Reservation in India: History, Challenges and Lessons

“It seems in the social realm, some kind of  a counter-revolution is taking place in India…. [among other things] our privileged classes are getting tired of (the) affirmative action…”                    

- K R Narayanan, President of India, Republic Day Address, Jan  2000


The caste system in India dates back to many thousands of years and traces its origins to the vedic scripts of Hinduism. With bramins and other upper-castes holding a monopoly over most of the religious, property and social rights, the caste system virtually enslaved and dehumanized many lower-caste communities as “untouchables”. The oppressed groups fall variously under the constitutional classifications of BC (Backward Castes), SC (Scheduled Castes or dalits), ST (Scheduled Tribes) and OBC’s (Other Backward Castes). The Caste system compares along many dimensions like segregation, and dehumanization to the slavery that went on in the US, although that is only a very rough generalization. Besides, the caste system consisted of a small minority of the population dominating a majority (unlike the system of slavery) and there is also the fact that the caste system has been around for many thousands of years. There have been various attempts to ensure upliftment and the rights of the dalits and this article focuses on the attempts to ensure the educational rights of these oppressed classes within the realms of Indian state institutions. Of particular interest is the recent spate of elitist reactions from the upper caste sectors to prevent the provision of the reservation program to the OBC’s – a measure that has been delayed for over sixty years.

Violent Underpinnings of the Caste System.

While the Indian state was having its own turbulent birth, an  English administrator Elphinstone noted that “the missionaries find in the lowest caste the best pupils” but his liberalism wilted before the pragmatic realization of what the upper caste reaction would be when people of the “despised castes” are selected for government jobs on the basis of merit acquired through their new educational attainments.1 When there were some elementary schools setup for the children of the “despised castes”, their children were attacked and prevented from pursing their education, and this was done in collusion with the British Raj in India itself – the Raj itself dominated by upper-caste members. (As an aside, those who lived through the civil rights movement in this country, may recall the violent attempts in Massachusetts to prevent the desegregation of schools by attacking school buses carrying black children).

The reservation program: Hope is dangerous!

As P S Krishnan points out, it was under these circumstances where a few castes (through violence) managed to maintain its monopoly over the state institutions including that of education, did the concept of reserving a fixed percentage of seats (normally in proportion to the population distribution of each community) gain ground in different provinces of India – thanks to many years of struggle.2 The struggle for independence against the British was rooted in the commitment to the humanistic ideals of secularism and opposition to caste prejudices, and thus gave a national character to the reservation program. In fact, an important aspect to the spirit of “national integration” was rooted in a commitment to egalitarian reform such as the extension of reservation to the oppressed communities. Since then, every attempt has been made to jeopardize the hopes of independence and to dash all hopes that a grim history of the lower castes may finally take a different course (to borrow a phrase used by Noam Chomsky to describe accurately the US terrorist war in Nicaragua).

In the same article, Krishnan tracing the history of reservation, notes that while the provision of reservation for OBCs follows from the Constitution of India created at independence, serious moves towards this measure have been impeded for sixty years now.3 Terror and violence against oppressed communities continues unabated in most parts of the country.4 Not only that, the kind of terror practiced by the upper-caste communities (like their protests against reservation) seems to get more recalcitrant as time goes by. It is in this context, that one has to view the recent spate of opposition from the so-called hi-tech India that forms less than 10% of the country.

Quality… Quality..: The bramin response is of poor “quality”

The uproar to the current (encouraging) moves to provide 27% percent reservation to OBC’s in central (nationally run as versus state run) educational institutions, centers around the “compromise” on “quality” of students who might be admitted.5 The argument further expresses concern over the fate of the country if such poor-quality students from the lower castes — never mentioned is that they do not have the chance to compete on a equal footing with those claiming to be of higher quality – were to become professionals like doctors, as then medical services for the country would suffer.

In analyzing such claims of lofty ideals towards how and who serves the country, it might make sense to recollect some simple assessments: that while there are individuals who may be exceptional in particular domains of humans knowledge – be it in medicine, arts, engineering or anywhere else – it is non-sense to claim that a particular community is in anyway more or less meritorious than another. Further, we can also conclude that anyone who claims such positions is an outright racist to whom one should not pay any attention to. The other is that one cannot count on particular measures like marks secured in entrance exams to measure an individual’s intelligence, an idea hardly fully understood. Further the results of these entrance exams are manipulated by two factors: one the area of coverage of these exams and two, the domination of the entrance exam industry by the economically well-off upper-caste communities. So, the exams don’t revolve around issues of relevance to the majority of the population like agriculture being carried out. The exams also don’t revolve around how to work in mines or the various crafts being manufactured by small-scale industries in the rural areas. There is no reason why such knowledge should not be part of the entrance exams – after all these industries can benefit from engineering and medicine, for which courses the exams are being held. But were that to be the case, most of the upper-castes would be demanding reservations for themselves! But instead the entrance exams concentrate on questions (which are usually repeated from earlier years exams) involving what the paper-setter thinks the answer is to the speed to light and other questions of irrelevance to the majority of the population. And since the capital is controlled by the upper-castes, it also ensures that their children (and not those of the oppressed sections) secure the coaching and training to maximize their score on these tests.

But the Brahmins talk of quality may not be completely out of place, though definitely misrepresented. To start, they couldn’t be more right in noting that investment in that provision of medical care for citizens of a country should be a very high priority. For a factual check on the reality of that, one may look at what P Sainath, Agricultural affairs editor of a major newspaper has to comment: Describing how privatization policies – favored by those worshiping “high quality” – have dismantled “the public health services” of the country, notes the resulting increased rural debt contributing to more farmers ending their lives in desperation by committing suicide.6 So, 21 % of Indians never seek any treatment for any illness – “Doctors? Treatment? It’s all too costly [for us]” as elderly citizens of a rural town, Shamrao and Anjamma Khatale exclaim. Whatever one’s position on reservation, those who are currently benefiting from the education system (and are opposed to reservation) seem to be doing a very poor quality job at their profession. And if any it is a strong argument for reservation to those sections who form the majority of the people and hence would definitely be more inclined to serve their communities rather than a tiny Brahminical elite, who are protesting the reservation! That is where any talk of quality should end.

But “quality” here is a code word not for the provision of health-care, but for enriching one’s pockets, as the Boston Globe evidently knows. It reports gleefully how its friends opposed to reservation (but not mentioned), are able to secure cosmetic procedures to shape their various body parts to suit that of various Indian anglophiles like models and film stars.7 But don’t you worry about the health of the majority of the Indians – we Americans can also go to India to get a nose job for just $770/- and the healing time is just 2 weeks! But the pathology doesn’t end there. These criminal thefts of the people’s wealth towards elite interests goes alongside the destruction of homes of slum dwellers, clamping down on labor rights while the same friends of Boston Globe drive fancy sports cars and guzzle aerated beverages. 

Self-Declared Software Heroes: moving away from inquiry to factual distortion

A racist argument necessitates a move away from inquiry to the domain of obfuscation and gross factual distortion. Statements emanating those protesting against reservation are a confirmation of this. As expected, lower caste students who are provided an opportunity for a decent education make the best use of it and are able to move into jobs hitherto reserved for the upper-caste. As M Anandhakrishnan, former Vice-Chancellor of Anna University, a major engineering university in south India puts it, “Reservation exists in many well-known universities in India, including those in Tamil Nadu… yet the quality or prestige of these universities has not been vitiated.” 8 But again our friends who protest against reservation continue to claim the opposite and claim that the reservation policy is a “colossal failure” despite clear evidence to the contrary. Further, our friends claim that “60 years after initiating reservations the government is feeling the need to extend them”. This is a complete misrepresentation. The reservations for the OBC’s follows directly from the constitutional definition of backward castes and what should have been done then at independence has been delayed for 60 years. In fact, the government has never fully implemented the spirit of the reservation policy denying the rights for these communities for over half-a-century. And attempting to provide rights which have been so forth denied, cannot be called as “extending the reservation”.

As former Indian Prime Minister V P Singh aptly puts it, unlike the caste-system “reservation is not anti-merit but an effort to open up merit” by providing opportunities to members of the oppressed communities, who might otherwise not be able to explore their inborn talent for a profession of their choice.9 But when the chairman of a leading Indian software firm and a darling of the neo-liberal elite, N R Narayana Murthy,  terms the reservation program as “demotivating the high-performers” we are all supposed to bow our heads and agree.10 To say or even think otherwise would mean (apart from acknowledging rational thought) to recognize the humanity of the people Mr. Narayana Murthy prefers to crush under his jack boot.

The support for the Reservation is synonymous with opposition to the “everything for me, nothing for you” approach of Washington’s neo-liberal policies which are being forced down the throats of the people of India. The Brahmins have given their ritualistic response which might not surprise anthropologists. People in India have a choice: to either stand by the Brahmins or to stand by the right to education for all Indians? We in the U.S have  similar choices: whether to promote a government that cares for people or to promote one that benefits a narrow US corporate elite which (like the Indian elite) wreak havoc inside the country – including by dismantling the social security infrastructure which benefit millions of ordinary Americans – as well as promote huge disparities and criminal atrocities abroad.

This is a modified version of the article which is to appear in the upcoming issue of fineprintzine (http://fineprintzine.com/ ) – a student and youth run magazine in Lowell, MA. Karthik Ramanathan is currently a worker in the hi-tech industry in Massachusetts and was born in Chennai, India. The US government refers to him as a “non-immigrant guest worker” – each of those words a senseless contradiction of the other. He can be reached at [email protected] .


1. http://www.flonnet.com/fl2308/stories/20060505004001700.htm
P S Krishnan traces the history of reservation as it arose from the movements of the dalits and BC communities for upliftment, from the pre-independence times. Of particular relevance, is the importance of egalitarian reform – including ameliorating of caste inequities – to the independence struggle.
2. [ see 1 above ]
3. [ see 1 above ]
4. ”Terror in a hamlet” (http://www.flonnet.com/fl2319/stories/20061006002903900.htm ) – caste terror against dalits in Haryana. “Schedule Tribes face maximum trouble” ( http://www.hindu.com/2006/10/03/stories/2006100313160700.htm ) – discrimination in Tamil Nadu. A whole issue of Frontline, a national magazine, was devoted to a the manual scavenging work which are forced on the dalits (see http://www.flonnet.com/fl2318/fl231800.htm ). Just some instances of continuing caste crimes. Also, see Sainath’s

5. http://youthforequality.blogspot.com/2006/04/youth-for-equality.html
These sites came up during the protests against reservation. These protests were organized by a tiny elite who had monopolized the medical and hitech institutions. These protests by the medical community (by striking work) paralyzed the medical system across the country for weeks and prevented thousands from being able to secure even basic medical help during those weeks.
6. http://www.hinduonnet.com/2005/07/01/stories/2005070105241300.htm
Sainath traces the health (or rather the lack of it) scenario in the rural communities as part of his series of reporting on the agrarian crisis – which trace to the neo-liberal reform. He has been reporting the suicides which have inflicted the large sections of the Indian rural communities almost like weekly weather updates: but of apparently lesser concern to the elite. For reading his reports, see his collection at http://www.indiatogether.org/opinions/psainath/waycrisis.htm
US Corporations like Monsanto have been very instrumental in aggravating the distress of Indian farmers.
7. Boston Globe, October 20 2006. “Nose jobs, tummy tucks the rage as India parties” Nita Valhalla.
The article misses completely the state of the majority of Indians who just a few miles from the urban centers of wealth and consumerism, are caught in the depth of a agrarian crisis unable to secure even a minimum living wage. The Boston Globe apparently only sees the 5-10% of Indians who form the elite: the same principle it probably applies to the US.
8. http://www.flonnet.com/fl2308/stories/20060505006400800.htm
9. http://www.thehindu.com/2006/07/15/stories/2006071502981300.htm
Interview with VP Singh, former Prime Minister. V P Singh recently formed the Jan Morcha, an eletoral alliance with pro-farmer political tendencies.
10. http://www.hindu.com/2006/08/04/stories/2006080404841600.htm


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