The challenge of distributing opportunities


Until recently, reservation was at once our most divisive and our most unifying public issue. It divided Indians into the implacably opposed camps of the ‘reserved’ and the ‘general’ categories, with the latter dominating every aspect of public life with the partial exception of electoral politics.

  • It also cemented internal solidarities within each camp, helping to hide hierarchical divisions and conflicting interests. 
  • As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, the tables are turning: the line separating ‘reserved’ and ‘general’ is becoming blurred, while long-simmering differences within each group can no longer be suppressed.


Quota, ideology and merit

  • The ideologies that influence us most deeply shape our view of the world while remaining fully transparent themselves, like the lenses of our spectacles. 
  • Reservation - especially caste-based reservation - is a subject saturated in ideology
  • To eyes schooled in the dominant upper-caste ideology, quotas for “them” loom large and are seen as unambiguously bad and unjustified.
  • Quotas meant for “us” - like the reservation for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), or for the wards of employees or alumni of universities and colleges - are not even visible as quotas, and even when they are, they do not look the same at all.
  • Some years ago, the large public university formalised and standardised the uneven practices followed in the past by different departments. 
  • It created the largest quota we have by setting aside half of all postgraduate seats for the students enrolled in its own undergraduate honours programmes. 
  • In other words, 50% of our seats in MA/MSc are reserved for those with BA/BSc honours degrees in the same subject from our own university. 
  • This is a straightforward quota, but it is officially called the ‘Merit Stream’.
  • It does not matter whether the name was deliberately chosen to ward-off the stigma of reservation or whether it is a genuine case of ideological blindness. 
  • What is interesting about the name is that it unintentionally brings together words such as quota and merit that are thought to be ideological opposites
  • The seemingly contradictory name reminds us that, in fact, all quotas are merit quotas since they apply merit-based criteria of selection to the pool of eligible candidates.


Never mutually exclusive

  • This leads to the unsettling discovery that merit and reservation are not - they have never been - mutually exclusive. 
  • Just as every quota today involves fiercecompetition among the eligible, every claim to merit is also built on structures of exclusionary access, or reservation-like arrangements, that allow merit to be acquired. 
  • For example, expensive private schools or coaching institutes are effectively reserved for the rich. 
  • In the real world, what is called merit is always a mix of ability, effort, and social capital, with the latter usually playing a big role.
  • This may seem rather obvious, but it is vehemently denied by the ideology of merit which constructs it as an exclusively individual and innate thing. 
  • In practice, ‘merit’ has been a code word expressing the upper-caste sense of entitlement. 
  • But its magic is weakening as ever-growing numbers of “them” start to score higher marks than many of “us”. 
  • Moreover, the problems with depending exclusively on examination marks - the universal, and usually only, measure of merit in our system - are becoming hard to ignore.
  • As competition forces a descent into the absurdity of third and fourth decimal place rankings, a new note of doubt is creeping into the language of upper-caste entitlement.
  • The most recent judgment of the Supreme Court on reservation (Saurav Yadav vs. State of Uttar Pradesh & Others, October 18, 2020) serves as a reminder that it is an increasingly complex intersectional issue because social identities are no longer singular
  • The judgment also upholds the principle, stated and clarified in the wake of the so-called “Mandal judgment” during the 1990s, that the un-reserved category must be open to all, including those belonging to categories entitled to reservations.
  • Not surprisingly, ideology has lagged behind the law. Upper-caste sentiment has been slow to accept that the un-reserved category cannot be treated as a quota reserved for the upper castes. 
  • A side-effect of the “reservation castes” forcing their way into the un-reserved category has been the grudging acknowledgement that rather than recognising excellence, merit criteria actually perform a rationing function in our system.
  • They offer a socially acceptable way to reconcile the large number of meritorious candidates with the small number of places available. 
  • True merit cannot be measured by examination marks alone, as the late Arun Jaitley declared in Parliament when piloting the EWS reservation bill.


Turning points

  • The year 2021 happens to be the centenary year of the “Communal” Government Order (GO) in Madras Presidency, which introduced reservation based on castes and communities. 
  • January 9 will be the second anniversary of the EWS reservation law passed in 2019, which created the first explicit mechanism of reservation for the upper castes (though carefully not named as such). 
  • And January 26 will mark the 70th birthday of our Constitution, which created, for the first time in our history, the figure of the caste-less citizen. 
  • These three legal events also mark crucial turning points in the intertwined histories of merit-as-ideology and reservation-as-policy.


Acknowledging caste as norm

  • The Communal GO was the colonial government’s way of acknowledging the inequalities of caste and finding politically expedient ways of dealing with it. 
  • The two unintended consequences of our Constitution were first, the birth of the ideology of casteless-ness, and the positioning of reservation as the explicit exception to this implicit norm. T
  • he second was the consequent rise of the rhetoric of merit as caste-politics by other means. EWS reservation seems to bring the republic back full circle, tacitly acknowledging caste as the implicit norm despite continuing with the masquerade of casteless-ness.
  • We are nowhere near a resolution, but at least upper-caste politics is also in the open now. Most important, the ideological weaponising of merit is being exposed for what it is. 
  • Hopefully, this will enable us to tackle the shared challenge of finding better ways of distributing opportunities and measuring abilities.
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