Thursday, April 17, 2008

Reservations in Higher Education: Kalpana Kannabiran's Views

Kalpana Kannabiran's op-ed notes some concerns in her op-ed today:

The exemption of institutions listed in the Schedule to Act 5 of 2007, the minority institutions and, now, unaided private institutions, goes against the spirit of equality and considerably shrinks the space for entitlements of persons from vulnerable groups. It is not so much a question of the measure of equality between institutions inter se that is critical in access to education, as of the measure of equality between citizens differently placed because it is citizens who bear the brunt of discrimination and exclusion. After all, reservation is an inseparable part of the principle of equality and where equality is concerned, no institution can be outside its ambit.

'Reservation is an inseparable part of the principle of equality'. Eh? This view is a novel one. There is a view drawn from the U.S.Supreme Court decision in Bakke that claims that affirmative action is simply a facet of equality, a view first adopted by Jeevan Reddy with respect to employment in Indra Sawhney I. But in India, unlike the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution, there are separate provisions for employment and education with different wording and different histories as well. While the US Supreme Court's view has itself been challenged by the dissenters in those cases, in India, at the very least, the meaning of the equality provision as applied to education is very clear and has been held before by the Indian Supreme Court in Champakam not to include reservations. The U.S.Supreme Court majority has also made it very clear a few years ago in its Grutter/Gratz decisions that affirmative action programs must be narrowly tailored to meet the interests of diversity and cannot include quotas.

She not only claims this as a right but goes further to say that the duty to provide for it is obligatory for all institutions. So, in other words, a college admission policy is unconstitutional if it does not provide for reservations! Not only does this view have no support in history or the constitution but it has been explicitly repudiated by the text of several provisions of the constitution. She is very upset that unaided and minority institutions have been excluded from its ambit. This claim is not entirely correct. For one thing, only Justice Bhandari has ruled that unaided institutions ought to be left out with the others choosing to remain silent upon it. So it is wrong to say that this is a position adopted by the Court. Secondly, the minority exception has been an integral feature of the constitution ever since the document was adopted in 1950, a feature that guaranteed their autonomy until 1989 from which time, successive judicial opinions have steadily eroded it. The 93rd amendment was drafted to restore an important aspect of this feature, namely their right to admit students of their choice. Any such right to autonomy is meaningless if they are required to follow government quota policies and the very fact that no such thing was imposed on them for several decades after independence makes it clear that her claim is duplicitous and false.

Notwithstanding the above concerns, this judgment has an important bearing on the entire system of higher education, especially institutions of excellence, because it challenges the idea that merit exists in a vacuum – outside of social location and equality of opportunity. Opening these institutions to Dalit and Adivasi students, especially, will bring in dimensions of diversity and counter-hegemonic thinking that will enrich the quality of education imparted there and strengthen democracy.

That she associates upper castes with hegemonic thinking reveals her innate bias against this group. I am aware of no evidence that forward caste people seek hegemony any more than the backward castes. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that hegemony or brahminism as it has been unfortunately labeled, is a feature of the lower castes as much if not more than the forward ones. Witness the strong calls for including the creamy layer - these are not coming from the upper castes but from the lower ones and the driving force behind it is the pressure from caste leaders (that often includes political leaders as well) who are anxious that the benefits that have accrued to the economically powerful and prominent sections of their communities will be lost. So the allegation is that the creamy layer will break caste unity and should be avoided (that is the message being promoted across the entire caste membership to support the cause). The last time when there was some confusion about whether the SC had extended the creamy layer to the SC/STs in the M.Nagaraj case, every Dalit-dominated outfit and virtually every leader of note was in the forefront expressing his/her righteous indignation and seeking its overturning. These parties ought to know that the central aim of quotas was to increase the sie of the educated base of lower caste groupings in order to raise their social status, a goal that is significantly defeated by allowing these benefits to be monopolized by a limited few who have already been uplifted and are less deserving of the state's support. Furthermore, protecting caste unity has never been considered a compelling state interest. And yet, despite all these facts staring in the face, they have the audacity to openly seek the abrogation of this policy and revert to a less progressive, elitist and if I might add, hegemonistic position that is far less effective in advancing this legitimate objective. In light of all this, I would ask the author: what basis does she have to believe that the lower castes are less hegemonic than the upper ones? This is a questionable assertion being peddled not only to smear the upper castes but to set up a common external enemy to be conveniently targeted for political advantage.

She also claims that including Dalit and Adivasi students will enrich the quality of education. As much as this may be a fond hope, has it done so in practice? I am aware of no clear evidence either way as regards this point. Does caste diversity in the classroom promote better citizenship of young college-going people? Perhaps though I do not know if this is actually the case. More importantly, the latter would not actually count as enrichment of education but as one prominent judge noted, is more an experience of life that is not taught in the literal sense of the word. Unless further studies can show that all other factors accounted for, universities with quotas produce more successful alumni than those without them, I would at the very least be sceptical of such a claim.


Dirt Digger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dirt Digger said...

An FYI, Professor Kannabiran's access, do read,
And as per the website, she can be contacted at:

Please feel free to ask your questions to the Professor amicably.
I'm positive she will be open to discussions as most good professors are.

Praada said...


You make sweeping allegations on a whole community. With this objectivity, it is fairly hard to find any hope of people like you to condescend to the real problem. With your critique you have proved that Kalpana was right in her respects.

How does a guy who takes reservation should always remind his classmates about his class ?
One small byte for you. My brahmin neighbours don't allow non-brahmins inside their house. I am not talking about an isolated case. I am talking about many of my neighbours, that too in a city.

You will never agree this

pilid said...

Thanks Dirt digger, I will send out an email. I will post her reply (if she does answer back).

Praada, I make no allegation against any community. I do not follow your question fully. I am not contesting the fact that people have prejudices. If someone does not want to let lower caste people into their homes, that is their personal choice and no amount of reservations is going to change that. The point of reservations is not the abolition of caste but achieving equal status in the public domain through empowerment.

I read your top post and briefly skimmed through the others on creamy layer. You make two arguments: (1) there is no significant creamy layer and (2) OBC representation in the government services is far below the quota and their share of the population.
To what extent these numbers reflect the education system is not clear to me. In any case, if the creamy layer is very small there too, one would obviously not expect it to affect the outcome (I still have not fully read the recent study on quotas in engineering colleges - the abstract suggested that the creamy layer does benefit disproportionately.). Secondly, if their share is far below the desired level, I would have to agree with J.Pasayat's view that it throws doubt on the effectiveness of the quota policy itself.

Your argument was also partly echoed by the Additional Solicitor General during the hearing of this case when he noted that barring the creamy layer would reduce OBC representation in educational institutions significantly. This brings us to the heart of the matter: What was the intent of the reservation policy in education when it was promulgated originally and is indicated by the various provisions of the Constitution? In education, it was upliftment of the 'socially and educationally backward classes' - meaning the expansion of the base of educated people amongst these sections. While this was also a goal in matter of employment, the use of the words 'backward classes' as well as other provisions indicates that there was a second and perhaps even more important goal - representative diversity, i.e., to ensure that all the castes got their due in the services (with the caveat that efficiency be protected). Your point about the low OBC share is a good argument for employment but I repeat that achieving caste diversity in education has never been defined as a compelling state interest (there is no equivalent provision in education for art.16(4) allowing the state to reserve seats for backward classes not adequately represented in the student community).

Anonymous said...

"Allowing" anyone into another's house is a personal/private matter. The reason can be anything or no reason at all.

Today's Chindu carries a self-congratulatory write-up on some expose. Yesterday, Chindu had carried a photograph of an "electrified" wall in a village dividing caste-hindus and Dalits. It seems the state-govt. took note of it and immediately ordered the live wire to be dismantled. But, the wall remains and so does the "two-tumbler" system in village tea stalls.

The village near Villupuram wherein two different cemetries exist among Christians was recently in the news.

In the above instances, Brahmins don't seem to be involved.

It is a social instinct for the creamy layer folks among the OBCs to hold hegemony over the privileges and also dispense favours for the less privileged in their groups, keeping them under control as long as possible.

pilid said...

Anonymous, I agree with you. In the Southern states, brahmins are a miniscule minority who hold neither economic nor political power. Their numbers in government are increasingly getting smaller. It is difficult to believe that they are responsible for the majority of bonafide instances of discrimination. In TN, most of the recent caste conflicts that I have heard about are between Thevars and Dalits. Their share may be more significant in the North where Brahmins where they are more of a force to reckon with.

Anonymous said...

Rajeev's comment:

"awwww, the chinese will have to dole out more cash to n ram now."

Dirt Digger said...

Pilid, Praada,
Great points all. The larger problem which has not been tackled is the need for reservation.
When India got independence, society itself was in turmoil with a number of distinct stratas of society.
There were 2 problems,
1. Some more forward in economic sense than others.
2. the cultural barriers between castes.
Now to resolve this, the Govt. (led by B.R.Ambedkar) decided to embark on the path of reservations.
Reservations in its form envisioned by the makers of the constitution is a wrong as it deprives meritorious candidates the opportunity to study. The Indian Constitution which says that 1000 guilty people can be let free but one innocent person should not be committed fails miserably to take into account this major failing.
The issue claimed by pro-reservationists are :
1. Reservation is needed as the various backward communities have not yet advanced.
2. Social circumstances are proof that reservation is needed.
3. Creamy layer exclusion will only provide opportunities to other communities to take advantage of seats earmarked for reserved candidates.
Each of the above statements are clear proof that reservation itself in its current form is a total failure.
1. Reservation does not remove social stigmas, proper education, strict laws and genuine tolerance in society will. But the pro-reservationists do not want any of the above as it will eat into their vote bank.
2. Reservation is always based on marks as it claims that people from backward strata of society do not score as much as the higher strata.
However there is plentiful evidence to show that people from the same
backward communities if provided the same level of high school education achieve the same level of marks as the so called forward communities. This directly defeats the argument that these people need advancement as they were oppressed for generations. The actual need is improved primary to 12th standard education.
3.The concept of economic based allocation of seats to candidates should form the core as it will allow the true needy to get the required seats.
Again all of the above goes against the wishes of the pro-reservationists as it will create a true caste-less society which will remove their vote banks.

pilid said...

Dirt digger, you are correct that it is possible to design a better system that there exists today. A system where affirmative action does not involve dilution of standards would be much better than the one we have today. Economic criteria with caste as a 'plus' factor may be better than starting with caste and adding other factors to it.

Praada said...


You have portrayed OBCs as the oppressers without taking a look at the root cause for this kind of behaviour.
Why is the designing of a better system still talked about after 60 years of independence ?


I dont know how the cultural barriers between castes have been the problem of the tormented independent India.
Should OBCs take the insult for exercising their democratic rights ?

pilid said...


What in your view is the root cause of 'this kind of behavior'? We are still talking about designing a new system six decades after independence because the costs of the policy are rising and the efficacy and goals of the effort are starting to be questioned. Is six decades such a long time? I would think not. It took centuries to abolish slavery and more than a hundred years after abolition of slavery for desegregation. As for India, I am aware of no other social problem such as sati, child marriage, etc. that has actually disappeared six decades later. So I do not see why a reconsideration of this policy at this time is unusual.

Praada said...


looks you have confined yourself to TN and talking of the local policy.

anyhow we can remain poles apart on this issue.

Dirt Digger said...

The example you gave about the brahmin neighbours, the recent electrified wall incident, numerous caste based incidents in recent times across India are clear proof that the cultural barriers are not yet demolished.
I'm not stating that any person should be denied the right of education, but the current system of reservations is flawed and caters to vote-bank politics.
Let me ask you a question,
Say there is one engineering seat left in the OBC quota. There are 2 candidates, one hand you have the son of an IAS officer and on the other hand you have a kid who is a poor village school master's son. Say all marks being equal, who deserves the seat more?

The current system does not take into account the real problem of economic disparities. Neither does it take any steps to remove the cultural barriers as claimed by the pro-reservationists. All it does is, it helps prevent a good number of under previleged students across communities from getting a fair education.
I'm open to listening to your thoughts, please do provide some examples to support your statements.

Praada said...


I am talking only about the social differences. Cultural differences are something which exist between even people of the same caste from different geographic locations.
When you talk about vote banks, how do you see it rational to accuse a group on their right to vote, for the inefficacies of the system ? People undermine democracy when it doesnt serve their self interests.