Reservations and the Argument of Meritocracy

Maharashtra government recently approved 16 per cent reservation for Marathas and five per cent for Muslims in government jobs and educational institutions. This decision has rekindled the debate around the polarizing issue of reservations. Whenever the issue of reservations comes up, many people raise the point of meritocracy. According to these people, reservations undermine meritocracy and therefore they are unjust. I find this argument grossly ignorant.

Frankly, I am ambivalent about caste-based reservations. (And I for sure do not approve of government’s recent decision to give quota to Maratha community. This Indian Express article has a strong argument against the decision.)
I somehow feel the current system of reservations perpetuates caste instead of making it irrelevant as a social construct. Very few people raise this point. But the point, that reservations are against the principle of meritocracy, is mentioned frequently; not by serious commentators, mind you, but mainly by people on social media.

It is very easy to identify these people. They are convent-educated, urbanites, speak English fluently, own smartphones and have broadband internet connections at home. Their main problem is, they do not understand the concept of “privilege”. They do not understand what role this privilege plays in them scoring 85 and 90 per cent marks in their board exams. They think it’s all their hard work or their talent or their brain’s superpowers. Well, that may be true but the thing you need to understand is, all this would have been irrelevant without your privilege.

There is a reason urban/ upper caste/ rich students score higher marks than rural/ lower caste/ poor students. That reason is privilege. The superior grey cells in your brain can take you only so far. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is very relevant here. He says

Success in the education system is facilitated by the possession of cultural capital and of higher class habitus. Lower class pupils do not in general possess these traits, so the failure of the majority of these pupils is inevitable.

Also, I do not understand why only high-scorers should be entitled to good colleges. Does an academically bright student need a good college more or a dull one? It is a no-brainer that a good college helps a pupil learn better. And all those who are relegated to bad colleges suffer enormously.

Reservations are a way to bridge the gap of inequality. They are a means to correct the historical injustice and oppression that certain communities had to face or are still facing. Reservations have not been very successful in achieving these goals but we still need them till a better alternative is found.

3 thoughts on “Reservations and the Argument of Meritocracy

  1. Fair point about Cultural Capital (rather its lack) affects the chances of underprivileged students in an institutionalized form of education … But there are cases where Reservations have been or are being used in a detrimental way to further mediocre students. Ultimately, there needs to be a stricter view of Reservations as a tool of empowering underprivileged students, rather than potentially giving them a complete carte-blanche free-pass.

  2. Let us separate some terms here – the recent reservations for marathas, caste based reservation, and simply, reservation. Since the both of us don’t support reservations for marathas, let’s put that aside.

    I understand your point about privilege and to some extent, it is true. But I dispute the urban-upper caste-rich equality. Not only do the so called upper castes not dominate the urban areas, but they are also not among the richest classes. In fact, and by some of my genuine reading on the matter, brahmins would fall in the middle of the economic prosperity scale. On the so called ‘cultural dominance’ matter, various movements beginning right from the Arya samaj movements have long demolished all shibboleths that the upper castes had erected. Politically too, being an upper caste is a negative point for you. My point is, at present, there is absolutely no privilege in being an upper caste. And the effect of any historical privilege that the upper castes had has waned to almost zero except in certain specific areas of the country.

    Your point about dull students needing good colleges is a classic individual gratification vs common good argument. And while common good is the way to go in many cases, pray tell me, when you study in school, do you study for your own knowledge and development or do you study for your community? When the effort is put for individual development, the gratification cannot be of common good!

    Now I will come to reservations in general. I believe in the idea of reservations. And when they were started, they certainly were necessary. I would praise Dr. Ambedkar and all those who fought for them. But the genuine objective behind them has been lost. The current system not only does little for the truly backward classes, but it also conspires against the poor upper castes. For them, it’s a double whammy. Moreover, there are a lot many things you can do apart from reservations. You can have special libraries and resources, subsidized healthcare and food, etc. Nobody talks about that! Also, there is no ‘measure’ of backwardness. Hence these measures are likely to remain even after the communities are no longer backward. Reservations now are vote-bank driven and revenge driven.

    And now perhaps to my most controversial statement yet. There was a reason why we hated the divide-and-rule policy of the British. Do you not see it happening now?
    Phew! that’s perhaps the most I’ve written in a loooong time!

  3. There should be reservations, to help the ones who are not privileged.
    But, caste shouldn’t be a criteria for that reservation. Instead, we could opt for criterias like-
    Annual income in the family
    Parent’s education
    so on and so forth.

    On that note, management quotas are a good thing in my opinion. Universities need money and there are rich people who can afford to shell out the money.This also acts as a deterrent to the illegal back door admissions.

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