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 ( http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/urban-and-rural-continue-to-be-treated-as-contrasting-categories-in-india/article7248519.ece?homepage=true ). 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.



Rosa Parks and Mooka Nadar: Recent tales from the world’s “oldest” and largest democracies!

I am a native of Madurai, India and lived there for 20 years, largely during the 1960s and 70s till I finished my B.Sc. in Chemistry (1982) at The American College, Madurai. In 1986, I went to the U.S.A. for my Ph. D. and postdoctoral work and lived there for a little more than 8 years. I returned to India at the end of 1994 to join IIT, Kanpur. All through my stay at Madurai and in the USA, I had not heard of Rosa Parks or Mooka Nadar. What unites them is the courage of conviction they displayed against discrimination, risking their own lives. Rosa Parks, though imprisoned, survived and the USA eventually changed its ways. Mooka Nadar was killed and India changed its ways too.

I learned about Rosa Parks when my elder daughter was in middle school.  A social science text book for Class 7, CBSE (Central Board for School Education, India) had one small section on Rosa Parks. There is a page in Wikipedia on Rosa Parks  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosa_Parks) and one can learn more about her from Google. In short, it was a period when the buses in the USA had segregated the white and black passengers. However, if a white person enters the bus and could not find a seat in the White section, people of color have to get up and give the white person his/her seat.

On December 1st, 1955, Rosa Parks was returning from work and was very tired. She refused to get up and give her seat for a white man even when the other black persons in the bus at that time, stood up and gave their seats. The bus driver, a white man James Blake, called the police and had her arrested. She was found guilty of misconduct and fined. She was eventually acquitted and segregation based on color ended in the USA. She became known as ‘the first lady of civil rights’ and ‘the mother of freedom movement’. Rosa Parks day is observed on 4th February (her birth day) and December 1st (the day she was arrested) in the states California and Ohio. I was in Portland, Oregon during the summer of 2013 and found a road named ‘Rosa Parks Way’.  I found out more about it in the web later and you can too (http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2009/07/if_rosa_parks_way_naming_is_an.html).

I had not known Mooka Nadar until the last year, nearly 7 years after I had learned about Rosa Parks. I had not lived in any of the places where Rosa Parks was born and lived (Alabama) or settled later (Detroit). I was born and lived in Madurai for 20 years and I had not known Mooka Nadar. Today (1 February 2015), I found about 4,79,00,000 results (in 0.40 seconds) on Google when I typed Rosa Parks. Mooka Nadar is relatively unknown, even to a person like me who was born and raised in Madurai.

There was a period in India when segregation was prevalent and casteism was accepted by every one. People of ‘Nadar’ caste were not allowed to enter the temple. Mooka Nadar decided to defy this ban and entered the famous Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai. He was identified immediately and lynched. Nadars filed a complaint and the Court in those days, with Judges of British origin dismissed the case as Mooka Nadar should not have entered the temple in the first place. It does appear like there is a street named after Mooka Nadar in the centre of Madurai city, though I do not know for sure if it is named after this same person. Google has 81,200 entries but I suspect most of them are not about this person. Today, no one based on caste can be denied entry to any Temples in India legally.

I learned about Mooka Nadar last year from a book authored by my namesake, Arunan.  His book on ‘Thamizhakathil Samooga Seerthirutham Iru Nootrandu Varalaru’ (Social revolution in Tamil Nadu: History from the last two centuries) published in 2013.  This book is well researched and written and I would recommend it to any serious reader who has an interest in this topic. Amazon lists several books by this Author Arunan, who does not use an initial (http://www.amazon.in/s/ref=sr_pg_1?rh=n%3A976389031%2Cp_27%3AArunan&ie=UTF8&qid=1422773832). The last book listed in this page in amazon.in (found today) is an edited volume following a symposium on Shock Waves we organized. The titles of his other books indicate to me that we not only share our names, but also views on many things. Perhaps, not about communism and I cannot comment on it until I read the books.

The USA has not shied away from discussing racism and has been taking steps to correct it. India has taken enough steps to prevent caste based discrimination but has not been as open as the USA in discussing it. It has repeatedly ensured that ‘caste’ is not included in the UN discussions.  How wrong our perceptions could be about who is the big bully, among these two democracies. While all over the world, such discrimination and exploitation of the weaker section has existed, one real mark of a civilized country can be seen in the way it treats the marginalized sections. I wish, India will become more honest and less hypocritical, in admitting our mistakes from the past, correcting them and marching towards a modern and civilized country. In closing, two quotes: 1) One Thirkkural that I like most (widely believed to be more than 2000 years old):

பிறப்பொக்கும் எல்லா உயிர்க்கும் சிறப்பொவ்வா
செய்தொழில் வேற்றுமை யான்

The essence of this Thirukkural, known as the Veda of Tamil, is that by birth every one is equal! 2) “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” Rosa Parks. http://www.americanswhotellthetruth.org/store/posters/rosa-parks-poster?gclid=CM73-cyCwMMCFVIV7AodZRsAUw Don’t give up or give in, when you see discrimination.