On Wednesday, the Narendra Modi government approved reservation for 27 per cent Other Backward Class and 10 per cent Economically Weaker Section categories within the All-India Quota for National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, or NEET, the uniform entrance examination for medical and dental colleges across the country.
As expected, this decision to grant reservations became a burning issue in India. Widespread uproar on the internet by Savarnas has predictably called it ‘destruction of merit’, and usual quips like ‘This is why this country will always be backward and never be like America’ have started to echo. It’s a different matter, though, that there are affirmative action policies in the US.
A popular argument against reservations goes something like this: Why are SC/ST/OBCs with low marks snatching the seats of general category candidates? This false idea of ‘merit’ itself is a fallacy, which can be busted by the example of the NEET 2020 result. Nearly 82 per cent of the Dalit, tribal and OBC candidates cleared the cut-off set for their general category peers.
Even the Hindu Right-wing, which proudly vouches for Hindu unity, is rattled by the fact that their fellow Hindu OBCs would now get their rightful representation in medical colleges. Dominant caste groups are writing angry and melancholic obituaries about ‘The Death of Merit.’ Many even say that India’s policy should be ‘Nation First’ and reservations are a threat to this idea of nationhood.
The myth of merit
In 1958, Michael Young published a book called The Rise of the Meritocracy, where he coined the term ‘meritocracy.’ It describes a dystopian world in a future set in the United Kingdom in which intelligence and merit have become the prime virtue of society. In this book, the word ‘meritocracy’ was used in a satirical and ironic sense, which obviously had a negative connotation. Such is the absurdity of our society that ‘meritocracy’ successfully achieved a positive connotation representing the fairness of the system.
In fact, the widespread usage of this term is something that the writer himself had contested. In an article in The Guardian, Young expressed his disappointment about the misrepresentation of his satire. He writes about people who claim themselves to be meritorious. “They can be insufferably smug, much more so than the people who knew they had achieved advancement not on their own merit but because they were, as somebody’s son or daughter, the beneficiaries of nepotism.”
In the Indian context, the dominant castes’ entitlement about being the sole inheritors of merit has achieved the status of black comedy. ‘Merit’ is often invoked to argue that society should have a free and fair method of selection where only the worthy deserve a chance. This is ironic because socially, India has never been free and fair due to the hegemony of caste rules. Freeness and fairness, therefore, are concepts that Savarna invoke as per their convenience. The beneficiaries of the caste society — comfortable in their knowledge of ‘superiority’ and ‘entitlement’ — know that the ‘free and fair’ system will only favour them, like it always has.
Caste and role of progressives
Higher education has been, and continues to be, the domain of the dominant castes in India. Such was the hegemony of the Indian elites and oppressor-caste intellectuals that they had invisibilised the discourse of caste, and through their uncontested mediocrity and sheer privilege, claimed the state of ‘castelessness.’ Harvard University professor Ajantha Subramanian, in her book The Caste of Merit, writes, “In 1921 Brahmins made up approximately 74 percent of engineering college students, despite being only 3 percent of the enumerated regional population.”
Even after Independence, higher education remained the den of only a few dominant castes. In the post-Mandal era, this ‘upper caste’ hegemony in knowledge production was challenged because the campus started filling up with diverse voices from different caste locations. This led to insecurity among these ‘progressives’ for whom it is easy to speak and take ‘revolutionary’ stands when it doesn’t affect them directly, but most of them were generally against the reservation policies when the Mandal Commission was introduced.
Even now, liberals and progressives who can bash Modi with their tweets, are generally coy when it comes to talking about reservation and merit. The true test of liberalism in the caste society would be how much they can challenge their own privileges and educate their fellow oppressor castes about reservation. They have so far been hypocrites and all one can see is the unspoken bond of Savarna solidarity.
The ‘quota student’ slurs
The life of reserved category students even after getting into higher education isn’t as smooth as their counterparts. In the campuses dominated by oppressor-caste students and faculties, the casual commentary about ‘Quota students are talentless’ continues to be the favourite chai-sutta discussion.
This often leads to alienation and low-confidence among students belonging to the reserved categories, who constantly have to deal with these slurs that strip them of their dignity and worth. Many are driven to death by suicide.
These are the things that make you wonder what talent is and whether our education system is equipped to judge the talent of an individual. Political theorist Kancha Ilaiah writes in an article ‘Merit of Reservations’, “The brahmanical theory of Merit is like the Adi Shankaracharya theory of ‘Maya.’ It is disassociated from the living conditions of people…Its merit is based upon imported textbooks and mugged up reproduction.”
Argument that reservation should be based on class
In a society where everything is defined by your caste identity, reservations can’t be entirely based on class.
In Indian society, where SC/ST members are regularly subjected to humiliation and heinous crimes, reservation becomes a tool to grant them representation in jobs and colleges, which may lead to a life of dignity. The argument that few Dalits have become economically well-off and hence reservation is not required is based on the flawed concept that reservation is only an economic upliftment measure. There are many poverty alleviation programmes in India that are based on this concept. Reservation is not one of them.
OBC reservation is different because there is a concept of ‘creamy layer.’ The Supreme Court, on 16 November 1992 in the Indira Sawhney case, upheld 27 per cent reservation for OBCs, subject to exclusion of the creamy layer.
EWS reservation also has an income cap that provides quota exclusively to people belonging to the ‘upper caste’.
It is also interesting that the 10 per cent EWS reservation was announced along with OBC reservation, but Savarnas are only angry about the latter, because it is seen as an ‘incursion’ in their space. One hardly saw any protest or anger by Savarnas against the 10 per cent EWS reservation. I am yet to see tweets by Savarnas where they write, ‘I will not get treated by a doctor who did his degree under EWS reservation.’
This makes it quite clear that their opposition is not about reservation policy per se, but more about the access given to SC/ST/OBCs in jobs and education, which have historically been the castles of ‘upper caste’ dominance.
Spaces of higher education are based on exclusion. Reservation is a small step to bridge this gap and provide diversity in the campus. It would not be an exaggeration to say that reservation is part of the nation-building process where diverse voices from all sections of society are given a chance to navigate paths of progress, socially and economically. Any person who cares for nation-building and believes in ‘Nation First’ should celebrate reservation and stop this fascination with the false and mythical idea of ‘merit.’
In an unequal society, caste connections, networking, generational wealth and the ownership of physical capital are privileges ‘reserved’ for dominant castes.
I will take the liberty to twist the popular saying, “When you are accustomed to ‘upper caste’ privilege, reservation feels like oppression.”
Anurag is a multimedia artist and host of Anurag Minus Verma Podcast. He tweets @confusedvichar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)