Idea of Merit and the Indian Caste-based Reservation System

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Recently United Nations observed the birth anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar (for the first time with focus on combating inequalities to achieve Sustainable Development Goals) - the father of Indian constitution and messiah of backwards, amidst the result euphoria of various examinations which decides the future of million students for once and sometime forever. There were educational scams getting exposed like never before revealing the various facets of education system in Bihar.

In the backdrop of these two unrelated yet eventually entangled events, debate on and about reservation system – an important part of Ambedkar’s constitutional legacy - applicable for various positions in jobs and admission in educational institutions is inevitable.

Caste-based reservation is a complex issue and there is no black or white conclusion about it. Caste system existed for many ages, and it is a reality even today. However, I leave on you to choose which side of the fence you opt for! All I am going to make you ponder about the notion of merit which is gist of anybody’s argument who does groan about this reservation policy.

The question of inequality and education has drawn much attention over the last century. Since conceived in early 19th century, idea of meritocracy has come a long way and become ubiquitous and symbol of equality in almost any selection. The claim of this ideology of being a superior way of doing things is based on the following two arguments:

(1) Efficiency: The most appropriate candidates are being selected for a given set of jobs, which means the tests were accurate and reliable in finding suitable candidates, and the system was not hindered by the uncertainties that might occur through the inheritance of positions.

(2) Equality: The meritorious were not limited to a small pool of people circumscribed by birth and it was the entire population which formed the sample among which the bests were picked up.

Moreover, there is an entrenched moral argument in favour of this system that dignity or privilege should not be fixed by birth but by deed. It seems progressive and expresses some of the most important moral beliefs of modern times: that one is not tied to the origins of one’s birth and that it is possible to make one’s life through hard work and clear thinking.

However, there have been problems, too, in this ideal and now with the experience of a couple of centuries behind us, it is much easier to place it in its context.

To begin with, it is now quite well accepted by social scientists that all humans are born equal. The basic problem then is that of why all are born equal, but become unequal in later life. If all are born equal more or less then why is it that only some students get admission into any prestigious colleges every year? In every class there are some students who always do better than others. What is one to make of this? The popular answer is that only a few have merit, but like many popular answers, it hides more than it reveals.

Racists would say that differences in abilities are due to the differences between races. There are indeed some minor biological differences among different communities and also between men and women. However, biological advantages need supportive environments to get “turned on” and also in how well developed those advantages become. The environment seems to play a much larger role than biology.

A more accurate answer could be that all are born with an approximately equal capacity to learn, but differences in social environments lead to that being converted into different kinds of abilities. Exams are set up to identify some (not all) of those abilities.

Merit, then, is not what it seems – it is not a quality possessed by an individual alone. It is also the product of what kind of community one comes from and of the history of that community. The differences which have been created by history are of great importance.

Of course, the individual will is quite important – the will to push oneself, to work hard, to work in a planned and selective manner. But that will, too, is being expressed through a historically created medium. Regularity in sitting at one place and applying oneself to books, for instance, is a quality more easily found in communities that have a culture of studying sacred books. It is not so easily found in communities that do not read anything and may celebrate their religion only through song and dance, or may have been historically banned from access to reading. Of course, given the right environment, regularity in studying books is quickly learnt. But it should not be forgotten that all individuals live their lives through a web of cultural and social influences. Some threads in that web hold us back and some threads can pull us forward.

We can better understand the implications of such processes deciding who is able to acquire “merit” and who is not, by taking up the example of say, Amartya Sen. He was born to scholarly parents and had the great fortune of being brought up at one of our finest educational institutions–Shanti Niketan. Of course, he is a remarkable person with extraordinary clarity of thought and determination of purpose. But it was simply a matter of chance that he was born where he was. Remember that today only about one out of eight Indians is even able to finish class XII. Do you think Professor Sen would have been able to repeat his success if he were to be born again in today’s India? I think Professor Sen would himself say that the odds are greatly against it.

Merit as an ideology can hardly be understood without examining the larger contours of contemporary society and the kind of selections it wants to make. The roots of merit lie in the egalitarian ideal of a meritocracy, where merit is what counts and inherited privileges cease to matter. However, in an unequal society like ours, with continued distortions in the sharing of resources and opportunities, merit becomes a fig leaf. It becomes an ideology to cover up the deficiencies of a system which is pretending to distribute rewards in a just manner.

To deliberate further, I would like to cite two examples—one from public sphere while other from a personal one— from two different states of our country.

First one is very notably highlighted in media when house of a ‘lower caste’ family in Madhya Pradesh was pelted just because their son qualified for Indian Institute of Technology. Personal one is from Bihar; an owner of Dhaba (who got huge money as compensation for land acquired for Indian Institute of Technology Patna) said- “he cannot afford education and facilities for his children like upper caste of the village in spite of having enough money because that could be ‘threatening’ for his family. I could not decipher the complexity of the term ‘threatening’, however, these two instances were enough to make me realise that social fabric goes beyond money and merits, and reservation system cannot be seen, let alone understand, only with these two lenses.

Well, I am fully aware that the Constitution of India is NOT a Caste Constitution and do agree with those who keep yelling that caste equality cannot be achieved through reservation. However, reservation is anything but caste equality. All this reservation system strives for is to create an equal opportunity; else the idea of justice which merit had once held out will be dead, at least in present form it is crawling.


Siddharth Suman 
Doctoral Candidate
Sustainable; and Renewable Energy
IIT Patna
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

He is a freelancer; writing especially on societal issues, science, and education in both Hindi & English for various online media houses. In addition, he loves to write poetry and short story for the expression of personal emotions and thoughts.

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