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FROM THE BACK BENCHES TO THE FRONT

The recent Supreme Court ruling limiting reservation to 50 per cent of all seats in educational institutions will no doubt be seen in many circles as a blow to social equality in India. Reservation itself was the outcome of negotiation between B.R. Ambedkar and Gandhi whereby Ambedkar sought to convince Gandhi that India could not go forward if education and its attendant goods were not available to 80 per cent of its population, namely the non-dwija castes, tribes and communities. But the debate that followed turned Ambedkar’s intention on its head.

Reservation as it is practised today in India is a travesty of the intentions of its proposers. The debate on it focusses only on enlarging its ambit to include any group that is not seen as part of the power structure — it does not address fundamental questions about how such “inclusion” is patterned. Consequently, reservation as we know it works to devalue the very achievements of those it seeks to help.

Traditionally, educational reservation has operated by lowering the “barriers” to the entry of students from disadvantaged classes by setting lower cut-offs for admission and degree awards for these students. There is a casteist prejudice inherent in such an approach. The premise behind it is that “quota” students are an inferior type of human beings who cannot reach the levels of attainment of the dwijas and therefore mush be segregated in an under-achievers’ ghetto. A student availing himself of such privileges is branded for life as an inferior product regardless of how good his or her attainments actually are. The system condemns him or her to practice among or serve only those who will agree (or have no choice) to be so served — namely the non-dwijas, since the dwijas have their own “superior” services to call on.

In my experience, this institutionalized casteist prejudice is all the excuse “general” students need to continue to discriminate against their fellows who came to their institution through reservation quotas. Even students of the same social groups who had been admitted or qualified on universal criteria of merit were assumed to be quota students and thus guilty of “having it easy” at the “expense” of the dwijas. This prejudice influenced even some teachers in their dealings with students.

Furthermore, the lowered achievement levels required of them demotivated many “quota” students from realizing their full potential. As no social recognition would accrue to them for their efforts, and as the stigma of lowered achievement had already been written on their records with indelible ink, there was a sense of hopelessness and torpor among some students, because they had come to believe the majoritarian assessment of their worth. Indeed, they wanted more reservation precisely because they did not believe they or their like were capable of merit as defined by the mainstream.

The third negative effect of reservation was that once the students had been inducted into an educational institution, nothing further was done for them. The disabilities (if any) that they had brought with them from the economic and social privations of their childhoods were not remedied or even addressed by the system. In many institutions, they are thrown into the classes where general students study, to skulk in the back row or cut classes out of a sense that the teaching was not addressed to them. Despite reservation and its associated fanfare, they remain as marginalized in education as they had ever been. The dwijas in charge of the system feel that enough (or more than enough) has been done for these students by allowing them in; in any case they would be able to qualify with a fraction of the normally required effort, so why waste time on them at all' This is both insulting and unhelpful to these students. In actual fact, as far as my own subject, English, was concerned, I found that the attainments of “quota” students matched or surpassed those of the best “general” students I taught, largely because of the excellent education these students had received at missionary schools. If they had disabilities (and many students reported that they felt they did) these were in other subjects, usually those of a more technical nature.

At the institution where I taught, these students were given a “catch-up” year of extra tuition outside the normal course of study by the faculty to allow them to make up their deficits. It is a great pity that this is not the norm in other institutions that take in “quota” students. Since many such students (though not all) come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds that do not provide them with a culture of learning on which to build and prosper, extra time and resources should be given to them as social compensation for this loss. If they enter an institution over a lowered bar, the institution should do everything in its power to help them qualify on a par with general students, rather than carry over the devaluation of that lowered bar into their professional lives. Given the centuries of injustice enshrined in the caste system, especially with regard to instruction and the sharing of knowledge, this is only fair.

However, the traffic of giving would not simply be one way. Education in general, and technical education in particular, in this country suffers from a debilitating lack of interface with society. This is because historically “those who do” have been separated and segregated from “those who learn”. The segregation is extraordinarily durable and ensures, for example, that a student who graduates will regard with horror the thought of going home and working on his or her ancestral farm. Education is regarded as a passport to genteel idleness rather than an enabling factor in production and development, and its true fruition is held to be a white-collar job, preferably in government or corporate service.

So long as we close the doors, or open them only a grudging chink, to the members of traditional artisanal and technical communities, education will remain a rarefied attainment of mystical power that nevertheless has little impact on real life. There is an enormous body of indigenous technical knowhow in imminent danger of dying because old ways of preserving and transmitting that knowledge are under threat, yet where are the armies of doctoral students who should be busily recording, patenting and utilizing this knowledge' They are not there because no one has told them they have a right to so document, interpret and use this knowledge through the empowering framework of education. And those who would know it best, the children of the communities who have traditionally preserved this knowledge, are either demotivated by reservation or chasing dwija dreams of educated babu-hood. This pernicious ideal will not change as long as education has a skewed view of the “elite” and a horror of enlarging the magic circle of educated minds.

We have attempted to follow Western patterns of education without changing our basic premise about educational entitlement and utility. As a result, we either copy the West or end up selling or giving our technical birthright to them. More than huge research grants from centralized bodies, indigenous development needs a vision from below that will assess the real value of what we have always known, use it for our benefit and enlarge the worthwhile merit in our instructional systems. The dwija castes are too numerically small to furnish all of India’s needs for qualified personnel: we must generate such personnel from other groups as well. But only when the dwijas stop seeing such an enlargement as a threat will a meaningful debate on reservation become possible.

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