29 Feb 2024  |   06:09am IST

Dispelling reservations about reservations

Those who denounce reservations suffer from selective recall bias. They harp on one or two instances where a beneficiary of a reserved seat in academia or employment was (to them) found wanting. But instances where someone from the ‘general’ category was grossly incompetent are conveniently ignored
Dispelling reservations about reservations

Luis Dias

I was at a dinner party some months ago, when I heard snatches of conversation a few places down the table from me.

The topic was some bureaucratic appointment in a government department. “He can’t even speak English properly! Honestly, it’s high time reservations were scrapped. Everything should be on merit.”

And then the conversation drifted off to something else. I know I should have said something to counter the comment, but I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t. I can give a list of excuses why I didn’t: I was too tired to get into an argument; I felt it might dampen the mood; and perhaps most crucially, I felt it would not change the person’s viewpoint no matter what I said. 

So I’m writing here what I should have said.

 Some decades ago, I too subscribed to the view that “everything should be on merit.” It sounds so egalitarian, so just so logical, doesn’t it, on the face of it?

The first seeds of doubt to this view were sown in the wake of the massive protests nationwide against the implementation of the Mandal Commission report by the V. P. Singh government in 1990. I was a resident doctor then, and was initially impressed by NDTV coverage of young doctors like me, in white coats, stethoscopes around necks or in pockets braving water-cannons and lathi-charges on the streets. I was aghast by the self-immolations by students in protests, and their deaths in many cases.

But NDTV also covered the other side of the argument. A young Dalit asked, “Why is it OK to have capitation colleges for those who can’t get in on merit? If you have money, you can bypass the merit-based system and nobody questions this.” I had never thought of this before. I knew colleagues studying medicine and engineering in such colleges, and it was just accepted as ‘normal.’

I began to read up in earnest about caste discrimination and injustice a decade later for a whole host of reasons not worth going into here, when I really understood the fallacy of the ‘merit’ argument.

The idea of ‘merit’ presupposes the notion of a level playing field. The oppressed castes and other marginalised sections of society have had to endure systemic barriers to education, employment (except those considered demeaning and other sections were unwilling to do), nutrition, healthcare, housing, land ownership for so many centuries that they have been left far behind. 

The caste system, in other words, has been in everything but name, another ‘reservation’ system where its benefits have accrued over centuries if not millennia, to the dominant castes. The inherent endogamy that keeps it alive to this day has conferred a ‘blindness’ to their own privilege and entitlement, and a blissful ignorance of and insulation from the hardships faced by those outside that ‘entitled’ ‘elite’ circle.

There’s an interesting video on YouTube called “Equal opportunity? Different starting lines.” It has an American setting, of course, but the message is universal: Those born into privilege have a head-start in the “running race” of life. In the video, the youth with the head-start for example were those who didn’t have to worry where their next meal was coming from, didn’t have to help their parents to put food on the table and pay for rent and other living expenses. In the Indian setting, so many more privileges could be added to that list: just having a roof over one’s head, or indeed a stable address to allow one to have an Aadhar card and other essential ‘kaagaz’ (documents) that increasingly, ominously are tied to belonging and citizenship; access to electricity to be able to study at night; adequate living space without being cramped which became so relevant for social distancing during the Covid pandemic; ready access to running water; ease of transport to school or college to name just a few. The privileged among us are blind to these ‘head-starts’ but still talk of ‘merit’.

As for ‘fluency in English’: the privileged among us have had access to education for generations, and if that education was in English (which even in Goa is true for at least two generations or more by now), its byproduct is some degree of fluency in that medium of instruction. To hold a lesser degree of fluency against someone who is a first-generation learner in that family is churlish and unkind. I remember an instance at Dhempe college where one such first-generation graduate was working as a demonstrator in the chemistry lab, and the fact that she mispronounced the word ‘solution’ would draw smirks and snickers in the class. But she knew her stuff and actually that is all that should matter. 

Isn’t it rich, how we find it ‘cute’ when visiting European speakers (for instance so many Portuguese academicians at Goa University, Fundação Oriente, Instituto Camões or elsewhere) get their English grammar mixed up or mispronounce words, but we cannot extend the same courtesy to our own first-generation student or graduate brethren, for whom English-speaking is just as challenging? We still collectively suffer from the white-skin worship syndrome.         

Also, as at the dinner party where casual casteism reared its ugly head, those who denounce reservations suffer from selective recall bias. They harp on one or two instances where a beneficiary of a reserved seat in academia or employment was (to them) found wanting. But instances where other reserved candidates were silently efficient, or instances where someone from the ‘general’ category was grossly incompetent, are conveniently ‘forgotten’ or ignored.     

As for the rhetorical question “How long do reservations have to continue? Haven’t they been around long enough to make a difference?”, the answer is: there is still much left to be done. Through bureaucratic sleight-of-hand stemming from casteism, reserved seats go unfilled or, on grounds of being ‘unfilled’ are filled by the general category. As long as societal caste prejudice persists, caste-based reservations should continue.

(Dr Luis Dias is a physician, musician, writer and founder of Child’s Play India Foundation. He blogs at luisdias.wordpress.com)


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