Reservation, Merit and Social Justice

Sukla Sen

The desirability and efficacy of affirmative actions in the form of caste-based reservations, in (higher) educational institutions, and by implications at various other levels including job opportunities, has again been pushed to the fore of our social discourse jostling with many other burning issues of the day for due space and attention by the recent Supreme Court stay order on a Central government decision in this regard.

On the first reading, the purported hesitations of the two-judge bench of the Court to allow the government to make and implement social policies with huge implications based on plainly antiquated data, in the event those available from the 1931 census, makes a hell lot of sense. But on a closer reading, when we find that even more important social measures – viz. reservations in government jobs, are for long in practice based on essentially the same/similar set of data, which anyway in the present case go well beyond the 1931 census and include inter alia various sample surveys carried out from time to time; one can hardly be blamed if it is considered just a nasty stalling tactic by the concerned judges putting their somewhat tyrannical powers and privileges to maximum use.

So far as the government of India is concerned, two moves are underway for a while. One, extend reservation to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) even in the portals of higher education including the “institutes of excellence”. While this is partly a new initiative, it is partly also to offset the earlier Supreme Court verdict drastically curtailing the scope for such caste-based reservations, by doing away with the same in the private institutions, and upholding/promoting money-power based reservations – just not implicitly, but also explicitly by validating management/NRI quota. There was also another move, now somewhat subdued, to extend job reservations to the organised private sectors.

So far as the reservation in the field of education is concerned, South Indian states are already having systems in place, which are far more radical than the one now proposed by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Interestingly the virulent student agitations led almost exclusively by the medical students against the government move had failed to cause any significant impact in the southern states, except in the then Bangalore.

The aim of the agitation, even if it appears to lie beyond the realm of feasibility, is just not to scuttle the new move granting the OBCs special quota in the domain of higher, or tertiary, education but to reverse and scrap the present system as well catering principally to the SCs and STs. The agitating (upper caste) students must also be having the contemplated job reservation in the private sectors on their minds.

The anti-reservationists in the main put forward the argument of ‘merit’ over ‘equity’. They also challenge that reservation promotes equity. Now in so far as the ‘merit’ argument is concerned, the anti-reservationists are evidently on a sticky wicket. These self-styled champions of ‘merit’ have nothing to say against various quotas, in the (mainly private) educational institutions, explicitly linked to payment of (much) larger than usual amount of money – in terms of capitation fess, higher tuition fees etc. (There is no murmur against the continually rising cost of education at all levels. In fact, it is even welcomed as a system which would help filtering out the ‘non-meritorious’. Money, in this case, is considered coterminous with ‘merit’.) That ‘reservation’ goes against the very logic of the ‘market’, presupposing and calling for direct State intervention in determination of access to and allocation of resources in an era when “market fundamentalism” is the fad of the day, must have had its impact just not on our media and the so-called “elite” drumbeating on the side of the aggrieved upper-caste students, but the judges in question as well. The fact that acquiring of ‘merit’, to be established through various competitive exams, also calls for expensive tutorials – not excluding purchase of question papers etc., apart from education in premier institutes entailing heavy expenses is simply brushed aside. Likewise, the highly non-level playing field that a student from the disadvantaged and discriminated against castes, or communities, is compelled to face in terms of highly asymmetrical distribution of accumulated cultural capital, apart from economic conditions etc., is hardly ever acknowledged.

The affirmative actions, on the other hand, apart from promoting social equity and integration, actively facilitate enlarging the social base/pool of the ‘meritorious’ by providing opportunities to come up in life to the members of those disadvantaged and traditionally marginalised ‘majorities’, at the lower/lowest rungs of the social ladder, who’d have been otherwise excluded. Hence the affirmative actions, quite contrary to the shrill claims made, actually help to raise the level of the ‘merit’ of the society taken as a whole.

But the question how, or rather to what extent, reservations actualise its intended objectives and whether it effectively preempts, by acting as palliatives with high emotional pulls, other positive measures, arguably far more fundamental, imperative for radical restructuring of the social hierarchy and democratisation of all spheres of life, of course, is a much trickier one and calls for a far closer and dispassionate look into the whole set of related issues. But this is hardly possible in an atmosphere charged with irrational and hypocritical hypes where the narrow self-interest of a rather thin slice of the incumbent elite is tried to be blatantly and aggressively sold and foisted upon the rest of the society in the name of ‘merit’ and all that.

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