Satish Deshpande & Yogendra Yadav

Is there a way forward where both merit and social justice can be given their due? This two-part series attempts to find one.

THE CENTRAL Government's move to introduce reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in elite institutions of higher and professional education popularly known as Mandal II seems to be heading towards a stalemate. In this article, we propose a possible solution that might take us beyond the debilitating standoff between `merit' and `social justice'.

This is clearly an ambitious and optimistic agenda, especially because Mandal II proves that some mistakes are destined to be repeated. Once again the Government appears set to do the right thing in the wrong way, without the prior preparation, careful study, and opinion priming that such an important move obviously demands. It is even more shocking that students from our very best institutions are willing to re-enact the horribly inappropriate forms of protest from the original anti-Mandal agitation of 1990-91. As symbolic acts, street-sweeping or shoe-shining send the callous and arrogant message that some people castes? are indeed fit only for menial jobs, while others are `naturally' suited to respectable professions such as engineering and medicine. However, the media do seem to have learnt something from their dishonourable role in Mandal I. By and large, both the print and electronic media have not been incendiary in their coverage, and some have even presented alternative views. Nevertheless, far too much remains unchanged across 16 years.

Perhaps the most crucial constant is the absence of a favourable climate of opinion. Outside the robust contestations of politics proper, our public life continues to be disproportionately dominated by the upper castes. It is therefore unsurprising, but still a matter of concern, that the dominant view denies the very validity of affirmative action. Indeed the antipathy towards reservations may have grown in recent years. The main problem is that the dominant view sees quotas and the like as benefits being handed out to particular caste groups. This leads logically to the conclusion that power-hungry politicians and vote bank politics are the root causes of this problem. But to think thus is to put the cart before the horse.

A rational and dispassionate analysis of this issue must begin with the one crucial fact that is undisputed by either side the overwhelming dominance of upper castes in higher and especially professional education. Although undisputed, this fact is not easy to establish, especially in the case of our elite institutions, which have always been adamant about refusing to reveal information on the caste composition of their students and faculty. But the more general information that is available through the National Sample Survey Organisation clearly shows the caste-patterning of educational inequality. Some of the relevant data are shown in Tables 1 and 2.

Table 1 shows the percentage of graduates in the population aged 20 years or above in different castes and communities in rural and urban India. Only a little more than 1 per cent of Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes, and Muslims are graduates in rural India, while the figure for Hindu upper castes is four to five times higher at over 5 per cent. The real inequalities are in urban India, where the SCs in particular, but also Muslims, OBCs, and STs are way behind the forward communities and castes with a quarter or more of their population being graduates. Another way of looking at it is that STs, SCs, Muslims, and OBCs are always below the national average while the other communities and especially Hindu upper castes are well above this average in both rural and urban India.

Table 2 shows the share of different castes and communities in the national pool of graduates as compared to their share of the total population aged 20 years or more. In other words, the table tells us which groups have a higher than proportionate (or lower than proportionate) share of graduates. Once again, with the exception of rural Hindu OBCs and urban STs, the same groups are severely under-represented while the Hindu upper castes, Other Religions (Jains, Parsis, Buddhists, etc.), and Christians are significantly over-represented among graduates. Thus the Hindu upper castes' share of graduates is twice their share in the population aged 20 or above in rural India, and one-and-a-half times their share in the population aged 20 or above in urban India. Compare this, for example, to urban SCs and Muslims, whose share of graduates is only 30 per cent and 39 per cent respectively of their share in the 20 and above population.

It should be emphasised that these data refer to all graduates from all kinds of institutions countrywide if we were to look at the elite professional institutions, the relative dominance of the upper castes and forward communities is likely to be much stronger, although such institutions refuse to publish the data that could prove or disprove such claims.

Although it is implicitly conceded by both sides, upper caste dominance is explained in opposite ways. The upper castes claim that their preponderance is due solely to their superior merit, and that there is nothing to be done about this situation since merit should indeed be the sole criterion in determining access to higher education. In fact, they may go further to assert that any attempt to change the status quo can only result in "the murder of merit." Those who are for affirmative action argue that the traditional route to caste dominance namely, an upper caste monopoly over higher education still remains effective despite the apparent abolition of caste. From this perspective, the status quo is an unjust one requiring state intervention on behalf of disadvantaged sections who are unable to force entry under the current rules of the game. More extreme views of this kind may go on to assert that merit is merely an upper caste conjuring trick designed to keep out the lower castes.

What is wrong with this picture? Nothing, except that it is only part of a much larger frame. For if we understand merit as sheer innate ability, it is difficult to explain why it should seem to be an upper caste monopoly. Whatever people may believe privately, it is now beyond doubt that arguments for the genetic or natural inferiority of social groups are unacceptable. If so, how is it that, roughly speaking, one quarter of our population supplies three quarters of our elite professionals? The explanation has to lie in the social mechanisms through which innate ability is translated into certifiable skill and encashable competence. This points to intended or unintended systemic exclusions in the educational system, and to inequalities in the background resources that education presupposes.

It is their confidence in having monopolised the educational system and its prerequisites that sustains the upper caste demand to consider only merit and not caste. If educational opportunities were truly equalised, the upper castes' share in professional education would be roughly in proportion to their population share, that is, between one fourth and one third. This would not only be roughly one third of their present strength in higher education; it would also be much less than the 50 per cent share they are assured of even after implementation of OBC reservations!

If the upper caste view needs an unexamined notion of merit that ignores the social mechanisms that bring it into existence, the lower caste or pro-reservation view appears to require that merit be emptied of all its content. While this is indeed true of some militant positions, the peculiar circumstances of Indian higher education also allow alternative interpretations. In a situation marked by absurd levels of "hyper-selectivity" 300,000 aspirants competing for 4000 IIT seats, for example merit gets reduced to rank in an examination. As educationists know only too well, the examination is a blunt instrument. It is good only for making broad distinctions in levels of ability; it cannot tell us whether a person scoring 85 per cent would definitely make a better engineer or doctor than somebody scoring 80 per cent or 75 per cent or even 70 per cent.

In short, it is only a combination of social compulsion and pure myth that sustains the crazy world of cut-off points and second decimal place differences that dominate the admission season. Such fetishised notions of merit have nothing to do with any genuine differences in ability. The caste composition of higher education could well be changed without any sacrifice of merit simply by instituting a lottery among all candidates of broadly similar levels of ability say, the top 15 or 25 per cent of a large applicant pool.

But the inequities of our educational system are so deeply entrenched that caste inequalities might persist despite some change. We would then be back where we started with the apparent dichotomy between merit and social justice in higher education. How do we transcend this dilemma? Is there a way forward where both merit and social justice can be given their due?

(Satish Deshpande is Professor of Sociology at Delhi University; Yogendra Yadav is Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.)