No pride in prejudice
In the never ending battle between the government and the IIMs, another front has recently been opened with the a commission proposing reservations for minorities in premier, 'merit-only' institutions like the IITs and the IIMs. Coming just a year or so after Murli Manohar Joshi's call for making the IIMs more accessible to the masses, this episode shows that intervention in the working of educational institutions is hardly a saffron brigade obsession, all parties seek to tinker around with these institutes, trying desperately to turn them into instruments for votebank politics.
Unfortunately, these debates tend to polarize opinions into extremes and those who tread a cautious middle ground are often at pains to explain why they see merits in both sides of the argument. As someone with left of centre leanings, I do hold on to the middle ground, even at the risk of being accused of equivocating, because the underlying issues are complex and multi-layered.
So if you were to ask me, does reservation in higher education institutions serve to improve the educational status and profiles of communities, my answer would be no. If you were to ask me should affirmative action continue for previously discriminated communities, the answer would be yes. If you were to ask me whether increasing the presence and profiles of communities in educational institutions would lead to greater integration and acceptance into society, my answer would be probably not.
Let me start off by answering the first question. The inadequacies of the present system of reservation have been extensively reported. Quite apart from the fact that benefits tend to be appropriated by a so-called 'creamy layer', one fails to see the logic behind the assertion as to how the cause of education among the backward will be furthered by lowering the qualifying bar for them.
Coming now to the second question, the injustices suffered by communities as a result of socially sanctioned customs and practices are very real and have significantly hindered them from achieving a quality of life to which all people are entitled. The disadvantages they have lived with have been imposed by an unfair system and it is imperative that the system compensate for that. However, I wonder if a strategy of allocating entitlements is appropriate when it would make much more sense to allocate resources. True empowerment can take place only when underprivileged students have access to quality undergraduate education and other ersources to enable them to compete on an equal footing with anyone. By offering a sop of reservations, the state is essentially washing its hands off the more critical problem of ensuring grass roots equality. Hence, I am a firm supporter of affirmative action, but I do feel that the present measures are woefully misguided and inadequate. In terms of sheer numbers, reservations in higher education have limited impact and they are probably not going to substantially alter the state of the discriminated. Let their be disproportionately higher spend and resources directed towards primary education of all communities, let the state firstly ensure that all children regardless of birth will be able to gain access to these resources, improvements will follow. Am I being overly naive? No, because I myself have seen this work. For all my gripes about the IIT system, I have to say that it was one of the most egalitarian systems in the country with an entrance test based purely on merit. I remember my class had students coming from rich business houses, who would commute in Lancers and Sonatas, to students who came from villages and had only ridden bicycles all their lives. Imagine, together in the same room, working on the same apparatus, two students, one whose father's annual income was less than the monthly pay of the other's dad. This scenario was not an uncommon one in IIT Delhi. One of the brightest students in my department was from a village in UP, whose parents strove hard to make ends meet, yet he was identified as having potential and put in a special school for gifted rural students. And now he was here, doing very well among some of the brightest people in the country. There was another story I read about the son of a gardener in IIT Bombay, who was successful in clearing the JEE and getting into the same institute where his father had spent 20 years tending hedges. It's stories like these that make me proud to be an IITian, not any misplaced elitist notions about 'the IITian stamp'.
Coming to the last issue, I am much less sanguine about the role of reservations in promoting integration. One of the worst kept secrets of the IITs is the subtle(I wonder) bias of the student community against reservations. I remember some of the most prejudiced comments on caste coming from my classmates in IIT, and if the supposedly brightest people of India think in these terms, then our future isn’t all that bright. “Yaar in logon ko ek alag IIT de dena chahiye aur inko yahaan humaare saath nahin compete karney ko kahaa jaana chahiye”. That was 4 years ago in IIT Delhi. Things are no different here in IIMA. There is an implicit assumption that affirmative action somehow dilutes the ‘brand’ of the meritorious students (!) who have come here through their own efforts. Those who make these claims forget that many of us have had the benefit of extensive coaching and personalized tuitions which have certainly given us an advantage over others, an advantage which accrued solely because we are fortunate enough to be the beneficiaries of a skewed and unfair system. I am not disparaging the achievement of getting into an IIT or IIM here, but it would do us no harm to view it in perspective. As a simple analogy, if it is assumed that getting coaching for IIT gives a student a competitive advantage, then just imagine being in a situation where you are denied not just IIT JEE coaching but are denied access to even the most basic and primary education simply because of being born in a certain womb. All of a sudden, the tag of merit seems dubious. Anyhow, the fact remains that even the IITs and IIMs harbour prejudices against those who benefit from reservations. Extending similar status to other communities will no doubt generate similar ill will towards them as well and that would certainly hurt one of the prime motives behind reservations, to promote greater contact and integration between students of different communities. It is on this point that I am most pessimistic, for I have collected ample evidence to the contrary during my times at school and college.