Why Is There No Upper Caste Outcry When Merit Goes for a Toss in the EWS Quota?

There are two coaches in the Delhi Metro trains that men cannot board. These are reserved for women and girls. Of course, women are not barred from traveling in the coaches not reserved exclusively for them. 

Not only that, in these ‘general category’ coaches, open for all, you have some seats reserved for women. So, they enjoy ‘double reservation’ in the metro. Many a times we hear men annoyingly telling women passengers to go to “their” coaches and not crowd the “general” ones. They are promptly reminded that these are not “men only” coaches; women have a right to be there.

Can you imagine a coach reserved for men who are poor? Other men would object. Give them money to buy a ticket if you need to but why keep us out, they’d say. 

After returning from interviews for PhD admissions in my department at the university, a colleague said he failed to understand why candidates of the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes lists should be considered for admission in the general category when there were seats already reserved for them. When a separate space has been created for them, why should they want to occupy other spaces, he asked. Though my colleague occasionally travels by metro, he could not understand that the general coach is for everyone. And we know that our lordships don’t know even know what a metro coach looks like. 

Why should coaches be reserved for women? Why should men be content with only eight coaches out of 10 and why should they be forced to tolerate women in the general coaches too? Doesn’t this take away the rights of men?

The debate on reservation in India has been going on for more than 100 years, but the “men” i.e. the “upper castes” are still unable to understand why some coaches have been taken away from them. Why did the state have to intervene so that those who had always been left out could get on the train easily? Women work, earn, are equal to men in many places, yet we know that travelling for them is not easy. There is always a possibility of abuse at the hands of male passengers. Their educational and economic status does not free them from this danger. Can the metro authorities ever set an expiry date for this reservation?

After every exam, especially a competitive exam for admission to a course or for a scholarship, one hears a complaint that ‘I was refused admission even after scoring 60 and “those people” got in even when they have only 40’.

Also read: Does ‘Merit’ Have a Caste?  

Behind this complaint is an understanding that ‘merit’ is a purely personal trait. We forget that this ‘merit’ is often the product of coaching. Coaching also requires money. Has there been a caste survey of the coaching institutes? Which castes populate this coaching world?

We know that ‘merit’ requires considerable investment of all kinds – economic, intellectual, social, and cultural. Behind the talent of one generation is the investment of many generations. Still, we consider ‘our’ talent as our own achievement. We do not even think that it has something to do with where we are born and where we live.

It has not been explained to this day that the “40 marks wallahs” were not even competing with the 60 marks wallahs. The SCs are not competing for 100% of the seats, they are competing only for 15% of the seats, ST candidates for only 7.5% of the seats and OBCs for 27% of the seats. Their competition is limited to 49.5% of the total seats. Not for the remaining 50% of the seats. It is obvious that eligibility for the 49.5% reserved seats will not be the same as that for the 50% unreserved seats.  

There is a lament that, if a specific percentage of seats are allotted to the caste groups, why should there be a general category at all. People should be in their own separate brackets. But keep in mind the fact that those who enter the competition (for a job, say) in the general category by leaving their caste categories behind are taking a gamble on not facing discrimination at the workplace and thus not needing affirmative action to help them with promotions.

Is it not ironical that even when they want to shed their caste identity, we refuse to see in them anything but their caste?

We consider them as encroachers. They are never included. The attempt is to push them back into the categories reserved for the castes they want to leave. So, who is preserving caste? 

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Apart from this, it is important to understand that competition can only take place among people who have had equal opportunities. Defining equality is sometimes not easy. Do we need to repeat that there are communities that have been kept away from education for centuries, who are still beaten up for touching a common pot of water in schools, who can be shot if they ride a horse to their own wedding, who are not allowed to enter temples? Why do those upper caste people who are not ready to accept them as equals in any sphere of their life want them to be treated as their equals only in admissions and jobs?

There is another point of view: why do those who are only a quarter of the total population want to occupy 100% of public spaces? They have unjustly occupied all land, all economic and cultural resources, they want to continue with this forced occupation everywhere even in modern times: In courts, in government offices, in schools, colleges and universities, media, everywhere.

Let us be honest with ourselves. We should ask if there was no reservation, would the faces that we see in our departments be there? Will the selection be fair if there are no representatives of reserved categories in the selection committees? We still remember the days when candidates for reserved seats were declared not suitable so that in that the next phase the reserved seats could go to the general category, on the pretext that no one was found qualified in the reserved categories and how can seats be kept vacant! This ‘upper’ caste cunning was called out and a law was made to ensure that the reserved seats could never be converted as general category seats. 

It is only after this legal bar that we saw different departments being forced to fill the quota. 

The implication of 10% reservation for ‘upper’ castes from economically weaker sections of society is that these seats are not available for all the ‘upper’ caste or ‘general’ candidates. But these seats have also become unavailable to those who are eligible to compete in the general category even when they belong to the so called reserved categories.  

Also read: EWS Quota: Newspaper Editorials Question Exclusions, Believe Concerns Will Remain

Is this the reason, that there is no noise about it? No lament about talented being ignored here. Why? Is it because it is assumed that even if candidates with lower marks enter these 10%  reserved seats, they must be talented because they belong to the ‘upper’ castes? There, we don’t doubt the merit of those entering with below ‘normal’ marks. Is it because they are divinely ordained to be talented?

 Talent gives birth to opportunities. This sentence is wrong.

Instead, it is more appropriate to say that talent emerges from opportunities. And talent is a quality developed not so much by the individual, but by social practice. For centuries, those who have reserved all the opportunities for themselves have started considering their talent as natural.

They do not realise the injustice and tyranny hidden within the social structure which makes them owners of merit by robbing others of their merit. Or perhaps they know it well and want this situation to continue.

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.

Featured image: Photo: (vincent desjardins)/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

This article was first published on The Wire.