“Oh! Your merit was not equal to mine, still, you got admission to such a prestigious college. Wow… reservation..huh“
This was the statement one of my classmate from class 12th made when I told her about my admission to a Delhi University. It was a casteist remark, it signified her casteist nature and her lack of understanding of a basic structure of the cultural and political system of this country. Sadly, she is not the only one to think so, but one among several who think like her.
If you read her comment, you must have seen she’s used the word “merit“. Let’s see How this merit is defined. According to the Oxford dictionary, merit is defined as the ‘quality’ of being good and of deserving praise or reward synonym worth.
In India, one’s merit is calculated by the marks one gets in written examinations. If ‘merit’ is related to ‘quality’ and of being ‘deserving’ then we can also say that one’s ‘quality’ is affected by access to various types of resources needed to enhance one’s skills.
Indian history is full of discrimination. For centuries, certain sections of people were categorised as ‘lower caste’. They were not allowed access to education, to economic resources and political influence. The very people who talk of ‘merit’ are the ones whose privilege speaks loud, as they (historically, till today) have all the access they want or need to bolster their skills. When one section of society, who had access to all the resources and the others, who had to live without that access, is made to compete with each other and are supposed to show the same results, that is undemocratic.
To ensure minimum representation of people from Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi communities, the Constitution provides for reservation in different institutions, which only applies to public sector institutions now. With the introduction of the New Education Policy (NEP) and the question of autonomy that it raises needs to be flagged. Among the provisions of the education policy, the “phasing out of the system of affiliated colleges and the grant of greater autonomy in academic, administrative and financial matters to premium colleges” has kindled anxiety around the perils of ‘autonomy’, of how accessible such institutions will remain.
The mention of ‘autonomy’ of higher educational institutions means self-financing institutions, which implies institutions of a private nature. We know of how, in such institutions, the fees are generally much higher as compared to government-funded/aided institutions.
According to Economic Times, looking at wealth distribution along caste lines, people from SC/ST communities stand “way below overall average; OBC closer to overall average but lower than FC (Forward Castes). Only 5% ST, 10% SC, 16% OBC are richest in the category.” So it’s clear that people DBA communities still don’t have financial capital, and this, in turn, affects access to such institutes. Financial and cultural capital decides the entry to such educational institutions rather than merit.
When it comes to college placement drives, internships, jobs, people from the so-called upper castes are at an advantage, whereas people from marginalised communities, due to lack of cultural and financial capital, are forced to take up menial work, paid less, and more. In a study by Sukhdeo Thorat and Paul Attewell, published in the Economic and Political Weekly, it was revealed that “persons with ‘upper-caste sounding names’ have a higher chance of getting called for interviews than persons with Muslim and Dalit sounding names, even if there was no difference in their qualifications.” The Savarnas’ social status is helping them grab the opportunity, not ‘merit’.
Thus merit is just a myth, merit is flawed. It is caste network which is in play, it is caste privilege.
Reservation is held in prejudice against students from DBA communities, who are called words like “meritless” or “undeserving,” and this is just the reality of the casteist Indian society, something I feel is intrinsic to their core values. But, when DBA students are provided with access to resources through Constitutional provisions, they have shown their full potential and have broken this myth of merit.
An article by Udit Raj in The Indian Express states, “A study by Ashwani Deshpande of Delhi University, in consultation with Michigan University, (“Implication of Reservation in Railway Department”) found that where SC/ST employees were more in number, efficiency improved, and productivity got enhanced. The SC/ST and OBC have just started entering the domain of research and soon there will be more evidence demolishing the myth of merit.”
Arvind Kumar on 11 October 2019, in an article published in The Print, states that in the Rajasthan Administrative Service (RAS)-2013 mains examination, the cut-off for the OBC was 381 and 350 for general category applicants. And In Delhi government’s examination for recruitment as teachers in public schools held in September 2018, the cut-off for SC candidates was fixed at 85.45% while it was 80.96% for the general category. These are two among many similar examples that Kumar charts out in the article.
But, like my classmate who commented that she has “higher merit than me,” this notion still prevails in the minds of students who belong to the so-called upper caste. This results in students from SC/ST communities having to endure bullying and ragging due to this ‘merit prejudice’ and the caste identity they carry. Case in point, the death of Payal Tadvi after ragging and bullying by her classmates.
A Thorat Committee report, way back in 2007 revealed that about 72% of the SC/ST student-respondents mentioned some kind of discrimination during teaching sessions. It also highlighted how some students from SC/ST communities were made to sit on the floor, or required to disclose their backgrounds. This is just the reality of higher educational institutions that no one wants to talk about, how they treat the Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi students. In my institution, ragging and bullying is strictly prohibited, but every institution isn’t like mine.
Is the arrogance of being born into and existing in a particular caste is so much that they (the so-called upper caste people) don’t like to see someone else as a human being? What will it take to change society’s mindset, I wonder?
Is it so difficult to accept someone as a human being who is equal in all rights?
This content was originally published here.