Thursday, May 25, 2006

the myth of meritocracy

with some pointers on the correct etiquette when bowling to an OBC batsman

near consensus: MSM and alternative media coverage

The past few days, we have seen the incredibly one-sided media coverage of the proposed reservations in higher educational institutions.

Read a representative editorial here. A beautiful specimen, drawing illuminating comparisons between the reservation issue and the Delhi government’s lack of enthusiasm in demolishing illegal buildings.

What surprised me was that while the blogosphere can be usually relied upon to offset MSM (for those who read blogs, that is), this time around there is a clear concurrence between the bloggers and MSM. For instance, this.

Roswitha, being one of the few who took a clear stand against the popular 'youth' sentiment.
(I’d like some links to blogs that have covered this issue, one way or the other.)

I am not hinting at any dark conspiracy between alternative and mainstream media, merely comenting on the lack of open debate. And one must hold the government, and particularly Arjun Singh, responsible to a great degree with cantankerous treatment and rather aggressive posturing.

level playing grounds: the myth of meritocracy

According to sociologists Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande in The Hindu, less than 1/4th of our population has appropriated more than 3/4th of the seats in institutions of higher education. (Read the entire article here.)

There can be 2 broad inferences from this point:

One is that some castes are inherently superior to other castes, which is why they have been successful in taking up so many seats in institutions of higher education. If one does not accept that first inference, then one may safely assume that there is something seriously wrong with the system. That there is a denial of equal opportunities to a section of the population.

If 3/4th of our population is kept from higher educational institutions, how can we even hope to move towards a more equitable society?

I do not swallow the whole Kancha Iliah line of caste being the only social differentiator/ variable in Indian society, but one cannot deny the fact that caste is an overwhelmingly important factor in Indian society. And coupled with the kind of statistics that Yadav and Deshpande quote, it appears to be an apparent case of controlling the ways and means to attain knowledge, and reinforce an absolute obedience.

All dominant societal groups have done it: the Brahmins in the later Vedic times with their concept of the Vedas falling upon impure ears, and the need to brutalise any person of a lower caste who came within hearing distance of the Vedas being chanted! The Christian theocracy achieved more or less the same with their idea of the Original Sin. Even derived religions as the Satyanarayan sect in Gujarat with their oh-so-bold reinterpretation of the Bhagavat Gita as an incident where the Lord commanded Arjuna to fight, and Arjuna merely followed orders. (Wonder why he needed 18 chapters and close to 50,000 verses to say just that!)

And all dominant groups have had their own myth to support the existence of such a system.

In the case of the reservation in higher educational institutions, the myth of meritocracy is the conventional wisdom. The underlying assumption being that the existing system is fair, and that the Dalits can’t get into these institutions, it is because they just cannot! Too bad for them.

(The longer I look at the meritocracy debate and the underlying assumption of the ability of some castes to do better than other, the closer I think it is to the “white man’s burden” and the ideological justification of colonialism. The broad assumption there too was that one race progressed better than another simply because it was better equipped to do so. That it was a shining example of Darwinism.)

Once the idea of the level playing field has been conceded, there is no scope to discuss the deep-rooted societal reasons and the need for proactive measures to correct them is not even entertained.

The whole counterargument of merit suffering under reservations is all the more confounding when one considers the government’s assurance that the number of seats in absolute terms for the general category will not decrease.

Moreover, even the definition of ‘merit’, and what skill separates someone who gets a 91 percentile and another who gets a 98 percentile, is another angle to issue. If one concedes that there is a certain element of chance involved, then one also concedes that the logic behind the meritocracy argument is rather shaky, even by itself.

on the same note: allied issues

1) The government’s high handedness.
Whatever one’s views on this reservation issue, one cannot agree with the complete lack of debate and discussion about the event. Perhaps the most important reason for this is that in the political arena, one messes around with the OBCs only at one’s own risk.

2) Where is the room for protest?
And to what avail? The earlier doctor’s strike was met with the state’s brutal police apparatus, and MSM did not even cover it. The Indian Express went out of its way to PR-sabotage the Narmada Bachao Andolan with a front page story of farmers who wanted to take the land offered, but were stopped from doing so by Medha Patkar. The PMK’s march in support of the reservations did not even get mentioned in MSM. (I don’t blame them, really. The Pattali Makkal Katchi is led by Vaiko. * Insert 3 minute laugh track here* LTTE supporter, Karunidhi-fan-and-disciple-turned-foe, satellite phone phone buddy with V. Prabhakaran, and recent a Jayalalitha supporter.)

3) The mainstream media and its new found consensus
The media's near unanmous voice, or the lack of it, in issues such as the doctor’s strike and the reservations, are issues to wonder about. Perhaps the lone voice of resistance has been The Hindu. (But then the boys at The Hindu would take offense if we discussed them in the same breath as MSM.)

4) Where is our primary educational system?
Many schools are being used as cowsheds and granaries in the villages, where the disparity between the castes is most acute. The reserved categories cannot hope to take advantage of the new reserved quotas if they are school dropouts. If only 30% of the Indian population, across castes, passes out of high school, one cannot hope for any serious upliftment until that is rectified.

an endnote: about bowling to an OBC player at half pace

However, the reservation issue cannot be said to be entirely without charm. It has had more than its share of highly-entertaining bloomers.

Shoaib Akhtar should not bowl fast balls to our OBC player.
Bowlers should bowl maximum speed of 80 kilometer per hour to an OBC player.
Any delivery above this speed should be made illegal.

Also we should have reservation in Olympics.
In the 100 meters race, an OBC player should be given a gold medal if he runs 80 meters.

One would’ve felt compelled to respond to the blatant casteism, if it had not been so ludicrous.
Read more here, including ironic gems like “Let’s abolish the honourable caste system.”


menon said...

good to see you writing again.

Kaushik said...

just a point to note that vaiko heads the MDMK. S. ramadoss heads the PMK.

V. said...

Kaushu catches me on the wrong foot again.
my apologies!

V. said...

another related link:

menon said...

raising seats in an infrastructure already stretched is a harmful and regressive move. nearly all of the top institutions lack the requisite amount of teachers as it is.
its hard not to agree with your point, but then again reservations on OBC lines is a clear indication of identity politics, if reservation is to be made, it should be purely on the basis of economic status. and a case can be made against reservation in higher institutions on the basis that the government is shirking responsibility. if it were to show its commitment to social justice, it should strenghten the primary education system. i'm not saying reservation should be abolished en masse, but show that you are committed to social justice and do not insult our intelligence with steps like this.
my two paise's worth.

V. said...

i dont think the argument that the infrastructure is already stretched really holds together. if so, does that justify keeping 3/4th out of the facilities that 1/4th is enjoying? and india does have professionals. perhaps some reforms are in order, such as visiting profesorships. but these are the brasstacks that can be worked out. the broad idea is that there must be equality of opportunities.

also i need you to clarify what exactly you meant by identity politics?
are you toeing the same "they did it only for the votes" line?
if so, may i ask what exactly is wrong with it?
after all, mass approbation is the underlying logic on which democracy is built.
(think Oomen Chandy's ambition of turning Kerala into a Bangalore, which incidentally ranks way lower in human well-being indicators such as life expectancy, sex ratio et al; and his catastrophic failure at the box office.)

yes i do agree that merely caste based reservations are inadequate.
a case in point being the Ezhava community from Kerala. while they have appropriated most of the reservations meant for the OBCs post-1991, they cnotinue to be on the reserved category and deny the truly backward classes their right to opprtunities.

i do hold multi-variable reservations to be a more viable long term answer, but i do not see how we can move towards that unless we implement the first step of acknowledging the socio-economic and caste-based disparity in educational and professional opportunities.

menon said...

I can see your point regarding populism. and my response might be highly subjective, but here goes...
populism can be thought of as the building block of democracy, but a populism that excludes? arjun singh's idea of 50% reservation seeks to exclude the claims of a large portion of the population to seats in higher education. he is pitting one group against the other. oomen chandy's claims ideally seeks to benefit all sections of the society (very shaky argument, i know), but arjun singh's is just insidious.
yes, i know that there is disparity, yes i know that a small section of the population commands a larger part of the resources in all fields, but a proper perspective is in order. reservation must be done only on the basis of economics, and the reason why reservation in higher education is needed because the primary education system is so flawed, and it would make more sense to focus on that.
and to get back to the idea of identity politics, while i know that democracy has given rise to populism, arjun singh's brand of populism sticks in the throat because it seems a purely mercenary, business like exchange of benefits. "vote for me, and i'll get you seats."

V. said...

elections are 3 years away!
and a lot would have happened before that. a lot of discussion, debate and inferences.
i dont see how arjun singh can hope to deceive people all the way into the next election.
and btw, the man has LOST all elections since 1996, finishing third once, (even the BJP does better than that in Kerala) so i doubt if he is seriously hoping to contest elections and win in the next general elections. (i hate it when the BJP-BSP combine in UP is handed seats on a platter!)

that apart, the congress is surely hoping to gain political mileage out of this.
my point is, what are your implications?
are you implying that the masses can be deceived i perpetuity?

i would say the masses are deceived usually when the media is not performing its role ethically.

also i really dont see how Oomen Chandy's ambititon of making Kerala a new Bangalore benefits "all sections of the society".
care to explain?
also i suggest you read this article:

menon said...

ok ok dismiss the entire last post. i wrote under duress. you were pressurising me to finish it fast and thus i did not have time to write out a measured response. i can't believe i bought oomen chandy into this. chee.
so here goes...
we start with the accepted notion that populism is part and parcel of democracy. the reason why arjun singh's populism is insiduous is because it is pitting one group against the other. the fact that his announcement came so close to elections in few states is suspicious, warranting the election commission to look into the matter.
even if he is not contesting for votes, the move was clearly made in an effort to gain political mileage. examine whether the move would have any practical benefits or not. in all announcements made regarding this, has anything been said about excluding the 'creamy layer' from reservations in higher institutes? unless any official measure is adopted regarding this, i will always consider reservations as a political tool.
yes, the concept of merit is ambiguous, hell even distorted when discussing the issue. but the fact of the matter is that most students getting in through the reserved seats cannot cope with the system and 'meritorious' students who have the benefit of strong primary education can. which brings me back to my point; if the government is serious about social justice, strengthen the fundamental education system in the country. measures like this are eyewashes.
and i do not see anything wrong with opposing the move on the basis of crumbling infrastructure. would an erosion of quality help anyone? there is no debating the point that there must be equality of opportunity, but haphazard, insiduous measures such as the ones propogated by messrs arjun singh and co. are not the way to go.

ankan said...

Agreed that the playing field is not level. However, the question is whether providing reservations based on caste is the right way to level the playing field? Will it level the playing field; will it even come close to doing it? Is caste really the main enabler of social mobility in Indian society? How about economic criterion? There are many other questions you need to ask yourself.

Please do not let sentiments ride over reason in this debate. The politicians are taking people for a ride and one should be able to see through it.

roswitha said...

I once thought economic reservations would cut it, too, but it's not like they're going to be a panacea to our ills. because the creamy layer among the economically backward are still going to benefit more. Viz. to say, poor brahmis are still going to get way more of a step-up than poor dalits. It's just the way the world works.

I agree, by the way, that reservations as implemented by the government are going to throw up some of the major issues Rahul brings up in his thoughtful comments. As a matter of principle, however (and in the matter of media coverage, which was the point of Viv's post) I can't condemn the thought itself.

roswitha said...

And just to clarify, when I say 'principle,' I don't mean my own. I mean reservations, in theory.

While we're at it, I'm pretty sure 'brahmins' is spelt with the 'n'.

roswitha said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
V. said...

what i find curious is this complete asummed discord between caste and economic status.
in theory, i would ve agreed.
but if one looks at the lower economic strata, one realises that there is a very real link between caste and economic status.

and education being one of the most important connecting links. it is the most imoprtant catalyst for change and upward mobility, isnt it?

see comment to Roswitha above.

as for the economic criterion, i mentioned it earlier. i did mentino the Ezhava community in Kerala as an eg.
i dont quite remember arguing this way the Absolute Best Way. if i have succeeded in communicating my thoughts, my argument was entirely built around the fact that this was a start.
see my exchange with menon above.

and lastly, my apologies for letting sentiments ride over reason.

V. said...

your point about the 'creamy layer' had been conceded earlier.
(i even mentioned an eg of the Ezhavas in Kerala.)

"but the fact of the matter is that most students getting in through the reserved seats cannot cope with the system and 'meritorious' students who have the benefit of strong primary education can."
that does sound dangerously close to the whole casteist stand on the issue.
i will exlpain why...
because of the lack of social support and primary education infrastructure, a lot of the backward classes have suffered in educating themselves. but one cannot quote the fact that they have dont miserably in the past as a reason not to take proactive measure.
really, that is putting the cart befoer the horse (when going forwards!).

yes i do agree that there are better ways to do it, but the very necessity for increasing reservations and disturbing the existing status quo must be conceded before we can graduate to higher and more complex forms of reservations, for instance, to what you (and to an extent myself) have been championing - a multivariable reservation system plotted against caste, economic status etc.

but till then, this is a step in the right direction.

V. said...

because of the lack of social support and primary education infrastructure, a lot of the backward classes have suffered in educating themselves. but one cannot quote the fact that they have DONE (and not 'dont') miserably in the past as a reason not to take proactive measures.

V. said...

Related link:

Relevant excerpts:
Justice O. Chinnappa Reddy (in K.C.V. Kumar V. Karnataka 1985 SCR 394) refers to a backward class child "who has no books and magazines to read at home, no radio to listen, no TV to watch, no one to help him with his homework, whose parents are either illiterate or so ignorant and ill informed that he cannot even hope to seek their advice on any matter of importance." He goes on to ask: "Has not this child got merit if he with all his disadvantages is able to secure the qualifying 40 per cent or 50 per cent of the marks at a competitive examination where the children of the upper-classes who go to St. Paul's High School and St. Stephen's College, and who have perhaps been specially coached for the examination may secure 70, 80 or even 90 per cent of the marks? ... surely a child who has been able to jump so many hurdles may be expected to do better and better as he progresses in life."


Right from the primary level, there is a vast dissimilarity in the type and quality of education imparted between private and public schools. The students from the two streams differ in many ways, especially in their communication skills, confidence levels, and body language. The set of opportunities open to public school students is constrained. This makes them losers in the race for `merit'. There is a crying need for a reform of the system. If this is done, we may find that the differences in the cut-off level marks between different caste groups might disappear altogether!

menon said...

hmm...i will concede that my stand sounds dangerously casteist, but i think i made my point clear when we spoke that day. i think you know me well enough to be assured of the fact that this is not the case!
and i think that its appropriate to state the point here that we agreed on while speaking on the phone the other day, that nay talk of reservation would be pointless without installing the necessary support structures in the first place.
and here's a talking point that could be taken up for further debate...has the entire reservation issue been beneficial from the point of view of highlighting the fact that there is a crying need for expanding the educational infrastructure of the country? i would say that what we need right now is more institutes of higher learning, rather than reservations in the existing one.

V. said...

to the best of my knowledge there are plans for opening more institutes of higher learning.

much as i dislike shekhar gupta, he made a valid point the other day when he wrote that the whole quota issue has blown out of proportion only because seats are at such a premium.
he likened it to LPG connections in the 70s and 80s - a case of manufactured scarcity.

it was his contention that the problem could ve been better handled if we had more such institutes.

one note of caution, the new institutes must maintain the same proportion as elsewhere.
if not, it would be a case of open discrimination, as graduates of that university/ institute would be discriminated against.