Re-establishing upper caste dominance over educational institutions

[dropcap]A[/dropcap] few days ago, in Pune, a large group of citizens under the banner name “Save Merit, Save Nation” came out on the roads demanding that reservations policies be scrapped. The protestors claimed that reservations in education and employment have led to a decline in the quality of education and workforce in the country and lead to a bias against meritorious general category students.

Such demands and anti-reservation protests have been a parallel reality of Indian society, standing in wide contrast to suicides committed by Dalit Bhahujan students all across the country as a result of institutional harassment and discrimination. This issue of caste discrimination being faced by students on campus has direct links with affirmative action policies. Often ridiculed for not being deserving enough, the students have been constantly accused of getting undue benefits. The abuse endured by Payal Tadvi only reaffirms the same.

Around 2006-07 also, when allegations of caste discrimination surfaced on the campus of the prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), and a committee was appointed by the government under Sukhdeo Thorat to look into it, a group with the name of “Youth with Equality” was formed around the same time, demanding abolition of reservations. The group has since persisted and has actively taken up its cause of fighting against reservations. In addition to movements like these, the anti-reservation sentiment amongst the upper-caste of the country has always been palpable.

The question which then arises is how do we understand the true nature of these citizen-led anti-reservation campaigns or the sentiment in general? In trying to make sense of these movements, it must be understood that, under the name of equality, effectively, they seek to restore reservation in favour of the upper caste, and the demand for equality is essentially a demand for a renewed dominance over matters of education and employment. These movements and sentiments have generally been criticized for their limited understanding of equity and concomitant equality. The need for differential treatment is cited in response to these movements in order to achieve substantial equality.



However, we must understand that, far from demanding a meritorious society based on principles of equality, these movements seek to de facto re-establish the reserved right of upper caste over educational institutions, which has been disturbed by affirmative action policies. Thus, instead of interpreting these as movements for ending reservation, they must be understood as movements to re-impose reservation in favour of upper caste.


The Impact of Reservations


Writing with regard to India’s constitutional moment, Justice Chandrachud noted that, in the case of BK Pavitra and others vs Union of India and others, “the Constitution is a transformative document. The realization of its transformative potential rests ultimately in its ability to breathe life and meaning into its abstract concepts. For, above all, the Constitution was intended by its draftspersons to be a significant instrument of bringing about social change in a caste-based feudal society witnessed by centuries of oppression of and discrimination against the marginalized.”

For the first time, Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) students stood a chance to gain access to education and employment. This was reflected in the growing diversity of students enrolling for higher education and getting jobs in the formal sector. Although disparities continued to exist, it was acknowledged that reservations partly enabled SC/ST and OBC students to pursue higher education. Payal Tadvi herself, who was the first from her community to pursue a medical degree, was an example of this partial democratization of higher educational institutions.



Writing after the suicide committed by Rohith Vemula, Professor Thorat, citing 2008 data, too recognized that the student population in higher educational institutions had increased diversity with SC, ST, and OBC students beginning to enrol in these institutions. Thus, at least numerically, the hitherto deprived students were beginning to slowly enter the higher education space.


Establishing anti-democratic credentials


Is it then a mere coincidence that movements demanding the abolition of reservations have sprung up alongside this slow growth in the diversity of student population in higher education institutions? Or is it by design that these movements seek to reverse this trend?

It is not just the anti-reservation demands in themselves that establish the anti-democratic credentials of such movements. Rather, it is the constant denial of these movements to appreciate the reasons behind affirmative action policies, coupled with a belief that caste and merit are often in opposition to each other, that reflects the upper caste bias of these movements. Contrary to what has till now been argued, it is not that the reasons for affirmative action policies are not understood by these movements, but that they are understood and yet denied any importance.



The movements like ‘Youth for Equality’ have gone to the extent of making official distinctions between what they call as reserved category students and merit-based students, the latter being a clear reference to general category (upper caste) students who qualify on the basis of their marks. While it is not their explicit argument that only upper caste students are merit-based students, there is a presumption that if reservations were to be removed, majority of the SC/ST and OBC students who now get admissions, would fail to obtain admissions and only those with merit, if any, would remain.

Thus, it is inherently believed that largely, it is the upper caste students that are deserving of attaining education. This is the same notion on which caste has historically prevailed. Also, as some SC/ST and OBC students might still be able to qualify on the basis of merit alone, the considerations of historical violence do not matter at all.

Further, the manner in which Dalit students have been insulted and ridiculed in higher educational institutes across the country reflects the inherent bias that persists against students entering these institutes through affirmative action. The denial on the part of authorities to implement measures to prevent this violence from further reaffirms their caste bias.

Payal Tadvi was being constantly humiliated by her peers for her caste background and discriminated against for the same reason. Much before her, presenting the findings of bias on the campus of AIIMS, Professor Thorat’s committee report had highlighted that students had felt discriminated on the basis of their caste background and had been ostracized by teachers and professor for the same. However, far from acknowledging the findings of the report and implementing the given suggestions, the institution was quick to dismiss the report. The recommendations are yet to be implemented.

Lastly, if an anti-reservation campaign were to truly commit to principles of equality and merit, it would do everything to ensure a bias-free campus. Rather, what has been witnessed is active discouragement of SC/ST and OBC students on the part of upper caste students and faculties from entering those campuses, by way of abusing them, and the absence of active efforts by the administration in ensuring a bias-free campus. This lack of effort to ensure inclusivity despite overwhelming evidence for the same only reflects the approval of authorities towards discriminatory behaviour and practices.

In essence, higher education institutions, supported by these anti-reservation movements are slowly ensuring that they get back their dominance over education and consequent employment by making lives of SC, ST and OBC students unbearable. What we witness today is an ongoing effort to re-occupy the sphere of education and employment and prevent any possibilities of its democratization. While, all of this is sought to be done in the name of equality and merit, leaving aside the many contestations the latter invites, any attempt to understand these demands must uncover this farce.


[Note: Image courtesy to Zainul Abedin’s Painting, 1971]

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