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To allow caste to overwrite merit is shameful
Ramananda Sengupta
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April 12, 2006
The caste system is dead. Long live the caste system.

V P Singh might be smiling now, but the curses of thousands, nay millions, of Indians denied access to higher education because of this goddamn quota system are on his head.

Add to that the curses of all parents whose sons and daughters are once again fighting on either side of the divide that he, in his quest for political capital, formalised.

It is he who strengthened a system which the Indian Constitution has pledged to eradicate. It is he who ensured that people continued to be discriminated against on the basis of their caste.

And now this government, again for the lowest of reasons -- electoral profit -- has seen fit to revive the centuries old tradition of divide and rule.

Mandal Redux

Now I am not against reservations. Of course, there has to be reservations: But please let us limit it to primary and secondary education.

Because to allow caste to overrule merit at any stage beyond that is downright shameful. Particularly in a nation of more than one billion, which has trouble getting gold medals at the Olympics.

Now why did I bring that up? Because I fear that soon, if it hasn't happened already, even our so-called sportsmen will be selected on the basis of their caste. So will doctors, engineers, and bureaucrats.

Let us get this straight: If you were being treated by a doctor, would you feel comfortable knowing that the man had not qualified for the post on merit alone? Would you trust yourself with a pilot who made the grade because of his caste?

The Indian Medical Association has already condemned the proposal for 27 per cent reservation for Other Backward Classes in professional educational institutions, saying it would dilute the quality of their students.

"Recent recommendation to create an additional 27 per cent quota for OBCs would severely compromise the quality of healthcare provided by health professionals in the country," says IMA Secretary General Vinay Aggarwal.

"With around 50 per cent seats reserved, these students (OBCs) will get admission on a platter. Once they pass out, jobs are also kept reserved for them," said Sanjiv Malik, national president, IMA.

Many moons ago, (soon after V P Singh was booted out of office) I was chatting with a ship captain at the Explorer's Club on the Calcutta riverfront.

He had a strange tale to tell: There was a lighthouse meant to guide ships into the harbour which had stopped functioning nearly a year.

Why? Because under the new regulations, only a person of particular caste could man that lighthouse, and unfortunately, there was not a single person from that caste in that district willing and able to take up that job.

So for over a year, the lighthouse was unmanned. This forced ships to anchor further out at sea, and many had to waste an extra day or more waiting for the tugs to guide them into the port.

Need I say more?

I had the luck and privilege of going to a fancy public school in Darjeeling. A talented young lad from a Ramkrishna Mission School in Bengal was among my classmates. I am not sure whether he was admitted on the basis of his caste, but academically, he was brilliant. He was also good at football and dramatics, though he kept himself restricted to Bengali plays.

But he could not adjust to the public school atmosphere, and the ensuing tensions led him to fail his class 12 examination. This was a boy who had scored the highest marks in the class 10 board exams.

Obviously, our entire education system sucks. When it comes to jobs, students from English medium schools tend be given preference over those from the government run institutions. We see it all the time, particularly in the booming services sector.

But will forcibly reserving jobs for them help? No.

What it will ensure is that people who get in due to their caste are further discriminated against, and marked out by their own colleagues.

What we need to ensure is that the entire educational system is revised dramatically at the primary and secondary levels to ensure a certain merit-based quality and consistency.

What we need to ensure is that schools and colleges do not have separate teachers associations based on caste.

What we need to ensure is that students, regardless of their caste, are given the means to compete fairly for higher education. By all means, let the government subsidise higher education for students who have the merit, but not the money. Again, regardless of their caste.

But when it comes to higher education, let it be done purely on merit. And when it comes to jobs, instead of reservations, let us instead codify and enforce a legal system of redressal, where anyone who feels that he or she or it has been unfairly denied a job or admission because of his caste, gender, or race can take the issue to a court or a special commission with the power to censure or punish those found guilty of such acts.

Let us truly abolish the caste system by striking at its roots, instead of trying to perpetuate it through reservations.

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