Pratap Bhanu Mehta wants to break down the ‘tyranny of compulsory identities‘. Shouldn’t reservations be the last place to begin then? Reservations happen when the state finally decides to pay attention to what caste has done to a lower caste individual. A whole life precedes it: a life spent facing and struggling against, in varying degrees, many structural efforts to incapacitate that individual. Shouldn’t we begin at the beginning, then? From the ‘scandalous failure to prepare the preconditions for advancement’?
What are these preconditions? Mehta mentions: ‘Access to primary education to access to public goods, financial support, and a robustly growing economy that provides opportunities for mobility’.
Ignoring the superciliousness in Mehta’s tone which seems to indicate the implicit belief that Dalits or other backward sections of Indian society have never seriously considered or agitated for the resolution of those issues, you will probably admit: how can there be any disagreement on all those issues? But how do we get there from here? It’s quite clear it is very difficult to get there from here, because we haven’t got there in the last 65 years. But the ruling classes, as represented by people like Mehta, should understand that a major reason why we are still stuck here, still discussing reservations, the symptoms, is probably because they have never paid as much serious attention to, or expended as much passion in, discussing causes as they have deprecating reservations. We’re still here, because the ruling classes most probably like it here.
Reservations are still here because the conditions which create the compulsory identities are still here. And what sustains those conditions? Following Mehta’s train of thought, we could say the answer is: the lack of opportunities. And what causes that shortage of opportunities? One reason could be the inability to create them. Another less obvious reason could be the unwillingness to create them.
Let’s explore the less obvious reason first. The ruling classes have from the very beginning stood by the ideology of merit. Remember, Nehru wanted to build a ‘first class country in everything‘. You can’t create opportunities for all when you swear by the exclusivity inherent in the ideal of merit, can you? This is a contradiction that champions of merit like Mehta can never see.
So when he talks about ‘access to primary education’ does he really understand, how the ideology of merit subverts that idea? That a caste system of varyingly ‘meritorious’ schools doesn’t ensure equal, or equitable, access to primary education to all? Shouldn’t Mehta have written this ‘Dear Dalits‘ article when the RTE Bill was being debated rather than now, when the quota in promotions is being mooted? Why are you so in love with the symptoms, Mr. Mehta? But such has been the sincerity of reservation baiters for a long, long time. If they had been truly committed to the causes they boisterously espouse they would have started looking at the design of the education system in India first. A comment by a popular blogger turned novelist, on the social media, seems to illustrate clearly the narrowness of the thinking of these reservation baiters:
The demand for reservations in promotions after 60 years of reservations in educational institutions and jobs is a proof that reservations have failed.
He seems, like Mehta, to be another symptom lover again, disguised again as a lover of causes. All kinds of media, right from those driven by satellites to those catalysed by water coolers, are full of such profound anti-reservations wisdom. But he is right in recognizing that something has failed, and thankfully, is also much less sanctimonious than Mehta in expressing his views. What has failed? Reservations?
If the education system, even after 60 years, can accommodate students from reserved categories only under compulsion it clearly means the education system has failed. A system which seems to produce only largely ‘unmeritorious’ lower castes against largely ‘meritorious’ upper castes: isn’t something wrong with that system? Any objective outsider would consider such a system deeply flawed at best, or intentionally racist at worst. To reiterate, reservations are not a failure, the education system is.
Our deeply flawed education system didn’t grow out of nowhere, it grew out of a deeply flawed society. Why don’t you look at our society as a whole, Mr. Mehta, instead of harping on what happens in the sphere of public employment which concerns less than one per cent of India’s population? Or in higher education in central universities, the exclusive club within a club, which concerns much less than even 0.1 per cent of people in India?
The question that naturally crops up, considering the tendency, among the upper caste dominated middle classes and their shallow intellectual leaders, to rile against reservations every time a yawning gap in representation is sought to be even partially filled by an ever dilatory state: are the ruling classes truly prepared, and willing, to create more opportunities for all? Even in areas where shortages have been eliminated– like in undergraduate medical, business and engineering colleges where many seats are going a-begging– you’ll find deep resentment against reservations and students from the reserved categories. Why?
Around 3 lakh engineering seats remained unfilled in the country, last year. For the last few years, tens of thousands of engineering seats are going unfilled in just the three southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and now this year, the figure would be more than a couple of lakhs. Seats remain unfilled in Maharashtra, and in Uttar Pradesh, and across India. There are many medical seats that remain unfilled too. A similar situation exists in institutions offering other popular courses in law, business etc.
So the first reason, inability to create more opportunities, can’t be a cause of ‘lack of opportunities’, at least in the field of higher education. There are enough opportunities for everyone and more; but why do we still hear such virulent and very loud complaints against reservations in our public sphere? It’s not just a few ‘public’ intellectuals like Pratap Bhanu Mehta who seem to have made successful careers out of reservation baiting, there seem to be a whole range of social, voluntary organizations that seem to thrive entirely on agendas which, directly or indirectly, oppose reservations. The Hazare-Kejriwal movement is a prime example.
This is the reality: in higher education, India has moved beyond the era of shortages, but the Pratap Bhanu Mehtas of the ‘merit-excellence’ business still seem to be stuck in it. They don’t want students from the reserved categories in higher education even when there are more than enough, much more than enough, seats in higher education. This paradox can’t be explained through logic, because this antipathy seems to be founded on purely emotional grounds. This opposition is founded on hatred, it’d seem.
Please read the next part of the article here.
Cartoon by Unnamati Syama Sundar.