ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Merits of Mandal II

ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL WEEKLY Merits of Mandal II The controversial proposal to institute reservations for the other backward classes (OBCs) in institutions of higher and professional education

Merits of Mandal II The controversial proposal to institute reservations for the other backward classes (OBCs) in institutions of higher and professional education – dubbed “Mandal II” – is being presented in the mainstream media as the farcical rerun of the original tragedy. But, like its predecessor, it may prove to have unexpected, perhaps even unintended, virtues. What is striking about “Mandal I” in retrospect is that it triggered a remarkable resurgence of interest in caste inequality. It was almost as if the continued centrality of caste as a force shaping contemporary India became visible for the first time to the post-independence generation of academics, activists and policy-makers. In similar fashion, Mandal II may well achieve something much more than caste quotas in higher education – it may force careful consideration of hitherto neglected issues in social policy. The first such issue concerns the inevitable complexity of aggregative categories. Like most modern identities, the OBCs are a complex mixture of traditional inheritance, colonial invention and contemporary realignment. However, the internal differentiation within this category is wider and deeper than those in comparable groups. In rural India, the OBCs are unique in forming over a third of all class segments from the richest to the poorest. However, urban OBCs are indisputably an underprivileged group, their economic status resembling that of the scheduled castes. There are also sharp regional differences – by and large, southern OBCs have much larger stocks of both economic and educational capital than their counterparts in the north. While this diversity has predictably been used by opponents to question the OBCs’ entitlement to protective discrimination, we need to move beyond such motivated responses, for most large social groups are diverse. By focusing attention on the remarkable resilience of caste inequalities in higher education, Mandal II foregrounds the potent yet unexamined category of “merit”. How do we explain the continued absence of relatively less disadvantaged groups like the OBCs from clearly desirable institutions and opportunities? It is surely no longer enough to say that they simply lack merit. In the Indian context, merit is in practice reduced to the rank obtained in an examination. To take a recent example, more than three lakh candidates recently appeared for the IIT entrance examination for about 4,000 places. We already know therefore that the results, when published, will effectively declare 2,96,000 candidates to be – equally and completely – “without merit”. Likewise, dominant modes of thinking insist that the “reservation candidate” has only caste and no merit, just as the “meritorious candidate” has only merit and no caste. It is obvious that the way forward lies beyond such false dichotomies. Useful debate on affirmative action in higher education is often blocked by insufficient attention to the specificities of this sector. Postgraduate and professional education is inevitably elitist – only a small proportion of graduates can (and should) gain entry. But this does not grant it licence to be elitist in the sense of excluding subaltern social groups. In the same vein, practical realities dictate that only the “creamy layer” of every social group will be able to take full advantage of higher education. Therefore, affirmative action in this sector cannot insist on poverty as an eligibility condition. The “critical mission” argument is often invoked to claim exemption from social justice considerations on the grounds that urgent tasks of vital importance (e g, cancer cures, defence research, etc) must be pursued in the most instrumentally efficient manner. Such claims need to be investigated with care, particularly in poor countries like India, where higher education bears a proportionately higher burden of facilitating career mobility because of the “credential inflation” triggered by job scarcity. Since the demand for good jobs far exceeds supply, aspirants seek to enhance their prospects by acquiring more or higher educational credentials, in short, by being overqualified. This means that the higher education sector has

to bear an additional burden, since advanced degrees not only serve to train specialised researchers or teachers, but must also facilitate more generalised demands for career advancement. The upshot is that, in the Indian context, standard arguments for exempting higher education from the considerations of social justice and equal opportunity cannot be justified.

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