Focus of reservation lost in protests

Focus of reservation lost in protests

Published: Saturday 15 July 2006

-- one of the catch-phrases during the anti-reservation agitation was: "A generation awakens". Actually taken from a popular Bollywood film, the slogan was emblazoned on banners and T-shirts worn by students from elite institutions. Yes, a generation had certainly awakened. Our babalogs who never thought beyond cushy jobs and attendant comforts suddenly organised themselves into forums like the "Youth for Equality".

But don't go by semantics. Our middle classes have not become idealist, suddenly. The pleas for equality actually camouflage a discourse obsessed with merit. It's a specious discourse. But many -- including some well-meaning of members of the National Knowledge Commission -- have fallen for it. For arguments sake let's assume that the merit argument holds a few drops of water. The question is who exactly are the chosen people? In India, they are typically ones with high percentages in school or those passing entrance exams to elite institutes. You don't need to be a hierophant to say that performance in a few exams does not make a few students, bright, or condemns others as dull. Unfortunately, that is exactly the idea the educational system fosters. Brahmanical methods of rote, further strengthened by the colonial education system, hold the key to performances in exams. Coaching institutes -- preparing students for entrance to elite institutes -- have become modern purveyors of these antediluvian methods. A huge percentage of entrants to elite engineering and medical college make it through coaching institutes. If that's merit, we need a break.

Arguments for merit would have made sense if there was a level playing field for all students. In a society where birth disqualifies most from even the basic requirements in life, the merit argument doesn't even leave the runway. Anyone with rudimentary information on Indian society will tell you that birth in an upper-caste family immediately opens up an array of opportunities, including those that relate to knowledge acquisition. Unfortunately, our merit-obsessed middle class is either oblivious to basic sociological truths.

This is not to say that methods of reservation aren't open to debate. Social scientists have shown they aren't foolproof. The government's announcement of reservation was a chance to debate these issues or go beyond to question the basic structure of the education system and the quality of education we get, private or public. But by launching a puerile self-serving agitation, the middle class has blown the opportunity.

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