‘Why do We oppose Reservations…?’

Rahul Varman

[Today (March 29), the Supreme Court of India “stayed the implementation of the 27 per cent quota for Other Backward Classes in elite educational institutions like IITs and IIMs for 2007-08…. A Bench comprising Justice Arijit Pasayat and Justice L.S. Panda … said the State is empowered to enact affirmative action to help the backward classes, but it should not be unduly adverse to those who are left out. The Bench further said “reservation cannot be permanent and appear to perpetrate backwardness. If the seats in the central educational institutions were increased without reservation it would have gone to the general category.” Indicting the Government for enacting such a law, the Bench said “nowhere in the world Castes queue to be branded as backward. Nowhere is there a competition to become backward. With this Act, the subject of the equality is unduly put under strain.” On the contention of the Centre that it had taken the 1931 census as basis for fixing 27% quota for OBCs, the bench said what may have been the data in 1931 census cannot be a determinative factor now. The concept of creamy layer is not prima-facie relevant as contented by the Centre. “The Bench further said there is no explanation as to why there is no firm data for determining backwardness.” As a result unequals are treated as equals”. – The Hindu. In the interest of debates on this issue of caste reservations which has crucially determined the tenor of Indian politics, Radical Notes will be publishing a series of articles and reactions on the issue, in the context of the judgement. We are reproducing here an article by a faculty member of one of the elite institutions where the SC has stayed the implementation of 27% backward caste reservations, India Institute of Technology (Kanpur). The article was written and circulated during the last year’s anti-reservation agitation. – Editors]

I teach at one of the IITs, and off late my students, colleagues, friends and relatives have been sending me mails, organising meetings, writing petitions, initiating e-tirades, etc. against the recent MHRD announcement and generally taking it for granted that I’ll join them in their protests. Each time they are taken by surprise when I decline their offer, try to mumble something as to why I do not agree with them, or sometimes simply keep quiet if I have the advantage of an impersonal medium like the email. But increasingly it has been hard to shrug the whole issue away – every time I open my mail box, or as I walk along the corridor, and even as I bid farewell to my students of the outgoing batch, the sentiment against reservations seem to be thick in the air intermixed with the feeling of unease when one does not make the ‘right’ noises. And therefore I’ll try to articulate at some length as to why I disagree with the ‘anti-reservationists’, (the issue is too complicated for a mere agree/ disagree vote); in spite of having little sympathy with MHRD and their ‘motivated’ methods.

Let me begin with an incident which occurred when I had just joined IITK way back in 1994. We were staying in the guest house then and some census officials knocked on our door one afternoon to make enquiries for filling up a questionnaire. On being asked about my caste my wife expressed her unawareness. When a brief consultation with each other trying to ‘categorise’ my surname did not yield any answer, the main person resolved the issue in an ingenious way. After confirming that I was a faculty member, he told his associate in quiet confidence, “likh do, Brahman honge”. The point that I want to stress here is that it is not suddenly that either Mr. Arjun Singh today, or 16 years earlier Mr. B P Mandal, suddenly injected the caste divisions into our society (or, for that matter, in the elite educational institutes) as is being alleged by those against the reservations. The caste divide very much exists everywhere in our society and especially so in any of these elite institutes; my claim would be borne out by the names on the doors along the corridors in the faculty corridors or during the roll call in any of the class rooms. Only thing is that those who are on the right side of the divide can choose to ignore it. This will also be borne out by various kinds of statistics if we bother to look at them.

Some say that instead of caste we should talk about the economic deprivation and by bringing caste reservations we’ll only bring in more divisiveness. I do not understand this argument; it is like saying that we should not address the gender oppression as an issue primarily concerning women, as men also have been sometimes oppressed; or that racial discrimination is not about the blacks and Hispanics in the US, as whites also are sometimes on the receiving end. Further, as if acknowledgement of this form of discrimination(s), instead of being a logical step towards affirmative action, would actually promote them. Coming back to reservations in the present context, it is true that a lot of men and upper castes are also oppressed, but here we are talking about a specific systemic historical subjugation of a massive magnitude, at present perhaps involving more than half a billion people. Reservations may not be answer to this problem but the issue cannot be addressed by bringing in every other kind of discrimination also while attempting to address this issue. Caste problem can be solved only by addressing caste issues; similarly if there are other discriminations that exist in the society (and of course they do) they need to be identified and addressed too, not substituting one form of redressal for the other. Further if the social and economic equity spreads it will not harden the caste identity but loosen it as I’ll argue further through the experience of the southern states later.

Of course the most important argument of those protesting is that it is against the ‘merit’, that it is going to keep the ‘meritorious’ students out and bring in lesser students due to reservations, which in turn will ‘lower’ the standards and destroy the excellence of such institutes, which has been so assiduously and precariously cultivated as a part of the post colonial nation building project. Now this argument is at various levels and we can examine various parts of it one by one.

The first part of the above argument is that reservations will bring students who lack merit and hence will lower the standards of the elite institutions; hence they should be kept away from such reservations. The point is that what does this merit really mean? In any exam where lakhs appear and only thousands get selected, it is not that rest are ‘bad’ but only that there are very limited opportunities. But does it mean that if we go down in the performance list of the exams, others are incapable of undergoing the training and we as an institution are incapable of teaching them in whatever it takes to make them a good professional? Remember we are talking of half a billion people when we say ‘backwards’. Can’t we find handful out of them who have the ‘capability’ to undergo the required training? To me the argument does not sound very different from the ancient times where by their birth a large number were excluded from learning Sanskrit or entering the temples. It is very much like Dronacharya refusing admission to Eklavya. Moreover, we do not seem to even recognise the odds that the children from disadvantaged face; my friend who is from a village 100 kms from Kanpur tells me that his village has just one school where hundreds study across classes with one 18 year old teacher for all the classes put together! And the point is that, even in this school, dalit children are not even allowed to drink from the public pot kept for the rest of the children. In contrast, is it merit when we see that overwhelming majority of those who clear the JEE and CAT are able to do so, only after spending huge resources, money and time, as will be borne out from the newspapers inserts everyday and hoardings at every corner in vast urban parts of the country? What this shows is the singular lack of opportunities and the desperation of educated youth to find a berth in the elite institutions that will catapult them into a different social and economic orbit. Now the point is that these berths are being reserved in one way so far, the question is are we ready to alter that process?

If something sets the elite institutions apart it is the enormous resources that they attract, both human as well as material. And I do not see what stops such individuals who enter even after reservations from becoming good professionals given proper nurturing and resources. As far as failing of students in such institutes is concerned we’ll find that students of all categories make such a list as the overwhelming reason for that is either lack of motivation and/ or the social context and not the lack of ability. Many students after clearing JEE, CAT, etc. lose the motivation to do well – they stop going to classes and studying and look for other expressions in life and simply feel alienated with the academics. The second reason is that many students simply find it hard to adjust to a westernised – elite culture of these institutions, especially those who come from rural or small town background. Since they are not able to find the right kind of supporting network of friends and peers they are not able to perform as a lot of learning in such institutions is collective. Many of the reserved category students have to further bear the stigma of coming through ‘quota’, of not being good enough and hence they get into a shell and are more likely to find themselves alienated, which finally reflects on their performance. If this is so, then what is required is more supporting systems within institutions and not stopping them at the gates.

As a teacher I have also seen cases where within a semester or two some of the so called ‘poor students’ are completely transformed. They have been able to adjust to the requirements of the system and flourish, may be with the help of a supporting friend, or a patient teacher, or through an activity where they could express themselves, or a combination of the above. Moreover if these institutes are not only abut learning inside the class as we never tire telling the fresh students, but about becoming a complete professional as so many alumni will vouch for, and transforming a teenager into a professional who is in touch with her surroundings, then of course this diversity can do wonders to the overall learning inside and outside the class rooms. I have learnt so much from those of my students who are different from my protected middle class upbringing – a village in eastern UP, a small town in Bihar, a construction site in Kerala, and so on. Though I understand nothing about the medical education, but I am sure if a student can bring his experience of a Chattisgarh village, it can contribute hugely to the real education in the class.

One can at this point ask a further question, is merit all about passing exams? After all, are the exams a means or an end? If the exams are means to look for ability to make better engineers, doctors and managers, then can there be better methods to look for such ability? After all in my first engineering class I was told that a good engineer is the one who can produce the best out of the least resources and similarly, management is supposed to find one’s way in an uncertain situation – or allocate scarce resources in the most optimal way possible. If that is so, whatever I have seen of our deprived masses (of which overwhelming majority belongs to the backward, dalit castes or adivasis), they have the astonishing capacity to make something productive from almost next to nothing! For the last few years I have been studying small industry clusters, like Moradabad brass, Varanasi silk and Kanpur leather. Put together (all the clusters in the country), they are exporting more than the IT sector and their cumulative employment will be several times of the whole of IT industry. In all these clusters they operate with miniscule resources – small investment, no electricity, forget about air-conditioning, non existent roads, lack of water, and little formal education. These clusters are primarily constituted of these so called backward/ dalit castes and are truly a tribute to the genius that our society is. But in spite of centuries of excellence these communities have hardly produced any formal ‘engineers’, ‘doctors’ and ‘managers’, and conversely these elite institutions have not developed any linkages with such industries and their people.

This brings me to a further question, what do ‘meritorious’ students from these institutions do when they pass out? I recall what Srilata Swaminathan, the noted activist, had said at the beginning of her talk at IIMA in the early 1990s (I at the time was a student there), “I am told that this is the cream of the country, and what do you do, sell soaps and toothpastes (ITC, HLL, etc. were the most coveted recruiters those days)?”. There was hushed silence in a room full of students and faculty. I remember in the mid-90s my sense of disbelief, when I was the placement coordinator for my department, the HR manager of one of the big three Indian IT companies told me, “as long as somebody can recognise a keyboard we take him” in response to my query about what they sought in a potential employee. Remember this company over the years has employed thousands of IIT-IIM engineers – managers. As a child I remember the famous surgeon in my home town, who would first cut up a patient and then renegotiate the price with the relatives, before proceeding with the surgery! Or everywhere around me I find ‘meritorious’ doctors employed in public hospitals, drawing comfortable salaries and doing roaring private practice! You are not even required to turn up in the village health centre even once if you have a rural posting. If the majority of our people usually have to do with the village quack, they would not mind a ‘slightly less meritorious doctor’ coming to take care of them, instead of finding solace in the fact that super-specialised doctors are ensuring that the elite of our country have no wrinkles, and such like grave ailments. I recall when some students from IITK, almost all of them belonging to the North from UP to MP to Orissa, went to participate in post Tsunami relief work in Tamil Nadu. After they came back the overwhelming feeling was this difference from the North that “things are different over there and they work!” My relatives and acquaintances prefer to go down south when they are seriously unwell and not to Delhi or Lucknow. Remember this is the same place which has implemented the ‘quota’ much before Mandal and much beyond it too. I hear of far less caste strife in Tamil Nadu than in UP where caste based reservations have been implemented for such a long time – it does not seem to have furthered the caste based identities in South into a full fledged war like Bihar and UP. Point is ‘merit’ is not about stopping somebody at the gates or throwing them out of these seats of learning, but in creating robust institutions which can cultivate and nurture the talent with all the complexities of a vast and disparate society that we are.

Let’s put the creamy layer argument also in perspective now. Point is that such elite education which has so many barriers – expensive and time consuming coaching, expensive education, elite culture, etc. is under the present order going to be a preserve only of a select few. All we are saying is whether it is going to be the preserve of a few higher castes or some of the other castes can also find an entry. Even if it is backward IAS’s daughter, so be it, finally many others are also IAS’s wards, so how does it make a difference? As has been rightly said by the critiques, it’s a populist measure for the votes. etc. But so is every single policy of the govt. and so it will be in a ‘vote bank democracy’ – either for the votes directly, or for generating resources for the next election. When an Ambani or an Enron is granted abominable concessions, why don’t we come on streets and say, “it is for money for the next elections.”

The difficulty perhaps is that we are only against certain kinds of reservation. When an Ambani becomes a CEO, when a Gandhi becomes a minister, we do not say it is against merit, when a professor whose son is not able to qualify JEE, is still able to send her child abroad for higher studies, we do not say it is reservation, when only Valmikis do all the cleaning work at IITK we do not say it is reservation, the point that we need to ponder is that why is it that we are only against certain kind of reservation and for certain kind of merit?

Finally for those of us who think that the present reservation exercise is ornamental and they would like to do something more basic and lasting, I recommend a reading of the Mandal report – they will find that the report goes to some length to capture the socio-economic indicators in understanding and classifying ‘backwards’. Moreover reservation is a small part of their recommendation which includes things like special coaching for the disadvantaged to basic issues like land reforms. The difficulty is that in all these years, only the naxalite movement seem to have taken up some of the radical suggestions of the Mandal Commission! Meanwhile I have a question for those whose problem is the hasty implementation, that “how can we implement MHRD’s recommendations so suddenly?” After all, the report has been available for debate, discussion, modification and implementation for all these 16 years! Why is it that we have suddenly woken up to bother about primary – secondary education as well as the economic upliftment of the masses, only when the government has started acting in its own bumbling ways? As far as I know, no academic body or business institutions like CII has debated these issues and no committees have been setup to examine the Mandal report all this while. Finally, history is catching up in its own imperfect ways. We need to ponder whether these institutions are meant only for supplying cheap labour for the American corporations. If they have to be more than that, the time has come for us to be self critical and look beyond the knee jerk response to the present quagmire.

The author is Associate Professor at the Department of Industrial & Management Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur.


  1. When we talk about merit, why do we easily forget about the private educational institutes which are there in India, where a person who has enough money can go and earn any kind of degrees – ranging from medicine to enginerring? Most of them who enroll in to these institutions dont even have the qualifying marks. Why are we not talking about this?

  2. “But in spite of centuries of excellence these communities have hardly produced any formal ‘engineers’, ‘doctors’ and ‘managers’, and conversely these elite institutions have not developed any linkages with such industries and their people.”
    Brilliantly put.As someone who has worked with artisans since 15 years,I agree completely.In Thailand because they are not spending all their scientific and technological resources going into space,they have created wonderful systems of tooling by closely studying craft processes so better quality and higher quantity can be produced by dividing the work into parts that can be done by tools and part that needs highly skilled hand work.
    There are no design,training and management institutes for this huge “jugadu” class.Even mainstream industrial clusters like Ludhiana and Faridabad employ Ramgarhia Lohars ,a Sikh backward class to do most technical operations.I know of such skilled Sikhs who can create cheap copies of fancy German machines so material can be processed in India.
    If these castes had adequate training we would be where China is,Taiwan is.Our Brahmanical,babugiri mentality can only allow us to become clerks to the world.

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