Of Caste and Creed and Quotas, of Cabbages and Kings

I realised the blogosphere was talking about Arjun Singh’s barmi-ness when I saw this. Yeah, I’m a bit of a lost soul. Especially when it comes to talking about things of ‘topical interest’. Which is why I don’t usually do it.

But then, sometimes I have to. One thing about the reservation debate that I see in blogworld is that it is as one-dimensional as it is in the rest of the media. Reservations are based on caste / class / gender. Therefore, reservations are a tool to right historical wrongs. Reservations have been around for the past fifty years. That’s enough time to right any wrong, so the bell ought to ring and let the politicians out of the classroom. Or, time doesn’t matter, the wrong’s not been righted yet, so we need to continue what we’re doing with reservations.

But the reservation debate is bigger than that. All this while, we’ve been taking stands. It’s time we explored the whys and the wherefores, isn’t it? Why reservations? The answer we’ve heard till now has been the ‘upliftment of the downtrodden, the righting of historical wrongs’. And we’ve heard it so often, we don’t ask if there could be another. But last sem, I got a brilliant paper comparing the rationale of reservations to the discourse on affirmative action in the US.

And I learnt that there could be a different rationale – one the US courts have been using to justify affirmative action. Diversity. They’ve upheld affirmative action on the grounds that diversity in the student body is integral to a complete educational experience. Obviously, the history is different, the context is different – no wonder the rationale is different. But let us pause and think a little.

What are our universities, our ‘centres of excellence’, trying to do? I won’t speak for the Central Universities, but of the IITs and IIMs I will. Because the law schools are going down the same path. Centres of Excellence. Training the best engineers, the best managers, the best lawyers. But they end up doing so much more. Some of the most well-rounded individuals of my generation come from these centres of excellence. These institutions have transcended the boundaries of discipline to produce persons who excel at whatever it is they set their mind to.

That is why we’re proud of them.

Pause again. Would my experience of law school have been poorer if the student body didn’t have people so different from me in it? Of course it would. Would I have been better off if I hadn’t, in my first week of college, been told to go do field work in a Karnataka village where one of my classmates could put me up? Of course not.* Much of what I learnt at a centre of excellence, I learnt from my classmates. From seniors. From the fact that we were so different. From having to live in a hostel with a roommate who was as obsessively neat as I was messy.

So yes, diversity has its value.

Would we have had that diversity without reservations? No. That boy with the amazing singing voice who scraped through his exams but went on to become a successful lawyer may not have made it without the existing quota policy. The guy who made our batch the TT champs of college for all five years we were there (the only sport we ever actually won at) may not have been there. The charming teddy bear with the stammer wouldn’t make a good lawyer by any conventional standards – but he does today. The girl who fed me Maggi to keep me awake in return for pre-exam crash courses wouldn’t have made it. I can go on and on and on.

You could have the same diverse student body without the reservations, some people say. But it isn’t true. As it becomes more and more expensive to study in these places, the student body is getting more and more homogenous. I can see it. For every student who believes that if he gets in he can get a loan and study, there are ten whose debt-averse culture doesn’t allow them to contemplate it. Caste seems to be the only socio-cultural difference that is being factored in.

So, yes, diversity is good. Reservations have resulted in diversity. But that is not to say that I don’t think Arjun Singh is barmy. Because the king in his castle, looking at his cabbage patch, can’t decide how to grow lettuces, or what do do with snails. A policy of reservation dictated by a central government, imposed across institutions, based on a wish to right a supposed wrong, cannot be justified because it’s led to an enriched college experience for me.

But believing that merit is what you can score in an entrance exam and not what you contribute to an institution is, however, barmy too. The debate on reservations should not be a debate on whether we should ‘sacrifice merit’. It should be a debate on what universities should aim to do. And on whether Arjun Singh has any say in what our universities wish to do or in how they do it.

*I didn’t actually go, but being told I should was liberating in a weird kind of way, wasn’t it?


4 Responses

  1. Very interesting perspective.

    Diversity, I agree with. Quotas, I agree with. That it should be on the basis of caste, I do not agree.

    Agreed that the quota system added to the diversity of my batch at IIT. However, to say that it turned monochrome to a rainbow would be far from the truth. The people who come in via the quota system are the upper n percent of the SC/ST classes. You’re still not being diverse across the economic spectrum.

    I am not against reservation. I am against a poor implementation of reservation as a solution to the poverty of certain classes.

    I am against it not happening at the primary school level.

  2. I dont really understand the connection between reservation and diversity. So, kindly tell me, what diversity that the 50% caste reservation brought to you?

    Many of the so called backward class candidates are from equally affluent backgrounds.

    Now the point is that, you have 100 entrants in your class selected based o class, caste and sports. They would have contributed something to you. But, can they replace the 100 odd merit guys, who were denied the place. Those merit guys cud have become even better lawyers. They might have led to better innovations, better ideas and a better society. And more, why should you punish those 100 guys just becaz you wanted a slight bit of so-called diversity?

  3. Thats a really interesting post. The problem is, it remains true that reservations do not affect the truly backward (economically).

  4. AB – Thank you. I agree – caste is not the ideal thing to base diversity on. Also agree with your point on primary school education – make it quality education, make it available to everyone, that’s the first step to improving higher education! And yes, I can’t seem to help myself when it comes to using initial letters…

    Balaji – My point here is that looking at the issue as a merit v. reservation thing is just one aspect of it. There is much more that needs to be discussed – including the value of diversity to higher education and the level at which decisions regarding admission policy ought to be taken.

    Scribe – Thank you. As I said in reply to AB, I agree that caste per se is a very limited category and that we need to look beyond it.

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