//Pride and prejudice

Pride and prejudice

The undemocratic spirit of the anti-reservation protests, the erroneous "merit" argument and the partisan media coverage capture a broader social malaise.  GURINDER OSAN/AP

AN ANTI-RESERVATION RALLY by medical students in New Delhi. 

The current response among the elite and professional groups to the proposed quotas for backward castes in state-funded higher education reveals a number of unattractive features of Indian society.

There was a tendency among those who grew up in the Nehruvian social paradigm to ignore or underplay the grim reality of caste-based social discrimination and exclusion. To some extent, this reflected the after-effects of the social levelling created by the freedom movement, which brought in a wide range of heterogeneous social groups.

In the case of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the discrimination has been historically compounded by oppression and continues in blatant, and often vicious forms, in many parts of the country. But the complexity of the forms of social exclusion of Other Backward Classes was perceived as less visible and, therefore, easier to ignore.

The anti-Mandal agitations of 1989 and 1990 blew the cover off that particular myth easily. They exposed both the pervasive nature of caste identity and discrimination, as well as the deep prejudices among the elite. So now, when we are confronted with the extremely aggressive reactions and apparent rage of those who oppose reservations for backward castes, we should not be particularly surprised. Even so, the responses to the recent move to provide quotas for backward castes in state-funded institutions of higher education do highlight some troubling features of Indian society.

The first is how exclusive and restricted we still are despite decades of "modernisation" and explicit official attempts to make access to education and employment more inclusive. In rural areas, caste realities are defined by residence and social practice and they cannot be avoided. But in some areas of urban India, especially in the metros, very substantial caste-based social exclusion can be easily ignored by many of us who "just happen" to be upper caste – ignored because we do not ourselves practise it or even become aware of it too much in our own lives.

But surely it is no accident that wherever it matters in India – in terms of material wealth, the exercise of power, involvement in skilled professions, or even the ability to influence policies and opinion – most of the people just happen to be upper caste. And this is not just defined by property ownership or profession. Newsreader or expert commentator, senior bureaucrat or business manager, software engineer or fashion designer: all remain dominantly drawn from the same small pool of minority upper castes of different religions.

This is almost inevitably the case unless there has been an overt concern with diversity and including others from different backgrounds, or where there has actually been (as in Tamil Nadu, for example) a tradition of the same quota systems that are being resisted in north India today. So we have in India an effective "cornering" of privileges of both public and private establishments by a relatively small proportion of the population. In this context, it is hardly surprising that there is so much resentment among the vast majority of the population who have been so excluded from various forms of privilege. And since higher education is now the most obvious means to mobility and access to such privilege, this obviously becomes the area where access becomes so important.

The second feature that deserves to be highlighted much more is the nature of the media, especially the "English language" media. Of course, the media are not known for their progressive attitudes – certainly, reportage on economic matters is usually consistent in being pro-corporate and anti-working class, and in generally ignoring the largest groups of workers in India – the farmers. But the recent coverage of the reservation issue has betrayed a startling degree of partisanship.

It is quite remarkable that even in the past year, very large demonstrations involving tens, and sometimes even hundreds, of thousands of people focussing on crucial issues of survival and livelihood (such as direct job losses, or the impact of displacement and the lack of rehabilitation) or expressing concern about national policies that affect the entire citizenry such as signing international treaties with possibly adverse conditions, have received very desultory treatment in the media. They have been largely ignored by television channels and received only minuscule coverage in newspapers – without any photographs.

In sharp contrast, when even a few hundred students have gathered in protest against reservations or engaged in any other form of protest, there has been almost continuous and prime-time coverage on all the national television news channels and front-page banner headlines have graced the major newspapers. The nature of the coverage also has had little pretension to objectivity and leaves no doubt as to the biases and prejudices of most of the media, who – like so much of the other elite in India – "just happen" to be upper caste.

A newsreader on a major English television channel, for instance, announces that "getting into college just got harder for all you students" – a statement that clearly betrays the assumption that all those watching the programme are upper caste students. The fact that capitation fee and the non-resident Indian category have already created extensive quotas for the rich (who again typically "just happen" to be upper caste) is never mentioned.

The third, and possibly most disquieting feature of the current protests is how deeply undemocratic in spirit they have been and continue to be. This is reflected in the dubious and problematic argument of "merit" that is routinely evoked, with the unstated presumption that merit is, therefore, an attribute concentrated among the upper castes.

It completely ignores the complex and flourishing systems of privilege and network that allow students to be "meritorious", that is, to succeed in competitive examinations and which do not make allowances for huge differences in background and prior access. It ignores the fact that several of the successful students in the well known entrance examinations those for the Indian Institutes of Technology or the civil services for instance – have invested much time and money in going through private tuition shops in preparation for the tests and that other students who cannot afford this are automatically disqualified.

The anti-democratic instincts of anti-reservationists are further revealed by the utter contempt in which such groups hold the genuine aspirations of the majority of the population who feel excluded by the current system, and above all, by their very demands. At different levels, the feeling of being bigger than democracy pervades all the anti-reservation responses.

Individual experts feel that they should be more powerful in shaping policies than a political process resulting from large social changes. The agitating students and the professionals who support them openly come out in defiance of democratic
procedures, such as the recent (overwhelming) approval by Parliament of enabling legislation to provide for such quotas in higher education.

They demand judicial commissions and presidential intervention to override decisions made by the elected representatives of the people. The funny thing is that they appear to believe, especially the professionals among them, that this is actually their right, and that somehow their views count for more because they are educated and therefore of value to society. Yet it is precisely this access to public education, which they seek to guard so zealously as the preserve of "their own".

The issue of reservations in public higher education directly affects only a tiny proportion of people in India, and therefore outsiders might be right to conclude it is a relatively minor matter. Yet, it captures a much broader social malaise, which remains one of the major constraints to our development.