Was there discrimination in education?

India’s success in knowledge-related sectors in the last few years vis-À-vis traditional manufacturing industries highlights the need for more institutions of higher learning that are not governed by perceptions regarding the past. The answer lies in the “enquiring mind” that provides opportunities to disadvantaged sections based on facts and not on myths.

Maybe the time has come for us to question many of the beliefs and myths perpetuated in the discussion on educational backwardness.

The current debate about reservation in institutions of higher learning such as IITs, IIMs, etc/, is being examined by the Supreme Court, where a five-member bench is looking into the issues pertaining to the validity of the recently passed Act and also related matters, such as the creamy layer exclusion, etc.

The discussion about backward classes is, more often than not, a debate about backward castes. The backwardness is defined to include social, educational and economic backwardness. But, in practice, it is identified much more with social and educational backwardness and, hence, many castes are classified (shall we say declared) as backward and provided reservation in institutes of higher learning, particularly in engineering and medical colleges, in most States.

In Tamil Nadu, 69 per cent of the seats are reserved for such categories and one of the major arguments is that the backward castes are educationally backward due to discrimination in the past and, hence, they cannot compete with others and thus the need for reservations

 Current data reveals no discrimination

But we need to look at the data more carefully. A good proportion of students who made it to the seven Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) this year is from the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category. Post-admission analysis at these institutions reveals that almost 14 per cent of those from the general category are OBCs. And this when the Union Human Resource Development Ministry has plans to set aside 9 per cent of seats for the OBCs in central institutions from the academic session beginning 2008.

Also, for instance, data pertaining to medical college admissions in Tamil Nadu, which has practiced reservation policies for decades, reveals that substantial number of “open seats” is obtained by students nominally belonging to “backward communities.”

For instance, according to a 2004 report in The Hindu students belonging to the Backward Classes (BC) or Most Backward Classes (MBC) have taken 952 of the total 1,224 seats in 12 government medical colleges in the State (77.9 per cent). The first 14 ranks in the medical admissions also went to BC/MBC students. Even in the open competition category, five Scheduled Caste (SC) candidates got into the MBBS course that year.

In Tamil Nadu, BCs get 30 per cent reservation in educational institutions, MBCs 20; SCs 18; and Scheduled Tribes (ST) one per cent. The 1,224 medical seats that year were divided into 354 for BCs; 247 for MBCs; 226 for SCs; and 13 for STs. The rest of the 384 seats were allowed as open competition, where everyone competed, regardless of community.

The final tally (original list with 69 per cent reservation) released by the Directorate of Medical Education, however, showed that only 28 students from the ‘non-reserved’ or Forward Caste (FC) got into government medical colleges, representing about 2.3 per cent. In fact, of the top 400 rank-holders, only 31 were from the FC category. In the top 100 rank-holders, only six were from FC, 79 from BC and 13 from MBC. (Source:The Hindu, August 23, 2004).

Not supported by history

Renowned Gandhian and scholar (late) Dharampal, following meticulous research in British and Indian archives, reproduced reports undertaken by the British in the Madras, Punjab and Bengal Presidencies between 1800 and 1830.

According to a detailed survey done during 1822-25 in the Madras Presidency (that is, the present Tamil Nadu, the major part of the present Andhra Pradesh, and some districts of the Present Karnataka, Kerala and Orissa) 11,575 schools and 1,094 colleges were still in existence in the Presidency and the number of students in them were 1,57,195 and 5,431 respectively.

Much more important in view of the current debates and assumption is the unexpected and important information provided with regard to broad caste composition of the students in these institutions (see Table). We find that the position as early as the first part of the 19th Century was significantly in favour of the backward castes as far as secular education was concerned.

Hence, the British-inspired propaganda that education was not available to the so-called backward castes prior to their efforts is not valid. “Secular” education always played a major tool in social transformation prior to British rule. It is also assumed that caste is a rigid hierarchical system which is oppressive. But it is pointed out by the renowned sociologist Dr Dipankar Gupta that “in fact, it is more realistic to say that there are probably as many hierarchies as there are castes in India.

Caste myths

To believe that there is a single caste order to which every caste, from Brahman to untouchable, acquiesce ideologically, is a gross misreading of facts on the ground. The truth is that no caste, howsoever lowly placed it may be, accepts the reason for its degradation” (Interrogating Caste; pp1; Penguin Books, 2000).

The debate also does not take into account that backwardness is not a static phenomena but a dynamic one. The late sociologist M. N. Srinivas said: “An important feature of social mobility in modern India is the manner in which the successful members of the backward castes work consistently for improving the economic and social condition of their caste fellows. This is due to the sense of identification with one’s own caste, and also a realisation that caste mobility is essential for individual or familial mobility.” (Collected Essays; pp196-197, Oxford University Press, 2005).

Maybe the time has come for us to question many of the beliefs and myths perpetuated in this discussion on educational backwardness. Politics does play a major role in shaping the perceptions of the common man but it is the duty of the academicians and other experts to look at issues more dispassionately so that the future of educational enhancement of our country is not impaired by mythical dogma.

An important aspect is the success of India in the software and other knowledge-related industries in the recent past compared to traditional manufacturing industries and it requires more institutions of higher learning which are not governed by perceptions regarding the past. The answer lies in the “enquiring mind” endowed by the ancient wisdom that looks at the past dispassionately and provides opportunities to disadvantaged sections based on facts and not on myths.

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