Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Reservations X: Visit to IISc

Four months ago I didn’t know what a blog was. I heard about it, but I never read a blog nor wrote one. Now, after posting my thoughts on the ‘reservations issue’, I am beginning to see its impact. Dr. B. Ananthanarayan invited me to one of their discussion on ‘Reservations’ at IISc campus today. There, I met another blog friend, Dr. Abinandanan T.A of IISc.
It was my first time to IISc and it was nice to be there- they were very hospitable. The panel members were Dr. C.T. Kurien (Renowned Economist), Dr. V.K. Nataraj (Former Direstor, MIDS, Chennai), and Mr. Anant Koppar (President, Mphasis Technologies).

Kurien and Nataraj supported reservations-based-on-caste in principle while Anant expressed his anti-reservation stand. It was very interesting to listen to Kurien. I knew about him and now I got a chance to hear him speak his thoughts. I had read articles by Nataraj in THE HINDU. I had known about Anant in the entrepreneurial circles.

My observations:

The questioning session was open to everyone and some asked very concerned questions about topics they were passionate about. However, some students reflected a certain sense of innate arrogance in their questions. It was unfortunate that Kurien was asked some questions in a rather demeaning manner. Please, don’t misunderstand me here- I am not a supporter of sanctity, but people need to learn to respect other people how much ever they differ. A lady asked why we are bent on polluting esteemed institutions like IITs and IIMs. It is rather unfortunate that she should use words like ‘pollute’. This is the exact mindset we are trying to fight in this country through imposition of reservations. And Anant went on to say that most of the schools in rural in India are backward because the ‘backward caste’ teachers do not show up. He attributed the whole reason for those schools being backward on ‘backward caste’ teachers themselves.

However, the way Kurien and Nataraj kept the audience interested was impressive. They were eminent speakers who spoke at lengths on our responsibility acknowledging inherent flaws in the system. Kurien gave statistics of Tamil Nadu Medical Entrance results to show how OBC/SC/STs are closing the gap with other upper castes. Abinandanan asked whether it is time to roll back some of the reservations in the state of Tamil Nadu. I think it is a very valid proposition.

Nataraj spent some time to dispel our notions of ‘merit’ and said that it has now become an ‘ideology’ that upper castes use to continue their monopoly. I am trying to find the quote that he used to define ideology (from Karl Mannheim) but I am unable to get the right quote.
There were some in the audience who ridiculed reservations by quoting some jokes floating in the internet these days- like how Indian Cricket team should have reservations and how we should reduce the boundary for a SC/ST/OBC and so on. To which Natarajan pointed out that it is a very sensitive matter and that we should not trivialize the matter this way.

Anant used Darwin’s ‘Survival of the Fittest’ to defend merit. This is where I want to step in (for this blog). It is extremely dangerous when people who have been bestowed certain responsibility misuse that responsibility to introduce misconceptions and wrong ideas. Earlier, Natarajan dispelled the myth that our Constitution had a time-cap on imposition of reservations and attributed the origin of this myth to a director of AIIMS who quoted this in a speech more than a decade ago. Such eminent people, when they are seen by everyone to give guidance, should take their own statements very seriously and should deliver them with full responsibility and accountability. Within few years, those statements and ideas are repeated thousand times, lapped up by the media and broadcasted to every home, and soon everyone in India grows up believing them to be true and accurate statements.

I strongly resent and contest using Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to promote merit. There is nothing more fallacious and down-right despicable than using Darwin or his Theory to support this argument. People should refrain from borrowing ideas from a different domain on which they have no idea.

First, ‘Survival of the Fittest’ is not the favored term by evolutionists and biologists.  They prefer to use terms like natural selection or sexual selection.  Humans do not necessarily apply natural selection in their day-to-day life.  They take care of their weak instead of leaving them in nature to die.  Second, it applies to biological situations and should not be used to explain sociological situations (unless it has a bearing). Third, it happens over millions of years and cannot be used in narrow scheme of things.

Mutations happen all the time, but very few mutations survive- only if they provide a new advantage without compromising all other millions of advantages accrued over millions of years. Such successful mutations happen at a snail-pace, happening over thousands or millions of years, and are transferred onto next generations. 

Humans fight natural selection.  And that makes them civilized. Otherwise, why do we have hospitals and medical treatment? May be, we should let nature takes it toll to remove these weak from our gene pool to make our species better and stronger? Such arguments are not applicable and should not enter our discussions. It may come as surprise and disappointment to many pseudo-intellectuals who try to use this theory to explain domination of a group, nation or a race, but most humans are extremely similar at genetic level compared to many other species on this planet. The variation between two individuals in most other mammal species is far greater than what is found between any two individuals in humans. There is a  greater agreement between geneticists and anthropologists that we all may have come from one single mother. That does not mean that there were no other women at that time. It only means that progeny of all other women have not survived.

Natural Selection is a biological theory to explain evolution of individuals that spawn new species, genus (or higher order) level. We should not use such theories to make our case on merit however desperate we are. It will unnecessarily be picked up by credulous youth and ignorant media and will be often repeated to make it a truth much to the annoyance of those who know the subject.

Anant also justified how merit is important in a business organization. Otherwise standards will not be maintained in business, he maintains. I would like to look at some criterion for merit in industry because this is how we promote our people in business.
· Performance
· Accountability
· Responsibility
· Integrity
· Leadership
· Team work

I have not been exhaustive in providing the list. It’s a feeble attempt to capture some of the attributes of an engineer (only for this discussion) that make him successful in corporate world. A person is promoted based on some of the above attributes. This promotion has nothing to do with what he obtained in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry some years ago. Good scores in an entrance test like JEE or in B.Tech course does not necessarily guarantee that he will be a good engineer. In the same way, a poor B.Tech score or lower entrance score does not mean he will be a bad engineer. Industry provides with numerous examples on how scores do not matter. How do we measure accountability, responsibility and integrity? These values may never be measured in an entrance test. But these attributes do play a major role in the success of an engineer.

I request someone/anyone from the Indian industry to step up and enlighten me on the following because I belong to the same industry and for some reason I do not seem to understand their concept of merit.

Top IT companies of India also go to certain private colleges of Bangalore and pick up engineers where bulk of the students come under capitation fee, NRI quotas and management quotes. Are you trying to tell me that while these candidates are meritorious and add to the ‘quality’ and ‘excellence’ of your companies, a SC/ST/OBC candidate of a government or central university will not? Many a times, we in industry, working for top product making companies of the world, pick up candidates with lower engineering scores and lower entrance scores. How are we justifying our selection process if you profess that it is purely based on merit (based on scores)? During interview process, we seem to be impressed with people who have experience with extra-curricular activities and those who have displayed exceptional abilities at some point of time in their life, which includes crossing social barriers? Isn’t subjectivity creeping into our selection process? We are eager to hire people from diverse backgrounds, like foreign countries, women, etc. Shouldn’t we also create a diverse group based on different castes and religions? Why are we reluctant to announce data on representation of different groups, including women, caste and religion within our organizations? Don’t you think it will help us assess our social responsibility? Is social responsibility confined to charity and helping voluntary organizations and not in promoting diversity and backward classes within the industry? Can’t social responsibility go hand in hand with other values of our business like promoting excellence, satisfying customers and various stakeholders?

Update [02 June 2006]:

Some have commented that ‘natural selection’, the term accepted by most biologists compared to the term ‘survival of the fittest’, works only at individual level, whereas I indicated in my blog above that it may also work at species level. Even the biologists are divided on this topic. Yes, the most popular unit of selection is individual, I stand corrected, but nevertheless the other units (like species) also have some following. What is agreed is that this ‘natural selection’ doesn’t apply to our topic of discussion above, namely, merit.

Wikipedia has to say this:

A unit of selection is a biological entity within the hierarchy of biological organisation (e.g. genes, cells, individuals, groups, species) that is directly subject to natural selection. There has been intense debate among evolutionary biologists about the extent to which evolution has been shaped by selection pressures acting at the different levels of biological organisation. A unit of selection is a biological entity within the hierarchy of biological organisation (e.g. genes, cells, individuals, groups, species) that is directly subject to natural selection. There has been intense debate among evolutionary biologists about the extent to which evolution has been shaped by selection pressures acting at the different levels of biological organisation.
Natural selection could be happening at different levels.
1. Selection at the level of individual organism – purported by Charles Darwin (most popular)
2. Selection at the level of the group – put forth by V.C. Wynne-Edwards
3. Selection at the level of the gene – supported by Richard Dawkins
4. Selection at the level of the cell – proposed by Leo Buss
5. Species selection and selection at higher taxonomic levels – supported by S.J. Gould

Reservations IX: I apologize

I have few favorite quotes that I keep telling myself. Sometimes, it’s amazing how a quote can influence someone so much. When in doubt, they act as guides and support you. They embolden you to take an action or give you encouragement to do something that’s deep inside you.

One of my favorite quotes (which I put in my profile) is:

The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality. - Alighieri Dante

One could take a stand, be neutral or fight it out. There is a tendency amongst fiery youth to fight for a cause vehemently and vociferously. This has brought in many revolutions on the planet- both good and bad. The problem is when they do not want to see reason and want to uphold their belief no matter what.

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts. - Bertrand Russell

The problem is not with our youth, but with the way they are brought up. There is a practice inherent in our human evolution which involves parents teaching their kids lot of ‘rules’ to ensure their survivability. Example: It’s better to teach the kids to be wary of snakes instead of allowing the kid to experiment with it and find out. This teaching helped by sheer innocence and immense credulity on part of the kids is a very important trait in humans because it allows the kids to learn lot of stuff in a very short period of time so that they don’t have to waste time in experimentation to learn what many generations prior to them have already learnt. But there are some negative consequences to this teaching though. In addition to the basic skills and bare necessities, parents also teach kids their habits- both good and bad, customs- of religion and caste, idiosyncrasies, belief systems, and even prejudices. In an ideal environment the kid grows up to reevaluate what he has been taught, but that may not happen, especially when they are taught not to reevaluate. In societies like India, where the parents overdo that teaching part in selective direction, the kids grow up into youth and do not change their opinions on majority of the aspects.

I think there are two types of teaching- Intentional and Unintentional. Intentional teaching involves parent consciously teaching the kids- like how to pray, or ride a bicycle, eating habits, etc. Unintentional teaching could be dad smoking, mom scolding the maid, dad upholding secular principles while talking to others, mom talking negative against certain religions or caste, dad throwing garbage on the streets, etc. This kid who is trained to believe everything his parents teach also acquires these prejudices and habits without questioning them. While some kids are taught to reevaluate their learning, most others inherit all their parents' prejudices. For those who do not reevaluate, their ability to acquire new learning also diminishes and they continue to harbor the same prejudices all their life. If needed they fight vehemently and vociferously, blinded by faith. They do not know what they do not know and hence they seem to believe they know everything.

I am not young enough to know everything. - Oscar Wilde

I don’t consider myself wise. I don’t consider myself a fool either. I am in between somewhere trying to understand the complexities of this world. When in conflict or a dilemma, most often one can find the right path after certain amount of deliberation. Nobody needs media or other experts to deliberate it for them. But I guess most of them are just lazy. It’s extremely easy to believe than inquire.

Hence the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire. - Friedrich Nietzsche

It’s not like people cannot converge on a right path. It’s not like our eminent directors of institutes, business leaders, and famous doctors are not sensitive to the social issues of India. The problem occurs when accepting certain truths will shatter other truths that they already believe. Most often the right path is known to them, but it’s goddamn hard to take. When such path is actually found, many do not take it and move on to see if there is an easy one ahead.

Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened. - Sir Winston Churchill

In my discussions on Reservations I did not use too many statistics. Many are available at I wanted myself to ask some basic questions and provide answers to instill healthy discussion and debate in a composed and calm manner instead of joining the bandwagon of jingoism. It pains me when I see NDTV or CNN-IBN covering sensitive issues. These journalists think they can ‘outsmart’ you. They phrase the question in such a way, that there is already a bias in that question though they feign equanimity. The debates are worse. People are shouting at each other. They are not ready to listen. I find it very immature- very childish in fact.

I borrowed the following from Gaddeswarup's blog

BenjaminFranklin at age of 81:

… for having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought were right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own judgement, and to pay more respect to the judgement of others. Most men indeed as well as most sects in religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error….

India needs a dose of maturity. I find it missing in the youth and unfortunately even in some of the so-called eminent role models. At least, it can be inculcated into our kids. They need to learn to deal with complexities of real life. Indian parents have a tendency to protect their kids all their lives never letting them go. Let go. Let your kids grow into mature adults. Let them learn to deal with complexities of life- let them know that AIDS exists and is spreading like wild fire in India, let them know that caste exists, let them know that they belong to a caste which was either oppressed or the oppressor. Let them know that a great portion of Kashmir is not with us. Let them know that we rule Kashmir at gun point and that we killed Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Let them know that nude paintings and sculptures of gods exists, in temples and in MF Husain’s art shows. Let them know that it’s OK to criticize and be criticized. Let them know that gender bias exists and teach them how to deal with it. Let them be OK with their color- whether they are fair or dark. Let them learn to respect other religions as well- so that they learn to be tolerant. Let them criticize their own religions, their rituals and traditions. Teach them not to throw garbage on the streets and set example by doing the same. The onus is on us, the present generation, to create the next generation far more mature than we are, not far more prejudiced than we are.

You must be the change you want to see in the world. - Mahatma Gandhi

I will start with myself. I apologize.

I apologize to all my fellow low-caste Indians who have been discriminated, persecuted, and ostracized for centuries. Millions of you have died without knowing what it means to read or write, not able to appreciate the beauty of poetry or the music of art. This land is considered great for inventing zero, and you could not enjoy knowing mathematics. This land produced Arthashastra, but you had no idea what it was about. For thousands of years, we have denied you access to religious places, our village wells, and our schools. I apologize on behalf of all my ancestors who have ill-treated you.

I shall teach my kids to be more tolerant of other kinds of people. I shall teach them to respect the oppressed for the pain they have endured for centuries. I shall teach my kids the evils of discrimination and take them to villages. Hopefully they will grow mature to respect and tolerate special rights given to certain people. Hopefully my kid will be able to understand and respect why this backward-caste kid has special rights to get into this institution while he cannot. I sincerely hope he will not be out there protesting, fasting and groveling on the streets to secure a place for himself.

I apologize to all the women whose only duty in this world was to serve, feed and produce kids. You have been discriminated for centuries in this country. When your husband died, we put you on his funeral pyre to die. You had no identity other than being attached to another man. Millions of you died not knowing what it means to be heard.

Finally, I apologize to all minority religions in India. As majority, it is our duty to ensure you are not targeted, but we have failed many a times.

I sincerely apologize.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Reservations VIII: Are reservations the perfect solution for the problem at hand?

Is reservations-based-on-caste the only solution for uplifting the backward castes of India? Can’t we explore other methods and means which are more amicable to the forward caste instead of using slap-on-the-face punishment?

Having written so much defending reservations-based-on-caste, I shall take a small break to ponder on the above question. Please understand that these are merely my opinions. I am not expecting anything to change. If reading them makes you dig deeper into the problem and understand the situation a bit better, I will consider myself successful. Facing harsh realities and recognizing them is only the first step. Ignorance is bliss, but ignorance doesn’t solve problems at hand.

What is the problem at hand?

We have a huge chunk of our Indian population who are not well represented in many walks of our new life. They seem to have a social handicap by which they are not able to avail the developments and benefits of new India. This handicap seems to be the result of a prolonged pogrom of social discrimination that took place in this country for thousands of years. The basis for such discrimination was caste.

Honestly, I don’t think reservations-based-on-caste is the perfect solution to this problem. Unfortunately our world is not perfect and therefore solutions themselves may not be perfect. I believe that struggle of life is to make this imperfect world less imperfect.

Ponder this. We have had a long history of different types of governments- monarchies, anarchies, dictatorships, aristocracy, theocracy, communism, democracy, and so on. Some of these governments have existed for thousands of years, like monarchies, for example. Some, like Communism, seem to be an excellent mechanism in a text book, but when implemented produced extremely undesirable results. Theocracy seems to be working well for a homogenous and single religion country to whom orthodox beliefs are more important than debate and individual rights, but for a multicultural country like ours, it may fail disastrously. What we have come to realize with so many experiments is that democracy seems to be the best possible governments for our times. Sometimes we don’t have the luxury to experiment with each of them. Instead we look back into history and learn from others experiences to come up with our own way of implementation. That way, knowing one’s history helps (Ignorance is not bliss after all). Of course, even Democracy is inherently deficient just like all other governments, but it seems to produce least damage and a great deal of well-being compared to other forms of government. Even my own statements are highly debatable, because there are many cases where democracy has failed miserably, and even while I write this, half of the world countries are not democratic. We may never find the perfect government but we manage with what we have at our disposal, though imperfect.

Let’s explore some of the alternatives to the problem at hand:

Reservations-based-on-economic-status seems to be more logical and idealistic but it’s like using an ointment to cure cancer. You are healing the wound, but the wound is just a symptom of far deeper problem inside the body. That deeper problem in our case is caste. How can one ignore that discrimination which was carried out for centuries is the root cause, and that this discrimination was based on caste? Any solution one can come up has to be based on caste lines, even if it means furthering the concept of caste. One has to accept some ground realities here- Caste is here to stay, just like religions, just like countries and just like races. Let’s work with what we have instead of trying to ignore and believe that such divides do not exist. May be, over the next few hundred years, when all castes have reached similar status one can actually contemplate removing it through a greater social movement. I would love to be a part of that- but my best guess is that I would be dead by then.

Providing basic facilities like better schools, better primary education, free scholarships seems to be a good solution as well. It will definitely root out the chronic problem, like Ayurvedic medicine. This is a solution we should definitely espouse and right now we are definitely working on it as nation- though painfully slow. But while making efforts towards this direction, one has to realize that it will take many generations before it will have any direct impact on any of the lower castes. The problem of caste is not just economic. If it were, we should have seen all castes in all echelons of economic levels. What I mean by this is that we should have seen proportionate representation of each caste in each economic echelon- which is not the case. The statistics on this are extremely lopsided to even hypothecate that the situation has been economic. One knows the reasons for such lopsidedness. It has nothing to do with economic status, and everything to do with one’s caste. Therefore, in addition to providing slow medicine like good facilities and incentives, one should attack the problem directly, the way the modern medicine does, using some antibiotics. This may mean some other sections will feel the pain and have to face the brunt. But if one wants to get quicker and concrete results that is the only way. The rest of the body should be ready to face some pain for few generations so that a future can be envisioned which is better for everyone. Reservations-based-on-caste however imperfect brings quicker results compared to the extremely slow solution of providing facilities and incentives. But over a period of time, this solution should become the backbone while reservations should fade away. We have a long way to go though.

Affirmative Action as used in US sounds very appealing. We should try to implement this at least in some sections of Indian society and see its results. May be we could start with Indian industry and use that experience to extend it to Indian Universities as well. But, for affirmative action to work, one has to have a desired level of maturity and I strongly suspect if Indian elite have that maturity (sorry for condescension here). We did not grow up knowing and studying the ill-effects of casteism in our school or college. Most of the IITs, Narayany Murthys and Azim Premjis seem to show no maturity as well when it comes to dealing with this problem. Nobody is coming out to apologize for the discrimination. Unless we show certain level of maturity at different segments of Indian society, we will not have a level-headed discussion. Affirmative Action has to be accompanied by a mature, voluntary and conscious decision to promote backward castes for it to produce any positive results. It may take more time and more education to bring that kind of level-headed discussion in this country. To achieve that, I would like our primary education to include discussion on discrimination (caste based, gender based, religion based) and wait for a newer generation to grow with balanced ideas instilled in them. Till then, imposition of reservations-based-on-caste is the only way out. Please understand that even US did not come to this maturity all in one go. At one point of time the President of US had to send in Army to uphold a Supreme Court ruling so that some Black students could be allowed into a college. After that, they went on an overdrive to educate their masses on the ills of discrimination and positives of civil rights movement. When we do achieve that maturity in our country, hopefully we will do away with imposition of reservations and espouse affirmative action.

In conclusion, I believe, reservations-based-on-caste is not the perfect solution, but it seems to be best possible option given other alternatives. Some of the alternatives seem to provide good text-book examples or demand more prerequisites but are not the best alternatives in the present scheme of things.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Reservations VII: Are we dividing our nation along caste lines?

Isn’t reservations-based-on-caste actually perpetuating casteism in India instead of eliminating it? Isn’t it dividing the nation along the caste lines?

I too would like to live in an ideal world where I am not judged by my color of the skin, my religion, my caste or my nationality but only by my character and personality (#). But unfortunately, I don’t live in that ideal world. Ideally I would love to know that I am not judged by my caste, but I am, whether I like it or not. And more so in rural India, where ‘What is your caste?’ is the second question following ‘What is your name?’ Decisions and judgments are made as soon you answer that second question. What follows next is seen through a filter that was brought in after this second answer.

I cannot close my eyes and believe that everyone is blind. Just because certain elite believe it, casteism doesn’t get shooed away. Casteism is a fundamental identity in Hindu society, whether one likes it or not. Even today the marriage happens only within one’s caste- just look at millions of matrimonial ads on Internet. The people even go the sub-caste and sub-sub-caste to emphasize their preference. The statistics are very lopsided. Of the 400 faculty members at IIT Chennai 285 are Brahmins and 3 are SCs. The minute the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh is a Reddy, every Vice-Chancellor invariably is a Reddy. Once that is done, the upper caste members sit down to share the Head of Departments and other important positions between themselves. According to Parliamentary Standing Committee on HRD, enrolment of SCs in higher educations was 8.6 % during 1990-91 and is 11.3% in 2002-03, while that of STs is 2.1% and 3.6%. According the Committee, the participation of SC/STs is “abysmally low”.

To remove poverty one has to admit that poverty exists and then go about identifying who are poor and then actually implement plans and programs to people who are poor. To remove AIDS in India, one has to admit that AIDS exists and recognize that it is spreading like wildfire, unchecked and unrelenting, and then go about identifying the AIDS patients, provide care to contain it. In the same vein, to remove problems associated with casteism, one has to admit that discrimination-based-on-caste exists, and then go about identifying the sections that are affected, and implement plans and programs to help them.

There is another way to deal with the problem- believing that poverty does not exist, and somehow expect it go away, or believing that AIDS does not exist, and somehow expect it vanish away. As long as poverty and AIDS do not come into my home, I would like to believe it does not exist, and that way I can go about leading my ordinary life without getting affected. The signs of such apathy are clearly seen in India in many episodes. Any attempt to determine the poverty levels of India are fought by various groups to ensure that more and more people fall above the poverty line, and when Bill Gates donated $400 million or odd to AIDS campaign, many Indians shouted against him for unnecessarily highlighting a problem ‘which doesn’t exist’. Any attempt to legalize prostitution so that AIDS can be brought under check is fought against. We want to believe that there are not many poor people out there. We want to believe that there are not many AIDS patients out there. In the similar vein, most of us want to believe that discrimination-based-on-caste does not exist. If any attempt to rectify these ills is proposed, the people go about fighting it, because it only highlights certain uncomfortable truths which one is not ready to deal with.

Casteism has been made an integral part of Hinduism slowly and systematically. When I use the word ‘systematically’ I use it with great care. I know exactly what I want to convey. It is an extremely rigorous and fool-proof process that has come into existence where in many rules, by-rules, laws and by-laws have been made part of Hinduism so as to maintain dominance of certain castes making sure that certain other castes are always kept out of all those key areas which could empower people. The rules include how to treat a Dalit when you cross him in a street, how to deal with a Shudra when you take work from him. Rules on whether you can invite him inside your home or not. Whom you can marry and whom you cannot. Who you can associate with and make friendship and whom you cannot. And when you transgress, like, associating yourself with a lower caste person, there are certain rituals that you can perform to cleanse yourself of contamination.

Most of us have a myopic view of India. One starts to believe that India is what you see in your daily life. When an American co-worker in US asked- “Do Indians girls wear Jeans and Skirts in India?” an Indian friend quickly replied- “Yes, most of them do!” Upon my prodding, he added, “Yeah! Where I live they all do”. Just because some of the upper caste students have never known each others caste because it has become a non-issue, it does not mean the rest of the India (which happens to be 80% of India) is the same. Just because none of your friends is an AIDS patient does not mean AIDS does not exist in India. Just because urban Indians do not know or pretend they don't know anything about caste does not make it disappear. I wish the world was that simple. When such a large scale discrimination happens for centuries, the first step one has to do is actually recognize it and admit it, instead of ignoring it. A great care is taken in the western world to teach the kids the evils of Holocaust. Nobody goes about saying- ‘why are you bringing this subject, it will only cause further divide’. A great care is taken in US to teach its kids the mistakes of discrimination, positives of civil rights movement, and these topics are actually debated in schools. Nobody goes about saying- ‘Hey, why are we unnecessarily discussing these topics, it will only increase the racial divide’.

But in India, when any topic of discrimination-based-on-caste is raised, it is hush-hushed by everyone- parents, school teachers, and now even by media. They all say- ‘Let’s not talk about it; let’s not implement programs based on caste. It will only divide India further’. What is there to divide further? Whatever has to be divided and exploited, it has already been done slowly and systematically for over two thousands years. What can a SC/ST/OBC person lose more? He has already lost his self-respect thousands of years ago. He has no possessions. He is a bonded labor to a rich land lord. What more can he lose by this divide? What further discrimination can one mete out to him?

One of the first things a mature civilization can do is admit its mistakes. That never happens in India. No group or body representing forward castes comes out in the open to say- ‘I apologize for what we have done to you in the past’. Instead, what everyone wants to say is- “Look, I am closing my eyes. I don’t see evil anymore. It has just vanished. Now don’t even talk about it because it will bring back the evil”.

Go to Germany and make a Nazi salute and see everyone’s reaction. Talk about the glory days of Nazi era and see everyone’s reaction. That nation has grown to completely abandon everything Nazi and have learnt to abhor and hate what they have done as a nation. They are taught the evils of Holocaust again and again. Those lessons are mandatory. They are not shunned from their books. They tell themselves- ‘Let’s learn history so that we do not repeat such evils once again.’ They paid for the damages amounting into billions of dollars. For ever, they have taken up an apologetic stance.

Look at India now. The same upper castes that have carefully coordinated and orchestrated the whole discrimination are now fighting tooth and nail to preserve their monopoly on education and employment. Why education and employment, one may ask. That’s because, they are basic means of empowerment that provides one with self-respect and self-dignity. Without that one can rule the other forever, making them slaves and bonded labor. One who is educated and employed can aspire to become what he wants, unshackling the bonded labor and slavery, and they may go onto become a businessman, an artist, a musician or a sports player.

It is disgusting and downright ugly to see some of the jokes being propagated these days- which talk about quotas in cricket and at lavatories. One joke suggests an expedition to moon to have so many SC/ST, so many OBC, and only two would be actual astronauts. The innate belief in making these jokes is that only the forward caste are actually qualified to drive the mission to moon.

Those who fear that this new set of reservations-based-on-caste will bring further divide have the following opinion- “I didn’t know who was OBC/SC/ST till yesterday and hence I did not feel any different from them. But now this labeling is making me know them. And from now on, I will feel different towards them”. Few others have a similar opinion- “SC/ST/OBC were just idling away in the fields working on bonded labor for a rich landlord. That didn’t bother me because I didn’t know about them. But now, you are bringing them into our midst, our institute, our ‘islands of excellence amongst sea of mediocrity’ and that bothers me. As long as they are out there, I don’t mind. Putting them in our midst causes me to label them and hence that divides us.”

My argument to them is simple. If knowing who they are or having them in your midst causes your mindset to change, I am not sure how does that make you any less discriminatory. What you are conveying is this- “I am discriminatory. But, don’t make me do it. So, keep them away or let me not know them. That way I don’t have to feel guilty about it”.

(#) I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character- Martin Luther King.

Reservations VI: Hollow arguments from Anti-Reservation groups

Why does the upper caste come up with roundabout reasons for not implementing the reservations instead of just plainly admitting that discrimination existed and exists?

In face of imposition of this new set of reservations for OBC, there is a furor amongst the upper castes and this is reflected amongst the media as well. Every question asked by a journalist actually reflects his/her own bias, though they try their best to keep an impartial face.

The reaction of anti-reservation groups to this implementation can at best be described funny. Why do I think it is funny? It is funny because they keep hopping from one topic to another giving 101 reasons why reservations-based-on-caste should not be implemented and they never admit that discrimination ever happened nor come with a concrete proposal on how this discrimination-based-on-caste that extended for such a long period in India could be addressed.

Let’s examine their train of though for a while because it opens up their hollow ideology.

1. The most common protest is that ‘merit’ will be destroyed- that reservations will bring ‘low-quality’, that institutes will lose their sheen, ‘islands of excellence’ will be destroyed, that we will lose our edge on competency, that we will have poor doctors who can’t operate, we will have poor engineers who are incompetent. So on.

But when pushed to a corner in a debate and ask for specific examples or statistics on how a SC/ST/OBC has failed to deliver displaying incompetence? OR How come there are so many institutes in India who enroll students under NRI category and capitation fee structure? Do they not affect the quality and the merit?

They immediately move to the next platform:

2. “Don’t give reservations. Give better facilities. That will automatically solve the problem”.

The whole reason why reservations are IMPOSED instead of recommended or suggested in India is because of basic mistrust that forward castes will continue their dominance and hegemony by ensuring that higher education and employment will be retained by them. How else do explain that no company, no organization or an academic institution promoted backward castes VOLUNTARILY before the reservations were imposed? How else do you explain that there are innumerable cases where the people in decision making capacities ensured that SC/ST/OBC do not actually avail reservation systems?

Better facilities- sanitation, schools, hospitals and Better incentives- free books, scholarships, free educations, free lunches can help lower castes and poor people to come into the mainstream. But how long will it take for Government of India to actually accomplish this? Should we wait for few generations for them to actually catch up? By then the divide between castes would have widened so much that an equal race will be impossible?

Most of these protestors do not understand that this race is not between individuals but between various classes of people. They need to understand that one cannot expect all individuals to start the race at the same place. This is not a sports competition or a race to moon. This is about basic standard of living that India should provide to its people. Reservations are for education and employment, which are considered basic requirements for self-dignity and a decent life. Sops are for other things- businesses, farming, industries, sports, military, etc.

Better amenities and incentives should go hand in hand with an even more aggressive policy of IMPOSING reservations onto India to ensure that SC/ST/OBC will not be discriminated against. It is like giving a boosting hand or pushing them into the mainstream by force so that they shed their social inhibitions, come out of their inferior-complexity shell, and actually avail these amenities by assuring them that there is a promised land beyond.

When asked how basic amenities which already exist in India to some extent, like thousands of primary schools which provide free education, free lunches, free books, staffed by literate teachers is not helping the situation, they move onto another platform:

3. “We want reservations based on economic status, not based on caste. The caste-based-reservations will only further the divide instead of bridging it”.

So, my question is simple:

If ‘merit’ is diluted by reservations-based-on-caste and you ARE against such dilution, how come you are ready to accept reservations-based-on-economic-status? Do you somehow believe that reservations-based-on-economic-status will ensure that merit is NOT diluted? OR, is that you are ready to make sacrifices as long as it is based on economic status, but NOT when it is based on caste?

Why should one adopt a wrong remedy to solve a well-understood problem? The present situation has arisen not because of discrimination-based-on-economic-status. It has arisen because of discrimination-based-on-caste. Shouldn’t the solution be based on caste lines ONLY?

I think the reason for such specious arguments is more fundamental than what has been discussed in the media.

  • When you propose reservations-based-on-economic-status, every one has a faint hope that they could qualify. Forward castes are not debarred from it, and one could always get admission through other means. Everyone knows how inconclusive our findings are on one’s income.
  • Also, if one were to accept reservations-based-on-caste, it is like accepting that discrimination did happen in this country. It is like accepting that you belong to the caste which oppressed others. Most of the forward castes would like to believe that they never discriminated, not even their forefathers; and if there is an imbalance in caste structure, it’s only got to do with circumstance of division of labor, nothing less, nothing more. They are not ready to accept that certain castes deliberately and forcefully kept some other castes out of education and employment, out of business or from owning property, for centuries.

So when asked how reservations-based-on-economic-status will ensure that merit is not diluted? they move to the next platform:

4. “The number of institutes and seats are so few. How could one accept such high % in reservations? The numbers is the problem. We may agree to reservations but the numbers are way too high”.

For this, the Government comes back to say that they will increase the number of seat such that the seats available in General Category remains the same after the increase in seats & imposition of reservations for OBC. In normal circumstance, all the rational people would have taken this is as successful result and go home happily because their numbers remain unaffected. But the true nature comes out now. Instead of accepting this proposal, they move to the next platform:

5. “We don’t have resources or wherewithal to implement this sudden increase. We don’t have necessary funds or faculty. We don’t have necessary building space or lab space to take care of this sudden increase. Government is unrealistic. We can’t increase the seats. That’s all”.

This is when all rational people start doubting the motives of anti-reservation protestors’ stand. My question is- If the Government is ready to increase the seats, why don’t we grab this opportunity and go for a binding agreement instead of giving 51 silly reasons why we can’t increase the number of seats. What is more comical is that same institutes asked for more seats in previous arguments (before anti-reservation protests). In spite of the government announcement to increase the number of seats, the anti-reservationists kept up their protests. Now, it is clear why they are fighting. They don’t want give up anything to accommodate reservations, based on caste or not.

In addition to the above excuses, they come up with even sillier reasons.

6. “A person can get fake caste certificate for Rs. 1500”

Yes. So what? A person can get a fake degree certificate. Do you abolish colleges? A person can get examination paper ‘out’ before the exam itself. Do you abolish examinations?

If reservations are based on economic status, how do you think this can be avoided? Can’t one get a fake tax statement? In India, everyone can know one’s caste but not their income. If we could know their income, we would have more than mere 3% taxpayers in this country.

7. “Only creamy layer gets benefited”.

Not really. Implementation of reservations for OBCs comes with exclusion of creamy layer. For more, visit

It is clear from all these silly excuses that the argument of ‘anti-reservation’ group is untenable, doesn’t hold water and is downright apocryphal. They jump from one platform to another never staying on or clarifying at least one of their stands clearly.

In summary, their stance on this subject is this:

A. They don’t want to admit that discrimination ever happened in this country. That’s Denial. Since they deny it ever happened, no one apologizes.

B. They don’t want any discussion based on caste based distinction. It follows from (A). Allowing reservations based on caste is tantamount to accepting that discrimination was based on caste.

C. Any proposal to implement reservations is rejected in all forms. That’s Rejection. They are not genuine about their own proposals because some of their own suggestions contradict each other, like: How will reservations-based-on-economic-status not affect merit?

While I deride the protests and their core ideology, I extend my deepest sympathies, congratulate the protestors for their achievements and extend my thanks. Because of them, we will see a higher number of seats in Medical Colleges and in near future, hopefully, we will see more seats in engineering colleges and may be more IITs.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Reservations V: Apotheosis of IITs and myth of merit

Attacking apotheosis of IITs
Who are these elite IITians anyway? They are a group of students who have just passed an extremely tough entrance test at the age 16-18. Agreed, the IITians when they enter the institute after high school are one of the best in our country ONLY based on an examination conducted by JEE. But that's all there is to it, nothing more and nothing less. That doesn’t mean an Indian brain is just math, physics and chemistry. It only shows that they had the right combination of intelligence, hard work, privileges and social conditions, working for them during the time of the entrance test. 

There are many others who do not have access to or obtain that right combination at that age and fail to enter but may attain them at a later age to become even more successful. In fact, it is the duty of such institutes to actually provide some of those factors to under privileged. It’s unfortunate that our so called top institutes do not consider these other but essential factors into consideration durng admission process- such as diversity, social backwardness, inclusion of different religions, which are known to play a vital role in the health of an institute and an engineer.
Many technology institutes in the world are rated high for their quality of the program- characterized by the research output and industry association resulting in inventions, improvements and advances in Science and Technology, diversity of its students and faculty, and not just by the salaries of outgoing students. Attacking the hype, I would like to say that IITs are very average institutes. Their B.Tech program is arguably one of the best, but the actual research and concrete results coming from Masters and Ph.D. programs are almost negligible. 

To that effect, they are only good at supplying finest raw material or fodder material to MNCs, IIMs, MS and Ph.D. programs in US, but they do not by themselves produce any thing of great value in research content. There are no major inventions or innovations in technology coming out from these unnecessarily hyped Indian Institutes of Technology; except for some applications and solutions which look good in a Science Fare and Exhibition. As such I hold similar opinion of many other top-rated institutes of India- not just IITs.
[While I deride these institutes, I do know that all the alumni who feel proud of their alma mater will fight vehemently to support them. Even I felt very proud when my college was ranked in top 10 institutes of India. But frankly, we all know what kind of research actually takes place in those buildings. ]

When these institutes were formed in those initial days of Independence, the faculty was filled with forward castes, and it still remains that way. Currently, of the 400 member faculty at IIT Chennai 282 are Brahmins (only 3 from SC). No wonder, they are called ‘islands of excellence’ and ‘bastions of quality’. What they mean by that is that the ‘disease of reservations’ has not affected them. They have kept them ‘pure’ by avoiding the ‘contamination of lower caste’ that other institutes have suffered. This is the exact mentality that kept our caste system in fashion for thousands of years- that some castes are chaste and pure and are born from the head of Brahman himself, while some are soiled, impure, having sinned, and born from the feet or the soil under the feet of this Brahman.  

Its time to reject such ideas and bring IITs and IIMs into the mainstream to include people from all backgrounds and also its time for faculty and administrators of IITs to produce good research by combining forces with Indian Industry (more about that later), instead of perpetuating the myth of ‘cream of India’.

What is merit?

If one were to follow the news and media channels in the last 15 days of reservations hungama, one would have come across this word time and again. The word ‘merit’ is defined and used as antithesis of ‘reservations’. I would like to understand what they mean by it.

‘Merit’ in the present context is being defined as the ‘scores or marks or rank’ one gets in an entrance test or in an exam before entering another degree or job. So, if one were to write IIT-JEE and get a certain rank that is considered ‘merit’. A ‘meritorious’ student is one who gets a good rank.
Due to extreme competition, only 1% of the students who write the JEE (Joint Entrance Examination) get to be admitted into IITs (approximately 3000 out 300,000). But having said that does that mean only the top 1% has the required qualifications and merit to carry on an IIT education? How about the guys who are in top 10%? Do they not qualify to carry on education at IIT to bring it the laurels it stands for? Compare that with any other college or institution in the world- even MIT and Harvard take in many students from top 25% and sometimes even from top 50% of the applicants. When we start giving out reservations to OBC/SC/STs that’s exactly what we do- instead of looking for candidates in top 1%, we widen the net to include the candidates in the top 10% (ranking 30,000 or so) or may be top 25% in some cases. Does that really affect an institute’s quality and performance? If it does, then there is something grossly wrong with such institutes which can only work with top 1% where it is believed that anything beyond 1% will taint and crumble the system. The snobbery of IIM and IIT professors is appalling. Some of them have said on TV that they can’t teach 'lower quality' students. If they are only good at grooming the top 1% and fail to groom top 10%, I propose they should move to countries ruled by monarchs to teach only the kids of emperors and kings. 

We are obsessed with scores so much that we are unable to see anything beyond them. Just to illustrate how we never seem to outgrow this: Just check the questions asked by Indian students in every week issue of Economic Times where this newspaper invites members of top Business Schools to answer Indian student’s questions, OR just attend any of the academic orientation or info session held by top US/Europe Business Schools in India. 95% of the questions are similar to this- “I got 7## score in GMAT. Will I get admission to your institute?” Now, all the answers from Admission Committee are the same- “The admission criterion consists of many other parameters in addition to your GMAT scores and there is no hard and fast rule to that”. The questions never change no matter how much they try to explain.

The admission criteria to top MBA schools in USA is broadly (not necessarily true for all schools) based on the following parameters: Bachelor Degree scores, essays and background information, Interview, Recommendation Letters, GMAT scores (and TOEFL if applicable), not necessarily in that order. A person with 540 score in GMAT may enter Harvard, while someone with 780 (out of 800) may be rejected- based on various parameters which include, in addition to those listed above, promoting diversity, promoting backward sections and weaker sections, etc.

An Indian brought up in India knowing that ‘merit’ is sole criteria to get admission doesn’t grasp how this admission process works. The belief system he held all his life gets punctured. Some learn to appreciate it, and some ignore it as some weird and quirky gimmick that Americans follow, and continue to assume that its “scores” which matter in the end. To them ‘merit’ (read “scores”) is inviolable and is worth fasting for and dying for. That's when another sacred entity called 'merit' joins the pantheon of many Indian sacred symbols. And it is our culture of sanctifying things that is the bane of our civilization. (more on that later!)