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.



2 thoughts on “How justified are reservations regarding reservations?”

  1. Brilliant Srishti! The sooner we learn to understand the ‘intangible’ factors that contributes to each of our merit, the more we will appreciate those who live with out it!

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