Reservation vs merit in India or Affirmative action vs equal opportunity in the USA

When I was 32, I had lived in India for 3/4th of my life and in the USA for the rest of it. Until then, I did not have to worry about the title of this blog. I had qualified in the CEPA (Common examination for post-graduate admission) for my MSc in IIT Madras, GATE for my M.Tech in IIT Delhi and GRE/AGRE/TOEFL/TSE for my Ph. D. at the Kansas State University. My admission was not at the cost of someone more meritorious.

While I did not know much about reservation in India in the early 80s, all the Universities in the USA used to declare themselves as an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer. I did not quite understand affirmative action initially and when I did, I realized these two terms contradict each other. I returned to IIT Kanpur at the end of 1994 and moved to IISc Bangalore after 5 semesters. I had to deal with admission of students. Details of “reservation” had to be learned.

Ramalinga Vallalaar, a Tamil saint from 19th Century, said எல்லோரும் எல்லாமும் பெற வேண்டும் (Everyone should get everything). Almost every one would feel benevolent at some time or other and agree with this statement. On the contrary, most would not disagree with a statement “Only those who deserve something should get it”. One could see that both these two philosophies, though contradicting, have some merit in them. One would like to see that every one gets equal opportunity if not everything.

The declaration of independence in the USA (1776 AD) starts with the statement: “We hold it to be self-evident that all men are born equal”. There was no need to offer any proof. One can compare this with what Thiruvalluvar said in Tamil, believed to be more than 2000 years ago: “பிறப்பொக்கும் எல்லா உயிர்க்கும்” By birth all lives are equal. Clearly, Thiruvalluvar was more progressive. Tamils call this ‘Thirukkural’ as their Veda.  Manusastra and Bhagavat Gita talk about ‘varna’ which may have led to the ‘caste’ system in India.

Those who still defend the indefensible ‘caste’ system suggest that the ‘varnas’ don’t depend on birth but on the characteristics of the people. In practice, the birth determined the caste in India and it determined what one could hope to do in life. It did not depend on what one was capable of. So much have been written about caste, today it seems to me that I would not see the abolition of caste in India in my lifetime. Ambedkar must have been day dreaming when he wrote about the ‘Annihilation of castes’ in India.

Today’s Hindu has a good analysis of caste in the urban and rural area ( ). I quote from this article: “He said that the university functions under the pressure of three main lobbies: the Brahmin group, the Thakur group and the Kayastha group. They actively compete for influence over every major decision, and, most avidly, over the process of selection for new appointments.” Clearly, none of this groups worry about merit.

Ekalavya, an important character in Mahabharatham, one of the two great epics from India, teaches himself to become the best archer of his time. He was not born in a family of Kings. He thinks of Drona as his guru.  Though Drona never taught Ekalavya, he could still demand guru dakshina (tuition fees) from the loyal disciple. What does he ask? The thumb in the right hand! Why does he ask? His favourite student Arjuna should remain the best archer. It doesn’t matter if he wasn’t. He was born in the right family. We are taught to celebrate Arjuna and his bravery. Favouritism remains a curse in India even today.

While the forefathers in the USA concluded that ‘All men are born equal’, they clearly had only ‘white men’ in their mind at that time. Slavery was legal. It took the USA nearly another century to abolish slavery. Affirmative action was introduced to help those who have been deprived historically to catch up. Obama could rise to be elected as the President of the USA for two terms! Has Martin Luther King’s dream come true in the USA? The recent killing of African American youths in the USA raise doubts about this.

The forefathers of India had more history to learn then the forefathers of the USA and realized that in practice all were not born equal in India. What Thiruvalluvar said 2000 years ago could not become a fact of life in India, thanks to those who could take power in their hand and ensure that the inequality persisted.  The new and independent nation, India, realized that it is important to undo the wrongs of the past and introduced ‘Reservation’ for the disadvantaged section in education and jobs.

Reservation was of course intended for only a specific period to ensure that the historically marginalized section could rise. With the democracy giving power to unexpected sections since independence, favouritism remains and who is favoured changes with time. Every group that captures power, wants to remove the people who have been appointed due to favouritism and appoints a new set due only to favouritism. I wonder if the vicious cycle would ever end here.

If you had one kid in life, you will see genetics at work at times. If you have two kids, you would realize that genetics is not all. To determine the future of any kid, based on birth is a great injustice. It seems to me that people in India grow up accepting such inequality as matters of fact. Is favouritism bad? Is reservation bad?

There is a proverb in Tamil which points out that the five fingers are all not of the same length. Often it is quoted to highlight the difference between children of the same parents. Most every one today might agree that ‘all children should get the same opportunity’. Clearly, even if all children got equal opportunity, some would grow more than the others. Some are more capable and so they progress better. Should not their children enjoy the fruits of their parents success? Won’t these children be already ahead of the children of those who could not progress as much, even after having equal opportunity?

Blood is thicker than water, more thicker in India than in the USA. It seems to me that, it is the root cause of the problems in India. Often the strength and weakness are the same. Favouritism wins. I hope we can evolve into a society in which the bottom line is redrawn for every generation. May the best lady win.

PS1: I read a comment by Vinod Mehta, published the day after he passed away: “[Bombay] was a wonderful city. A city of gold. You came there, all communities lived there, and the best man won. No caste, no religion. Then Bal Thackeray came and vitiated the whole atmosphere. I saw that in front of my own eyes. The Bombay we knew and the Bombay we loved was destroyed. When Bal Thackeray died, both Arnab Goswami and Rajdeep Sardesai asked me to come on their programmes. I refused. You can’t tell lies on television. And if I had said what I really felt about Bal Thackeray, the studios would have been burned.”

PS2. I read another comment exactly on the same lines but mentioned by an American. The comment said something like ‘your birth is becoming more important in the USA to decide your future’. I could not locate it but the message was the same. USA is considered the land of opportunities where the best person won, irrespective of the background! That did help in making it a land of dream for the world.



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