once again, just because the IITs have a 70%-strong Brahmin population, is ensuring that hereforth their population will not rise beyond 40% (say) the right answer? I fear not. Such an approach attacks the symptom, and not the cause, I am afraid.

g. The issue of the Jarawas might be anthropological; my point was that there are plenty of states in our country where there is no access to even basic education. The backward castes suffer most in such regions, especially the girls. Isn't any talk about affirmative action for post-graduate programs futile when such basic issues are ignored?

h. Now, about the examination system: can you honestly claim that in all your years of education you have never ever tried to 'beat the system'? Have you, and everyone else who studied with you, always got the just marks that you deserved? By those who 'haven't learnt to beat the system', I meant those students with lesser marks; obviously those who have not been to school/college at all don't figure in the scheme of things (and I repeat again and again, it is they who need our help the most). It takes no genius to understand this.

It is good to know that you did not entertain any 'stupid' hopes of me changing my mind about affirmative action; such hopes would indeed have been stupid. And FYI, judging by the comments you have left so far, you are no less opinionated and outspoken than I am.

Anonymous said...

Here goes again...

a. Your creedal statement on reservation is very immature and insensitive. Where in the world do you not see sectarianism and partisan approach to governing? Our country is better than the US as far as impartiality is concerned. And you seem to have made the 'American way' your yardstick judging everything else. Haven't you heard/seen/read the way the Federal government handled the Katrina that hit the black dominated Louisiana. Would it have handled the calamity the same way if it were some other white dominated states? The fact is that all of us identify ourselves as groups. Globalization may have arrived but humans are still Americans, Europeans, Africans, Black, White, Brown, Rich, Poor,
Communists, Republicans....and it goes on. I don't see the point why we should all be the same. We can only 'imagine' like John Lennon did, in one of his drug infused dreams, that all of us are just humans with nothing to divide us.

b. I don't see your point. Where did I imply that losers have to be worshipped or are being worshipped in this country? I only wanted to suggest that why should our survival be the rat race that it could become if we are obsessed about winners and loosers.

c. I am not knowledgeable enough about the pros and cons of Affirmative Action. So I better not dwell on that at the moment. But I would like to look up some info on that. But let me tell you, nobody can ever prove that AA did more harm than good. If someone does, it would someone like you who is blindly anti-reservation.

d. Thanks. As I said I am not surprised by the politically correct answer.

e. Agreed. May be OR may not be. And I emphasise the 'may be'. And about the ones that may not really deserve the easy entry, the 'creamy layer' as they say, I think is a different issue altogether that needs to be delat with. I myself fall in this group. But let me tell you no political parties would want to touch upon the creamy layer issue of dalits or tribals as of now. It is too early to bring this ethnic group into this analysis. But with the OBC's who are about to get the extra quota it is high time that some kind of a marriage between merit and justice be legally solemnised. I personally feel that this should be extended to urban educated dalits as well. But that would be too touchy for political parties.

You may want to read a sound proposal by Satish Deshpande & Yogendra Yadav that was published in The Hindu (May 23, 2006).

f. Without any reservation policy we could have as well renamed our IIT's as BIT's (You know what B would stand for). What alternative do you propose to attack the 'cause' instead? The only alternative you seem capable of suggesting is total abolishment. And that, my dear, is the sole probelm I have with you.

I want to see a gradual reduction of caste-based quotas and reservation from this country. I wouldn't allow my son or daughter to avail quota. And I mean it. And there will be more and more like me who would volunteer. But then, I was fortunate to have born to working parents, grew up in Bangalore. Not many dalits are that lucky.

g. I understand your point. But this is a very simplistic analysis of a fierce idealist? I do see the connection between improving basic primary education to better the quality of higher education. But then this is a diversion from our present argument. You suddenly become a champion of the downtrodden which is hard to believe.

h. Are you suggesting that we should start reservation for illiterates of this country? Give me some means to improve the lot of this section.

I see a sly attempt of shifting positions in you. You do not want to dwell on the issues affecting the educated backward people who are in the mainstream. You clearly show your antagonism for these people. And you want to become the voice of the godforsaken people in various villages. That's a paradox.

After all it won't be long enough before some of those destitute people, with or without governmental help, reach the mainstream. And there will be people like you to intimidate them with your merit and equality diatribe.

i. run off into the wilderness.

Ranjit Nair said...

# The 'American way', as you put it, is no personal benchmark; it is just that I am slightly familiar with the history of affirmative action in the US, and hence find myself making comparisons. As for the handling of the floods: well, we did not do too well on that front either; would you drag race/caste into it as well?

# As for us being 'better' than the US at being impartial, I am not too convinced about that. Having faced a number of such situations myself (North-South, Hindu-Muslim...the list goes on), I find that slightly hard to swallow.

# I was not being politically correct; I truly don't care, belive it or not. Do I think I would not have indulged in this debate if you belonged to a different caste?

# The 'creamy layer', for want of a better expression, is indeed one of the biggest problems in this whole fiasco. Let's say that the government does implement the policies they are trying to: what prevents students from this 'creamy layer' from hogging most of the seats? And there is every reason to believe they would: with the vast amount of training courses available today, most students from the middle-class or upper middle-classes are on an equal footing as far as competetive exams are concerned. I truly do not think there would be such vociferous protests if a similar reservation policy were to be implemented for the economically challenged instead. If we follow the present course of action, we practically ensure that we are back to square one (best-case).

# The proposal outlined in the URL is sensible, and precisely the sort of thing one would not object to.

# I am not sure what you mean by total abolishment. But once again, any argument for reservation based on the unjust and blatant casteist politics of the past would be counter-productive. For instance, historically women have been deprived of education due to unjust soceital practices; in many parts of the country this still continues. Are we to reserve seats for them as well? Or does the suffering of women 'not count'?

# Concentrating on primary education (and that does not mean establishing, once again, reservation; instead it would entail ensuring that everyone has access to primary education) is not digression, IMO; it is the only, inevitable way to move forward.

# I am no champion of anything; I am merely suggesting what seems logical to me.

# I still fail to understand why you continue to harp on my so-called antagonism toward the educated backward classes. My position is this: somebody who is already in the mainstream (perhaps our definition of what this constitutes differ!), and has access to every possible avenue CANNOT and SHOULD NOT be permitted to use his/her caste as an excuse to usurb a position (job, college seat...whatever). If that constitues antagonism, then so be it.

# If this blind, stupid and senseless policy that the government advocates is implemented, I fear that the truly destitute will never 'enter the mainstream'.

Again, I run off into the wilderness (being Bangalore, for this weekend). Have a good time.

Anonymous said...

I think we should agree to disagree on one single issue before we go any further.

I do not and will never, at least for another 30-50 years, agree with anyone who wants to even think of stopping reservation completely.

However, I don't deny the fact that the way reservation has been handled by our governments has not been as productive as envisioned. But I would hasten to ask; have all governmental policies and plans and been as productive as envisoned? Why single out reservation?

Let's not forget that the present national debate is on reservation for OBC's and not for dalits. However, it is true that the debate has crossed the original parameters and has elicited a re-evaluation of the reservation policy as a whole.

I'm glad and sad at the turn of events that have evolved over the last couple of weeks.

Glad? Because it was time enough that we review the achievements of reservation and amend the necessary loopholes. Yes, there is a growing creamy layer who are prone to benefit more than the actual needy.

Sad? Because there have been such mad outbursts against reservation as a whole. About the concerted effort by the media, especially the English visual media, to make the whole debate one sided. About talks of total recall of reservations by the urban crowds.

The fact is that most of the urban crowd, including me, have no definite figures to show the caste based atrocities of the rural areas. Being blissfully ignorant is one thing. But blatant denial of such caste-based crimes is another.

Here are some stats from the editors of New Internationalist magazine in their July 2005 issue.

"In India, Dalits face constant discrimination. Every hour two are assaulted; everyday three Dalit women are raped and two Dalits are murdered - simply because they come from a caste considered 'Untouchable'; the bottom of the heap."

We are not talking about some age old practice that our (Or rather your) ancestors indulged in. We are dealing with an existing practice that we can witness if we care to travel a hundred miles from our cozy cities.

If you still do not want to make some room for thought on your stand on total recall of caste based reservation I would honestly want to stop this squabble.

Ranjit Nair said...

@Anon: I am afraid that we will have to agree to disagree then, because I do remain convinced that caste-based reservation in higher-education does not (,and judging by the present state of affairs, will never) cater to the truly needy, who langish with barely a chance to enter the equation.

Btw, I read an article that does a fair (IMO) summary, and arrives at conclusions similar to what I have outlined here (only, much better-worded). Figured you might be interested:,curpg-1.cms

Anonymous said...

Conscientious upper castes like Swaminathan Aiyar are rare. I have always liked his Sunday columns. But having switched to The Hindu I now realise that I am missing out on the wise man's words. Thank you so much for sending this.

The following point he makes is something that I would say to cynics who oppose reservation outright.

"Not even quality schools will give poor geniuses the advantages enjoyed by the elite: highly educated parents, access to books and media, contacts and connections."

This observation sort of consolidates the need for reservation in our present society.

Inspite of belonging to the 'creamy layer' I have no one from my entire extended family in the US, Europe or wherever. Is that the case with you? Were you the only one to visit the US in your entire extended family, with your sheer merit?

Further, since we have not had the kind of quality primary/secondary education that Mr. Aiyar has proposed in over 50 years since independence we should continue reservations in the Higher Education. At least until the first batch of students emerge out of such schools. Of course, the creamy layer could be put to additional criteria to bring them closer to the open category.

Memoryking said...

Liked your blog. Here is mine "No! Let’s join the self-proclaimed snobs protesting with slogans “Remember your place”, polishing shoes and cleaning premises? Let’s pretend not to see it at all! Damn Reservations!"

Anonymous said...

My dear friend,
Nice work and dedication. However your review of Padmajaran's work as a writer, screenplayer and director is not fully accurate. PLease stay away from blogging inaccurate information.