How justified are reservations regarding reservations?

Talking to some opponents of reservations (i.e the system of reserving seats in educational institutions and the employment sector for backward classes) is a lot like playing chess with a pigeon. No matter how cogent your arguments, they just shit all over the place and strut around like they have won. This article is not so much in defense of reservations, as in opposition to some of the offensive, cruel, or wrong arguments used against it.

I recently went to a very interesting event where the speaker made very solid arguments in support of reservations, and as a rebuttal to it, a man got up and asked him whether he would like to be treated by a ‘Dalit Doctor’. He had a very smug expression on his face, which showed that he thought he had given a very smart comeback to the speaker, as opposed to having made a vile bigoted remark in public.

To those who are not familiar with the Indian context this remark is as vile a question as ‘would you like to be treated by a (woman, person of color, etc). This man was trying to imply that the system of reservations has diluted the ‘merit pool’ so much, that people would not be okay with being treated by a Dalit doctor, since he would ipso facto be a bad doctor. This really sums up the core rationalization of people who are opposed to reservations. They hold aloft this idea of ‘merit’ without looking into the context of this merit, or its origins. So I would like to ask some questions  to these opponents of reservations.

But let me clarify something first. I acknowledge that the system of reservations has some flaws. We need to account for the creamy-layer in all reservations. We need to ensure that while providing reservations, we also provide a good primary education infrastructure and give under-privileged children a chance to access the kind of schools the children of the rich access. Eventually we might be able to move to a place where we take a ‘diversity’ based approach instead of the fixed system of quotas now. However, if it were an all or nothing situation (i.e keep ’em or scrap ’em), I would support reservations.

Now the first question I would like to ask the reader is:

How do you define merit?

The ability to score high marks in a Joint Entrance Test/ Board Examination could be an indication of a few things:

a) An aptitude for language and problem solving, to a certain extent.

b) Access to opportunities like good schools, good coaching centers where you are given the right kind of training.

c) Access to the right kind of schools, and expensive books.

d) A comfortable environment at home, where you get proper nutrition and care, and can focus on studying.

As things stand, certain communities do not have access to b to d points. And hence, they might not score that well on those ‘merit’ criteria, given that the medium in which they have to survive is viscous. How do we account for something that is so intangible. How do we account for the tribal boy’s 6 km walk back and forth from school in terms of an educational percentile? We can not. 

But this does not mean that the people who score lower on the JEE or the Board Examination will not go on to be stupendously good doctors. We have so many instances, in law school, of mediocre students (in terms of marks) succeeding in litigation, or people from low-key unheard of law schools earning very well from practice. There are skills you pick up on the way, there are things you learn by virtue of grit and determination, that you can not place a percentile value on.So to answer you question Mr Unknown Bigot, if a underprivileged person makes it to a great hospital with grit and determination, I would love to be treated by him, because if he could battle his circumstances, my illness will be nothing compared to that.

However, these crusaders of merit will NEVER ask you if you would be okay with being treated by someone who got in through a management seat (i.e. a seat you get through donations). Because, to them, getting a leg up due to reservations is not fine, but getting one due to the family’s financial position is just okay.

But I didn’t cause the historical injustice, why should I pay for it?

This is perhaps an argument that is very context blind.  Human beings are nothing without their context. The clothes you wear, the school you go to, the nutrition you get, are NOTHING without looking at your context. So if you belong to a community that has traditionally enjoyed a high income, high levels of education, you have enjoyed the historical status-quo. You are not a creature in a vacuum, and your 90% in board examinations is as much a product of the status-quo, as that of the score of a person from a backward class. You many not want to own up to the idea of that historical injustice, but people live it, EVERYDAY.

If I could make it why can’t they?

This argument is often made by people from an underprivileged background who have ‘made it’, as they say. After going up the ladder of success, they begin to think they had no help to do it, so if anyone really tries, he can overcome social hierarchies. In fact this argument assumes that if you can’t overcome these adversities, you simply are lazy or have not tried enough.

Well the fact is people who ‘make it’, often don’t make it without help. Perhaps success makes them less ready to acknowledge this. But even if we assume that they did it on their own, we can not and should not place the burden on everyone in an underprivileged community. Because those with money and privilege certainly don’t always make it on their own. The rich often use contacts, money, and resources (and perhaps it is human nature to push whatever advantage you have). However, when there is significant historical advantage enjoyed by one class, there is nothing wrong with the state trying to create a level playing field. Just something to think about.

How will the poor dears survive in our premiere institutions?

In any discussion there will be an avuncular character who will tell you how students from backward communities commit suicide in I.I.T s because they can not cope with the pressure.  I wonder if it has ever occurred to them that these suicides may be because of the caste bias the students face, or the inability of the institution to accommodate them by giving remedial lectures and mentoring facilities.

The point is that there are students who battle a poor primary education infrastructure and come to our premiere institutions. Here, the system fails them again by not taking the initiative to accommodate them.  Call me naive, but the suicide by ANY student due to work pressure is really a sign of bad management and a poor concern of the students mental health. So maybe we could reflect on that before making a ‘those poor dears’ statement.

What does a diverse classroom do?

One thing I learn as a student of ILS Law College in Pune, was that a diverse classroom is an amazing thing. Given that the fees of the college are very reasonable, a wide spectrum of students came there. Some of my classmates were outside Maharashtra, some from within Maharashtra, some belonged to communities that are provided reservations, some belonged to the open category. The educational experience was diverse in the sense that we came across different perspectives, life stories and ideas. Some we did not agree with, some were interesting and some disturbing. But the diversity in the class was something I cherished. So I came to see reservations as not just something that benefits the individual, but it benefits the university too, by giving people a chance to study in a rich diverse environment.

I am not trying to tell you what to think, dear reader. Somehow I have never been able to accept the idea of complete moral certainty of issues. Can there be a better way of organizing society, (maybe)? Can we, within our fractured politics, bring out a better system of reservations? Certainly. Can you, for legitimate reasons, oppose reservations? (Yes, of course).

The point of writing this article was to tell you that there are arguments you make unthinkingly and angrily. Sometimes these arguments ignore important truths like the intangibility of merit, or the benefits of a   diverse classroom. Sometimes you are just being hypocritical by supporting management seats, and opposing reservations. If you can think of these things, and then make a cogent and sensitive critique of the system of reservations, maybe we will all benefit and bring about some change.

I welcome a discussion by those who wish to do the latter. Pigeons, please stay off my chess board.


Rajanigandha: Movie Review

Rajanigandha is a 1974 film directed by Basu Chatterjee, starring Vidya Sinha and Amol Palekar. The movie is based on a Novel called “Yahi Sach Hai” by Manu Bhandari.

Why have I decided to review this movie? Well, firstly because I love the movie. At a time when Bollywood was consumed by song and dance routines and thrillers, this movie was about regular people, and their very regular love and heartbreak. It is really to Basu Chatterjee’s credit that he has made such a beautiful movie out of something so ordinary.

The other reason is that this film, while not being open-ended (the end is very conclusive), is certainly open to many different interpretations. For my dad this movie is a classic example of the fickleness of human nature, and how we can change our mind suddenly and completely, while still being genuine and sincere.

But before I go further, I must tell you the plot-line. And yes! There might be spoilers.

Sanjay (Amol Palekar) is a good and affectionate man. The problem? He is very forgetful and absent-minded. Deepa (Vidya Sinha) is his girlfriend, who has been in a relationship with him over a few years. They love each other very much, and want to get married as soon as Sanjay gets a promotion, and Deepa is done writing her thesis. The two of them live in Delhi.

Sanjay, however, tests Deepa’s patience a lot because of his habits. He will be so engrossed in talking, that he will forget to pay her a compliment. He will invariably come late to their rendezvous, probably because he stayed in office too long talking to friends. However, he is genuinely in love with Deepa, and always comes to her in good humor, bearing a bouquet of Rajaniganda flowers. (yes, that is where the name comes from).

Deepa in the meanwhile, gets a job interview in Bombay, and decides to go for it, since a job as a teacher could mean financial security for them, and they can both move to Bombay. When in Bombay, she meets her old flame Navin. They broke up before she joined college, under less than pleasant circumstances. He broke up with her since she would not listen to him (obey him, specifically), and the breakup letter was a terse one. He was the first man she loved, and hence the incident still haunted her.

When in Bombay, Navin goes out of his way to be helpful to Deepa. He helps her get the job she was interviewing for, and also shows her around the city. It is clear that he is trying to woo her, though he is not confident about expressing his feelings to her.

Deepa realizes, in the course of her stay in Bombay that Sanjay and Navin are opposites of each other. While Sanjay is warm, open, affectionate, but not dependable and suave, Navin is a man who is always punctual, reticent, remembers to open doors, and generally makes her feel taken care of. He also works in advertising, and attends parties, while hobnobbing with the elite in Bombay.

Sanjay on the other hand is the kind of man who goes out into the rain with a torn umbrella, and uses the good half to cover her in the rain, while getting wet himself. He then uses blotting paper to dry himself up!

Perhaps due to the fact that Navin was her first love, and also due to the qualities she sees in Navin which she finds absent in Sanjay, Deepa begins developing feelings for Navin. She is thus facing a dilemma, who does she choose? While Navin also reciprocates these feelings, he is not a man who is capable of exposing himself, and hence he remains tight-lipped about his feelings for Deepa, till her last day in Bombay. When he comes to see her off at the station, he makes a last dash towards her, while the train is leaving the station, which reveals what he feels.

Now Deepa, reaches Delhi, and is waiting for a letter about her job from Navin. Sanjay has gone out of town for a few days. Deepa seems to be certain she now cares for Navin, and should move to Bombay if she gets the job.

Sure enough a letter comes for her from Navin, telling her about the job, and also saying that he is happy she has got it. However, the letter is a short, in-expressive one, and somehow she is reminded of the break-up letter that he had sent her in the past.

At that moment Sanjay lands up with a bouquet of Rajanigandha flowers. On seeing him, she forgets all about Bombay, the job, Navin, and embraces Sanjay, understanding that her life with Sanjay is the only truth. (Yahi sach hai)

Now I can understand it when people interpret this movie, to be about human fickleness, or frailty. On the face of it, Deepa can not make up her mind on who to choose, and seems to gravitate towards the one who is in front of her. It is not that she is being insincere. She just seems to be in love with both men, at different times in the movie.

But I think this interpretation misses the deeper sub-text in the movie. Deepa is exasperated by Sanjay’s behavior, and it is compounded by the fact that there is not a malicious bone in his body. He is not trying her patience on purpose, but is a generally forgetful man.

In this context she finds Navin, who gives her relief from these irksome qualities of Sanjay. Navin is relevant only because of his differentness from Sanjay, he has no relevance otherwise. But the truth is, as Deepa realizes at the climax of the movie, that what binds us to the people we love are not so much their perfections, its the things that annoy us. Sanjay would not be the man she loved if it were not for his annoying habits of being late, as much as his love and magnanimity.

Another interesting thing that I observed in the movie was that ultimately Deepa chose the person who could not do without her (before I be accused of gender stereotyping, let me clarify that what is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander, and I am not trying to say that this is something women do). I think that a lot of people are more inclined to be with those who need us, rather than those who can just get by. To Sanjay Deepa’s forsaking her would have made a terrible difference, and he would not have let his ego stand in the way of showing it. So somewhere I think what clinched it for him was the fact that love necessarily finds its root in tenderness.

Which is what baffles me about television’s (and some young people’s) obsession these days with ideas like ‘playing it cool’ and being a ‘bro’ (I think that is what it is called?). Of course I doubt these are the concerns of any responsible adult (mostly jobless teenagers, who hopefully grow out of it in time), but it makes me sad that there is a ton of TV shows out there telling people that suits matter more than genuineness, and indifference is a sign of emotional growth.

It was true in 1970 (and as far as I am concerned it is true now), between a suave chivalrous man who tries to be an island and a genuine guy with a bouquet of Rajanigandha’s in his hand, the latter will win hands down.

Watch the movie if this has piqued your interest, and leave a comment if you agree or disagree.



Why Kendriya Vidyalayas are AWESOME!

It was a very frequent occurrence during my childhood that the girl’s from La Marteniere (or other convent schools), who lived in my colony would introduce me to their friends (in their clipped nasal English that has come to symbolize affluence in India) thusly:

‘This is Srishti. She studies in a ‘Kendriya Vidyalaya’ (*eyes rolling)

Kendriya Vidyalayas are (for those not in the know) Central Schools, i.e. schools run by the Government of India where you get a cheap but good education (using the term loosely). They were built so that Government servants, in frequently transferable jobs, can send their kids to a different school, whenever they are transferred, without worrying about dislocating them too much. I must have attended four different Kendriya Vidyalayas in all.

Somehow this, nasally condescending, introduction made me feel more relieved than irritated because I was aware of two things:

1) I went to a school which, for various reasons, did not cultivate a sense of institutional superiority. I think as a child I understood something that I have often lost sight of as an adult, institutional superiority complexes are comic at their best, and disturbing at their worst (i.e refer to Hufflepuff for the former and Slytherin for the latter).

2) My schooling did not interfere with my education. (I am of course paraphrasing a certain Samuel Langhorn Clemens).

Now what do I mean by this? I mean that I received literary instruction at my school, I learnt about the sciences, mathematics, and understood that sports is a good thing.I can write decently, as you see (I mean, hopefully, as you see). String words together tolerably. Sometimes though the incorrigible  ‘KV-ian’ in me comes out, and I mispronounce “Hakka Noodles” or the word  “Canary” (I cannot get the hang of that word. I just can’t.). It was the basic requirements of an education covered. So why do I describe the experience as AWESOME?

Because people left me ALONE, to find my way, and become a young adult on my own terms. NO ONE tried to mess with my head, and give me a well rounded personality. They did not try to teach me how to speak three foreign languages while playing football, and balancing a violin on my head. When I look at all the well rounded personalities that private schools regularly churn out, I get goosebumps, and hold my imperfection tightly to my chest, thanking heavens for my Rs 300 a year education, which did not make me perfect. Not even close.

What it did give me was the ability to make friends with people from different parts of the country, with different backgrounds. It taught me not to take too much pride in good grades or good diction, because really most of your abilities are half chance. It taught me that people have immense room for self improvement on their own, and that giving kids minimal homework actually lets them be happy young people.

I enjoyed the long games periods, in the usually sprawling grounds that KVs have (though I never really played any sports of any kind). I did try to throw a javelin once, however projectile motion is a complicated thing, and the Javelin just hung limply in the air, and then fell down near my feet. This caused the games teacher to shake his head with violent disappointment, almost as if I had failed a dope test on the eve of the Olympics.

I also remember the hot summer afternoons, after lunch break, when we would have classes. The most soporific effect would be that of Hindi poetry classes, where we would have to take turns in reading poetry. Some classes would of course turn bizarre, because poems would, in detail, discuss things like the physiology of elephants in heat, or the polygamous tendencies of Krishna.  How the latter was considered age appropriate, I will never know, but it was poetry, so there!

But this gives me an idea! We could try teaching sex education to children through Hindi couplets written in the Veera-rasa. I think that will take care of the question of Indian values, and spreading of the Hindi Language all at once. Don’t tell me this idea is not Pure Gold. We could schedule the class right after the compulsory scripture lessons, and top it up with lessons on self-control and compulsory roti-stuffing into unwilling mouths.

Anyhow, as we grew older our social sciences syllabus was divided into History, Geography and Civics. Civics is an extremely important subject that teaches young students their place in the world, bits of the constitution and mores of social organization. The syllabus is organized to be as Soul Crushing as possible,  but luckily I had a wonderful Social Sciences teacher, who could even make reading transcripts of a Manmoham Singh speech interesting. I think she (Ms Aditi Chatterjee) played a wonderful role for me and my classmates in Kendriya Vidyala Ballygunge, Kolkata. She taught us to think for ourselves, question the tide of current events. Imagine 14 year old children discussing the Iraq war in a classroom with a coherence and eloquence that I have struggled to find even in college! This was right before our prejudices set like cement in our sub-conscious, and we were more willing to listen to a contrary point of view.

I also remember the canteen and the rather squishy Samosas and Jaljeera for sale there. People developed addictions to it, from what I remember.

I think this post is coming dangerously close to becoming a unceasing walk down memory lane. One can’t use a blog too often to take such trips, out of fear of losing their readers along the way.

I feel that in our quest towards educating our young, we are focusing on turning them into elites, well spoken with a good sartorial sense, mixed in with their sense of entitlement. Private school education, with its humungous fees  ensures a kind of income bracket homogeneity and talent engineering that makes kids ‘designer kids’. And if that is what one wants out of an education, there is nothing wrong with it.

For those who value the imperfection in their kids, and are okay with taking a bit of a lottery on exactly what the kid is going to become, try a school that lets them be. That gives them the basics and sets them free.

If you can, then try a KV! 🙂

Did your law education teach you to challenge the status quo?

Disclaimer: Today’s blog post is going to be anecdotal and subjective. Constraints of the subject I am writing on.

Let me start by telling you why I decided to study law. From a very young age I saw law as a tool for social change. Growing up as I did in the states of Odisha and West Bengal, it was hard not to feel that way.

West Bengal of course had that glorious (but quite dark in parts) period in its history where the landless and the underprivileged stood up to demand their rights.The need for an equitable distribution of land was thrown into the lime-light and took up a big part of the discourse.

Odisha, while I was there was in the middle of an interesting churning. Mining companies were increasingly trying to make inroads into the land of the tribals. There was a genuine push back from the tribal communities, as the land that was sought to be taken away was often a source of livelihood, cultural identity, and in one case (namely that of the Niyamgiri hills) it had religious significance.

Incidents such as the protests and Nandigram and Singur took place in West Bengal, before I finished my twelfth grade and both these incidents (though largely ignored by the national media) shook the Bengali imagination,

The law seemed like a source of comfort, and the legal system a safe space where one could agitate against the excesses of the executive. The judiciary had inspired, and to a large extent still inspires the trust of Indian citizens. It felt natural then, that law could, and was supposed to be used as a tool by which existing power structures could be challenged, and sometimes lasting change could be brought about.  

Later I learnt  that law was not always a tool for social change. In a large number of cases it was a tool for maintaining the status quo, promoting vested interests and reinforcing power equations. If you look around to see the ‘chattelization’ of women under Indian adultery law, or the treatment given to persons with mental disabilities, the criminalization of certain sexual acts between consenting adults, you begin to realize that like our society, law is a conflicting site of various points of view. There is a tug of war between vested interests, and we can only hope that the march is towards progress and not regression.

I joined ILS Law college in 2007, and studied there for five years. In the course of this I met some brilliant professors, and some genuinely interesting people. These people, like me, joined the law school right after 12th grade, at the age of 18. They studied with me for five years. During my studies, and after graduation, I met people from various other law schools, some of whom  I got to  know well. So I feel that I can write about law education in India with a bit of authority, if not with the same ease and confidence that a pedagogue displays.

Of late I have been thinking of what legal education in India has achieved, and more over what it has failed to do. This got me thinking about one very specific aspect of legal education. Did it in fact teach people to challenge the status quo? And more fundamentally should it teach people to challenge the status quo?

My experience is that there was nothing substantial in the education most law students were given, that really taught us to analyze why power structures exist, and whether we should challenge them. The initiative was largely of individual teachers.For example I must mention Professor Jaya Sagade who completely changed the way I read and understood the law. She taught us at ILS not only to read a statute but also ask ourselves why it exists, who it benefits and whether we agree with it or not. If I had not had the honor of studying under her, I don’t know if I would be here asking these questions.

I asked a few other people people I know this very question question. On asking a classmate whether her law education taught her to question the status quo, she said, and I quote her: 

“no it did not instill in me the spirit to challenge the status quo. my law education except the subject women and law taught by Prof Sagade, was entirely based on the rote approach. I could not appreciate the peculiarities or circumstances that involved the legislature to draft the legislation.
also our system is not dynamic enough we either are under the tutelage of professors who want you to get marks or seniors or partners who want to make money.”
Another person I asked the same question felt that it was not really the job of legal education to teach you to challenge the status quo, but it was their job to give you the skills needed to survive. 
Another person had this take:
“personally dont think any education (law or otherwise) will help you challenge the status quo unless you feel for the cause so much so you decide to challenge it..nope i dont think law education helped with that..its a personal response, i dont think law edu did that for me .. for some maybe the need to challenge comes through law education, but it didn’t for me..”

Of all the people I spoke to, only one person felt that her law education had helped her challenge the status quo, because it helped her understand the rights of people, and if the status quo went against those rights, it had to be challenged.

I have included these anecdotal excerpts because I wanted to paint a slightly more representative picture than simply talk about my experiences. But having considered everything, I must mention certain systematic problems in the way our curriculum is built, financed, and the way we perceive law education.  I will try to list some of them:

The issue of attitudes.

I remember seniors, lawyers, colleagues, and teachers all telling me, in a very well meaning manner, that I should not call myself a ‘human rights’ lawyer because human rights lawyers are not taken seriously. I have heard lawyers representing an NGO just being brushed off in Court (irrespective of the merit of their argument) on because NGOs are ‘publicity hungry’. Whenever people articulate the idea that a law expresses  a male point of view or the point of view of the rich, their objectivity is questioned as they are ‘channeling a feminist agenda’ or a ‘socialist agenda’. However the blatant channeling of patriarchy or capitalism is considered ‘neutrality’.

Products of law school are much more comfortable with ‘doing whatever it takes to win a case’ but uncomfortable with taking an ideological stance, because while the former is what lawyers are supposed to do, the latter is a sign of weakness. Human rights and their allied concerns are packed off and kept in a separate enclosure away from the main body of law, as if most law is not the articulation of the rights of human beings. 

In India people have quite forgotten the link between criminal defense and human rights, and the two are mostly seen in water tight compartments. 

Until issues like human rights and human entitlements take their place in the mainstream of law, I feel our legal education will be stunted, producing people who can accomplish given tasks, but not think critically.

The issue of finances.

Law education in India is not a cheap affair, if you are joining a National Law school. The fees are to the tune of Rs 7 lakhs for five years. (My friends from National Law Schools can correct me if I am wrong). It seems to me that a student from a economically underprivileged background can join these schools if she takes a loan (or is given a scholarship). Scholarship students do not really form a large chunk of the student body, so I am presuming that a lot of underprivileged students who join these colleges take loans. This makes it very difficult for them to take subjects/ jobs that do not make them employable for high paying jobs. So we see a situation where students who would have a rich perspective on  challenging the status quo, themselves being from an under-privileged background, are actually prevented from doing so due to the  financial framework of a legal education.

Litigation is notorious for not paying well in the initial years, which means that we do not really want to give ease of access to those who are not economically well off. There is little wonder then, at the fact that litigation essentially becomes a place for the sons (sometimes daughters) of established lawyers, with little room for a new comer.

The lack of an interdisciplinary approach.

Social sciences are still thought of as ‘matters of opinion’ by a large body of law students. A very small number of law students or young law professional read about politics, sociology, economics, except to pass exams).

This does not leave much room for them to apply an inter-disciplinary approach into making their arguments. At the Supreme Court and some High Courts one does get to see this kind of innovative litigation now and then, but it hardly permeates into all levels. 

This is because while being taught about a law, we are rarely ever asked to think about questions of justice, and politics. 

It is quite like that cave of Plato’s we learnt about. Most people see that dance of shadows, spend five years or entire lifetimes believing that to the reality.

But perhaps I am wrong. Maybe the legal education in India is churning out masses of sensitive critically thinking people, who may not want to devote their lives to public service, but do spend a lot of time thinking of and debating ethics and morality. Maybe they regularly question social organization, or existing power structures.

Perhaps I am wrong at a more basic level. Maybe no education is meant to teach you to challenge the status quo. Maybe the job of an education is to just make you competent at research and well spoken.

Maybe you just need to be taught how to hold a fork and spoon, and never ask why some people go hungry.

If so, the correct my impression with a comment below. If not, let us help everyone (including ourselves) get out of the cave.