Written by Aarushi Aggarwal
Anita (name changed), a girl from the General Category, is a student at a reputed Indian university. In a recently concluded debate for the undergraduate student government elections here, she expressed her displeasure toward the Indian government’s policy of quotas and reservations in higher education institutions. To her, quotas give an unfair advantage to these groups of people who, without having secured the high marks that she did in her school leaving examinations, are more likely to get admitted to the colleges of her choice. She accused the government—and the constitution—of reverse racism.
Cases like Anita’s are not uncommon. Every year, around the time of college admission, there are loud and ferocious arguments on the subject of affirmative action, known more crudely in India as reservations. The contentious and thus far inconclusive debate between proponents and opponents of affirmative action circles back to a fundamental question regarding its purpose; is it a bid to increase diversity, to right the wrongs, or just to ensure that the polity we erect for ourselves is representative of everyone that consists of it?
Understanding the Debate
There are two popular arguments in favour of affirmative action. The first highlights that affirmative action as a way of increasing diversity. Where you would normally have high-caste people enrolled, reservations make it possible for people from other sections of society—who have heretofore not have had such a chance (people of oppressed castes, races etc.) to also be represented. The diversity argument proclaims that reservations dilute the homogenous composition of an institution.
The second argument challenges the first, and is often considered a stronger case in favour of reservations; this is the inclusivity argument. It purports that a better civil society is one where all sections are included and represented in equal measure. Non-Representation or underrepresentation of interests of all communities makes for a weak society. Inclusivity tends to make diversity commonplace, rather than an exception.
What we have are two very instrumental arguments. Since affirmative action is an instrument given by the elite to the ‘downtrodden’ sections of society, its existence needs to justified to them—not to the people that it seeks to serve; and this rationalisation is sought in its purpose, not in its intrinsic value. These purposes may range from increasing diversity to ensuring inclusivity. However, affirmative action is more than that. It is a legal acknowledgement of systemic discrimination in the past, that has brought certain groups and communities to the forefront of society and polity at the cost of others, relegating them to a lower status. For these people —the discriminated—affirmative action is a constitutionally provided safeguard against the possibility of that injustice. To them, it is not an instrument but the sole hope that unification with the stronger community is not at their own cost, that a society can be built on the pillars of equality and recognition of past mistakes. Put otherwise, affirmative action is a matter of moral principle.
Although not an instrument for the oppressed people, affirmative action can be an instrument for non-oppressed people, who are often blind to its need. Students like Anita may never know the extent of division in society if there are no ways for her to know how deep such divisions run. She may acknowledge that ours is a divided society and that something ought to be done about it. However, acknowledgement is not the same as education. There is a crucial role that educational institutions play in proving affirmative action as a necessity.
If students are exposed, at a young age, to the diversity and not the distinctions in society, then we are more likely to produce a youth that thinks less of society as the sum of its parts, and rather as a whole.
The Importance of Affirmative Action
The importance of affirmative action in primary schools cannot be underscored enough. I list two foremost reasons. One, how can students from the disenfranchised sections of society compete at the collegiate level if their education lacks the basic grounding that other students have received? The differences in opportunities are more fundamental and tackling them at the grassroots is more important than token measures in jobs and higher education. Second, it serves the purpose of helping children grow up in a microcosm of the actual society, rather than a bubble where their privilege (or lack thereof) is reinforced.
A case for reservations, however, can be made only when it has a structure and is implemented properly. The current quotas of obscure categories like ‘scheduled castes’ and ‘backward classes’ are, aside from their problematic nomenclature, also not credible. Reservations are not about cording off a certain number of seats in every institution from the Parliament to colleges. It is about evaluating where sections of society are not represented or underrepresented and what can be done to rectify such a situation. The implementation of reservations requires in-depth surveys and extensive demographic mapping to understand the complexities that prevent groups and communities from availing equitable opportunities. Large umbrella groups also include a shade for gender; except gender-based discrimination and racism do not take the same form. Why is it then that the corrective for such discrimination is the same? For instance, do girls need as much reservation in primary education schools as do children from the Adivasi communities of Madhya Pradesh? Such a question is important to answer in order to arrive at a comprehensive solution for the problem rather than token remedies. Broad categories have done more disservice than service to the cause of affirmative action.
Affirmative action cannot be blind; it is, in fact, a corrective against blindness
It is not a necessary evil but a necessary moral corrective. It is an acknowledgement of predated culture that ought to be corrected. It is a safeguard against discrimination and the promise of realising the acutely crucial goal of an equality. The absence of affirmative action does not represent a perfect society, it represents one that is unwilling to look into itself. There are many ways in which we lack; let the vision of equality not be one of them.