Are we sure this is the India we want?

From Barkha Dutt’s article on NDTV – Mandal Revisited

The romance of rebellion can blur ideology. I was 18 when I marched down the streets of Delhi against Mandal; wide-eyed at the war cries of young men who were all IAS aspirants, but seemed at the time to be icons of radicalism.

So, every morning, we would huddle together in the protective shelter of an ageing tree at St. Stephen’s College, listen to long and fiery speeches on the murder of merit, and then, armed with the ammunition of youth, take to the roads.

A few years later when real life brought me face to face with the complexity of caste, I was embarrassed that the milestone from those years would read ‘anti-Mandalite’. Perhaps, I wondered, we had just been a bunch of kids desperate to have something to get angry about; a generation in search of a cause.

Either way, looking back, it all felt hopelessly elitist and nah. Not anymore. Life has turned full circle, and I’m finally stepping out from the shadow of political correctness, to think, maybe we weren’t so wrong back then; our reasons may have been uninformed and uneducated, our motives questionable, but we had batted on the right side, even if by accident.

Reservations have become a joke. We all know the statistics. More than 80 per cent of Dalit students never make it past Class X; more than 80 per cent of the reserved seats in vocational institutes remain unused; and in engineering colleges it’s even worse ‘ More than 90 per cent of seats in the reserved category just lie empty.

What does this say’ Two things. First, what’s the point of all these reservations if there aren’t enough qualified people to make use of them’

But second, and more importantly, who should take responsibility for this gap between promise and possibility’ Surely, this is the failure of governance, the failure of the State’ This is my objection to the reservation policy as it has come to be. It has become an excuse for the inaction of our political establishment; a cloak for its failure to deliver development or create equity; the refuge of the lazy.

No wonder then that there is complete agreement among political parties across the spectrum over the ever-expanding reservation pool; just competitive one-upmanship over who should get to swim in it. Every couple of years a new quota is created; a new group granted admission to the reserved category; but there are always others pushing the door down for entry.

The more the quota regime multiplies, the more it is beginning to look like a hundred-headed hydra. The problem is those who oppose the quotas are often pretty monstrous themselves. Usually urban, often rich, always upper-caste, their pedigree only seems to worsen their prejudice.

Some of the comments I have heard in our television studios make me want to throw up. A professional socialite declared that it was best her kids studied outside India because the ‘social environment’ in educational institutes here would decline now that quotas had opened the gates for ‘all kinds’.

Another pointed me to a stunningly beautiful and articulate young woman in the studio audience and whispered “she doesn’t look like an OBC”. It’s never said out aloud, or in so many words, but all the remarks suggest only thing: for India’s elite, the ‘backwards’ are imagined as dark, ugly, dirty, a stain on their perfectly starched canvas.

There’s also the innate dishonesty in their arguments. If we debate reservations in the private sector, they will say if you must block off seats, do it in schools and colleges, so you can create qualified people who can compete for jobs. If you talk about quotas in education, they will be just as indignant about the ‘decline of quality’.

They will declare that cash is more of a barrier than caste, but try suggesting quotas for poor students in public schools, and watch them run. But their prejudice can’t be the reason for a reservation policy that is increasingly unsustainable and directionless. It’s a tough nut to crack but my own view is that quotas would probably be most effective at the school level, but here too there should be an economic benchmark.

Lalu Prasad Yadav and Meira Kumar’s kids, for example, should be able to compete like everybody else. In the end, I still think it all boils down to an apathetic, under-performing State. If we had created an efficient and equal government school model, like the neighborhood schools in the West, this entire debate may well have been irrelevant.

Sure, the super-rich kids would have still gone to snotty private schools, but at least everyone else would have studied with some sense of parity and quality. Right now more than 60 students compete for a single IIT seat. Isn’t it our right to demand more premier engineering institutes rather than this mad scramble for a handful of seats, made yet more acrimonious by the politics of reservation?

Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t; no one in India ever has the same view on reservations. Perhaps that’s the point. I got an ominous glimpse of what may lie ahead on. We the People this Sunday while debating the new quotas for the IIMs and IITs.

The battle-lines were drawn not just between the two obvious camps, but also between the Dalits and the OBCs in the audience. Outraged by Dalit writer Chandra Bhan Prasad’s declaration that “Mandal had killed the spirit of reservation”, a group of 15 young OBC students sprang to their feet, close to violence and stormed off the set.

Left behind in the audience were mostly those who had opposed the quotas to begin with. It seemed to me that those who had walked out had displayed a siege mentality, a heightened sense of victim-hood and bias, a feeling of not being heard even when everyone was listening to them on a ready-made platform.

But to listen to those who had stayed back was as terrifying. There was a gloating, we-told-you-so atmosphere in the studio; mostly everyone said the same thing; the boys who had walked out hadn’t deserved to be part of the programme, and were apparently proof of why “such people” should be best kept at a distance.

It was, I thought, an index of how deeply this issue has come to divide us as a people, in ways that are ugly, primal and unresolved. It was a scary preview of a fractious future. Are we sure this is the India we want?

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