Not So Meritorious

Written by  //  August 17, 2010  //  National Politics  //  6 Comments

Prof Prabhat Patnaik tells us this story, adding a disclaimer that he’s only heard it second hand from Joan Robinson.

It seems that E.M.S. Nambooripad was once asked how it is that China had managed a revolution and India has not. E.M.S. had smiled tad helplessly, and said only one word, “caste”.


Caste has done much more than prevent a Communist revolution though. It has made India inextricably difficult to define as a nation. What is this ‘India’ of ours? With 13 different languages and many more dialects, unlike German or Italian nationalism, Indian nationalism cannot possibly be linguistic. Given how bad the communal situation has always been, it cannot be religious either. So what is it that keeps these twenty nine different States and nine Union Territories (At the end of the British era, it was eleven Provinces and a range of Princely States) together? Is it that we were all once under the British and ruled as one big, subject nation? Was this nationality always there? Or was it brought about by the British rule? Perhaps, as Periyar had acknowledged after his disillusionment with the Congress, there were good things to the British rule. For one thing, the oppressed classes or the Shudras or ‘Dalits’ found hope of winning their age old struggle against brahmin and upper caste exploitation.

Nationalism was created. It was (and is still) created every day by songs, speeches, films, newspapers and television to cause people to produce themselves as citizens of a nation –by propagating the idea among those whose families had stayed in the subcontinent for years that thinking of yourself as a citizen of this vast, diverse country is the only normal thing to do. It was created by balancing all multifarious religious and caste identities. It was about connecting the Hindu to the Muslim, the landlord to the peasant, the brahmin to the dalit, all struggling against each other also, all the while, in the hope that tomorrow would bring an inclusive freedom from oppression for all.

But there’s never expression or freedom for all. To create a national identity, to keep some groups together, one inevitably ends up pushing some groups apart. The call to return the Caliph to his throne in Turkey brought the Muslims into the Non Cooperation Movement. However, this was a return to the old feudal order –opposed vehemently by the lower caste Muslims. (Even after conversion, the caste system never dies- ask my Christian Malayali friends.)

Nationalist movements like any other movement, have a tendency to get hegemonised –in this case, it was hegemonised by the upper castes who saw the need to get the Dalits into the movement but were likely to be patronising about it.

E.M.S. Nambooripad had also said that Indian history should be viewed as a series of superimpositions on an essentially pre capitalist mindset. Even if Indian scientists send out a rocket for a space expedition, they must first have an elaborate puja for its success. To me, the best example of such an India is the character of Mrs. Iyer in Aparna Sen’s film, ‘Mr. And Mrs. Iyer’ who, despite having an MSc in Physics, considers water drunk by a Muslim as unclean. India now has flyovers, industries, malls, IT- at least bits of it does… but India still has caste oppression.

Ofcourse the nature of this oppression has changed. Earlier it was untouchability, being denied education and being looked upon as unclean as a consequence of the caste division of labour. Now it is merit. Oppression works in insidious ways. It prevents inter caste marriages, denies education to one’s forefathers and then declares that all are equal and one must compete on the basis of merit. What is this merit, this talent, this intelligence? Today, I can hold my head up and say that I am intelligent and my merit can take me anywhere. I can speak well, write well and I can handle basic math. This is not because I have worked harder on these things than anyone else but because my parents have post graduate degrees. My mother’s father was also a post graduate and had in fact, topped both, BSc as well as MSc. My father’s father was a BA and he couldn’t have gone that far if his uncle hadn’t been in the academic profession. Both my grandfathers worked and struggled hard against phenomenal odds but though they weren’t Brahmin, they did not belong to backward castes. Ofcourse, there are first generation literates who do get into higher education and learn to speak and write well but they are more the exception than the norm. Most people who get to do their MAs, leave alone their MPhils and PhDs, are people like me –children of educated parents. Don’t believe me? Check out the econometric models set by Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze in India: Development and Participation. The number of years of formal education of the mother have a positive, significant effect on that of the child. This is not just an empirical result but an intuitive argument. Having educated parents means that education means something in your family. No one will expect you to drop out of school and college to work. Also, educated parents can help you with homework, sympathise and work out ameliorative measures when you fail an exam and support and advise you on how to get ahead- something economists tend to ignore as the emotional side of the story.

Thus, this ‘merit argument’ is eyewash. A system has denied education and what Nivedita Menon calls ‘cultural capital’ to a family over generations. Then the same system insists that it has changed and caste discrimination has been banned so the child is expected to compete with children who come from families that have been educated for generations. Thanks to history, there is a natural system of reservations for the upper caste. Reservations actually democratise society.

Going by the prime assumption within the merit argument itself –that there are no social differences between people –why are there so many Dalit construction workers, shoemakers, crematorium workers, cobblers and washermen and such few Dalit teachers, professors, experts or corporate sector employees? Is it that the Dalits do not have merit? Is that not a casteist conclusion?

Talking to people on reservations is generally frustrating. For one thing, they give you arguments like –“But you know, you wouldn’t want to be in a college or filling a post through a quota. You’d like to do it yourself. A quota is an insult. It implies you can’t do it on your own. Quotas are casteist.” This argument usually frustrates me so much that I am usually left agape, striving hard to pick up my scattered wits. At first it is important to establish that no one does anything on her own. I got into St. Stephen’s College because I am competent but I would not be competent if I did not have educated parents (who in turn, are educated because their parents were educated and their caste ensured that they were educated). Therefore, I too am not doing my MA in JNU solely because of my merit (I do however, get 5 deprivation points for being a woman), I have taken full advantage of the fact that education has run in my family for generations –something a Dalit student is denied, despite being the citizen of a country that promises equality of opportunity to all.

A cogent argument that often proves to be hard to refute is that reservations should not be given at the level of higher education –that a Dalit graduate is akin to any other graduate. But no one quite understands how very important it is to have more Dalits in teaching posts. It can break the Brahmin hegemony in education! It can even break the all powerful notion that Dalits are not meritorious. More Dalits in professors’ posts will go to show that levelling the playing field can put a Dalit where a Brahmin considers it her natural right to be. More Dalits in influential posts can help lobby against ‘merit’-based arguments and ensure reservations elsewhere aren’t scuttled. They can also make policy recommendations to ensure social justice more effectively -redistribution of land, reservations in primary schools and can politically engage with and beat the merit argument. It is also psychological. For all the Dalits who are afraid to chase their dreams, they can be told, “Looks at XYZ. He’s a Dalit like us.” As a woman, I feel that way about our few women professors. Whether they are feminists or not, seeing them there gives me hope.

Yes, creamy layer problems are there but even a rich Dalit tends to have trouble getting an education. Even upper caste students from educationally backward States like Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan tend to be taken lightly by their teachers. A rich Dalit student still lacks ‘cultural capital’ or those factors that affect one’s ability because of the way one’s family has evolved over generations. Also caste discrimination is still a reality. One of my friends was kicked out of school because he had been engaged in a fight by an upper caste student using casteist provocation. He would not have managed to get past school and into college without reservations and this is no comment on his abilities, which I believe are as true and good as gold.

Ofcourse I do not believe that reservations are a panacea. You need much more- redistribution of land, reservations in primary schools –even in private schools, more and better government schools. It’s not enough to create seats but also to nurture people in order to give more and more people the qualifications to fill up those seats.

Lastly, reservations are a right. No one has the right to look down on someone who has got a post or a seat via reservation. She is only exercising her democratic right.

6 Comments on "Not So Meritorious"

  1. Niranjan August 18, 2010 at 7:05 am ·

    Interesting post. Many of the facts it highlights, such as the present day state of the lower castes, are undoubtedly correct. But to say that “the merit argument is eyewash” seems to me to be carrying things too far. I think it is important to isolate the two premises of this argument – since the argument is widely used not just in India but elsewhere in the context of affirmative action. To briefly summarise, the argument is that “merit”, as we understand it today, is a function of a complex set of social and historical circumstances which includes oppression in the past – and as a consequence those who are more “meritorious” today are in that position because of past wrongs. Therefore, it argues, caste-based reservations are not only justified, but flow as a logical corollary from what it intends to redress.

    For this argument to work, two things need to be proved: first, that the “ills” that caste-based reservation seek to correct are SOLELY attributable to defects arising out of historical caste oppression; and two, that people similarly situated today in every respect but for their caste are not relatively “worse off” than their lower caste counterparts insofar as the objectives of caste-based reservation are concerned. These seem to be the two premises of this argument – neither is explicitly a premise, but has to be so implicitly, for otherwise there is no reason to choose caste as the yardstick of reservation. And I think the argument fails because the first premise is probably incorrect, and the second almost certainly so. It is hard to argue that caste-based oppression is the sole cause for the travails of the lower castes today – although it is undoubtedly the dominant one. As to the second premise, I don’t mean to suggest that a poor, lower-caste person is not worse off than an equally poor higher caste counterpart, but that the proper question to ask is “worse off in what respect”? Is he worse off for the purpose of education or employment for which reservation is used? The answer is no, because the premise of that very system is that education will lift a lower-caste person out of his present social status. The answer, then, is to use to reservation system that is caste-neutral, and instead measures the sort of disability that it is the business of the education system to correct – in a word, economic reservations.

  2. Sumeet Khullar August 20, 2010 at 6:45 am ·

    You have touched a potentially very troubling and disturbing question for the whole nation.

    Caste is one subject that should be of great concern to all thinking Indians, and the subject is way more complex to get a coherent understanding. I would like to add the following aspects to this debate.

    (1) Some very recent thorough studies in political science (in JNU) have proven that the policy of reservation has failed to ‘bridge’ the gap, and the resource difference between different castes remains remarkably similar as it was fifty years ago. This can call to question the very basis of reservation as a policy at ANY level.
    If thorough analysis proves, that it is NOT working, do the proponents have a reasonable argument set to justify it’s continuation.

    (2) Beyond reservation:
    I personally believe that there has been too much ‘ado’ about reservation, and too little emphasis on REAL emancipation, that should be the goal.
    A policy framework can neither ensure nor guarantee emancipation, and we need to move ahead and create other methodologies to see how ‘equality’ can be achieved (more importantly, how much? Are there barriers to the effort itself?)

    (3) Examples of such frameworks can be allocating direct jobs in certain sections, ‘special’ education facilities (say, like free computers) etc. for a certain class etc.

    Basically, I am arguing for creation of new methodologies.

    Reservation has already dried itself out, and most debate is either repetitive or misses the real point, and has been dragging on for too long to get to the roots and depths of these problems.

  3. Ruchira Sen August 20, 2010 at 10:34 am ·

    Sumeet, I agree with you on point 2. On point 1 however, you have forgotten that to get to taking emancipatory measures, you need political will and that can happen if and only if the Dalits themselves push for it. In other words, it will be enormously difficult without a representative number of Dalits in the Parliaments, in academia etc. This is how identity politics works. After all, Lord Rothschild did not need a separate Israel for himself. However, the Zionist movement needed him where he was so that he could pressure the British Parliament for a Mandate on Israel. Similarly, Prof Gopal Guru does not need reservation but Dalit politics needs more Gopal Gurus so that they can ensure a transfer of resources like land and assets.

    What you think is a first premise isn’t. No one uses the word ‘solely’ and no one thinks reservation is a solution. Reservation is only a step to strengthen the Dalit movement, which I think is part of the reason why it is so vehemently opposed. The main reason is that upper caste, urban students feel disadvantaged. As per using caste as a yardstick for reservation, as you know, caste is a reality in this country. Being poor is never the only factor to make someone educationally disadvantaged. (And most govt run schools and colleges are almost free.) Caste is a huge factor and class and caste have an interesting interplay.

  4. Niranjan August 20, 2010 at 11:29 am ·

    I think the premise is implicit. Under Indian law, any classification must satisfy two requirements – an “intelligible differentia” must exist between the items classified and a “rational nexus” must exist between the differentia and the object of the policy. And these requirements are not peculiar to law – it is generally agreed that this is what makes a sensible classification policy. Therefore, caste can be legitimately chosen as the basis of reservation only if it is solely or substantially responsible for the defect that the policy seeks to address today. As a result, the assumption behind reservations in education and employment is (or must be) that “caste” is the sole or substantial cause, and further that education is the best available solution to remedy that particular defect. While this may seem intuitively be the case, it does not explain why then caste is the best or narrowest available yardstick – as the minority opinion in Mandal demonstrates.

    Furthermore, the second premise of your argument – that others in an identical position save for caste are not worse off – is difficult to sustain. You make the point that class is not the only factor that makes one educationally disadvantaged – but, as you know, this has never been conclusively proved in the literature and continues to be hotly contested today, especially because the Government extends caste based reservation to private educational institutions – where class is the main reason that prevents entry, whether through prohibitive coaching classes or fees or otherwise. Therefore, that there are free Government schools and colleges does not explain the rampant caste-based reservations in institutes for higher education, especially private ones, where a poor lower caste individual may not have a better claim than an equally or poorer higher caste individual.

    Two doctrines have emerged in American law to prevent this very thing – strict scrutiny and narrow tailoring, which require the Government to identify a “compelling State interest” and tailor the classification as narrowly as possible. Mihir has written an excellent paper on this subject (I’ll post a link if I can find one), arguing that those doctrines make caste-based reservations in higher education in India unconstitutional, and I think that argument is true not just as a matter of law (with respect to the Supreme Court), but also more generally.

  5. Sumeet August 23, 2010 at 8:17 am ·

    I agree with your point. Representative number in parliament in other places where *decisions* are made (eg. academia, prosperous industries) in necessary. Its not clear at all how given the existing state of affairs (extreme prejudice and inequality) we can achieve such a target. The debate always seems to degenerate to some pointless issues of merit/non merit and the social structure seems to remain as static as ever.

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