India’s higher education system has claimed yet another Dalit life as the struggle to democratise it meets with another failure. Anitha, who excelled in the Tamil Nadu State Board high school examination, had to resort to suicide when all doors of getting a medical seat were closed on her. This resulted from the Madras high court and Supreme Court quashing the petition to exempt Tamil Nadu from the ambit of the National Entrance-cum-Eligibility Test (NEET), in which Anitha was herself an impleader.
Her death, 20 months after the suicide of Rohith Vemula at University of Hyderabad, reaffirms that there is an effort to keep higher education an exclusive domain, inaccessible and inhospitable to students from the most marginalised communities.
Anitha was aware of the ways in which higher education is becoming exclusionary. She mentioned these problems in her appeal to the Supreme Court – that it was not about her aptitude but a different syllabus that required her to take coaching classes that she could not afford. She questioned the implicit distrust of state board examinations, which results in the creation of national gatekeeping mechanisms like NEET, Indian Insutitute of Technology Joint Entrace Examination (IIT-JEE), All India Engineering Entrance Examination (AIEEE) and All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) exam in the name of standardisation.
We wouldn’t expect the high court and the Supreme Court to intentionally take decisions that aid the keeping of marginalised communities out of the higher education system. Then, under what circumstances does the judiciary play into the hands of the problematic discourse of merit that by design is exclusive in nature? Why, even after 67 years of being a constitutional republic, do we continue to fall into such traps that don’t allow the excluded groups to access opportunities of higher education?
Judiciary’s recurring blindness to ‘positive discrimination’
To understand the root of this problem, one needs to revisit the year when the constitution of India came into operation and the petition filed by Champakam Dorairajan opposing caste-based reservation in electoral constituencies. In 1950, like 2017, it was the Madras high court and Supreme Court that took the stance that providing reservation for political and educational opportunities is in violation of Article 15 of the constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth.
In response to this problematic reading of Article 15, the first amendment to India’s constitution was brought to encourage “positive discrimination,” and clause 4 was added to the article, which stated that “Nothing in this article or in clause (2) of Article 29 shall prevent the state from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.”
The judiciary, dominated by savarna men, has time and again shown caste and gender blindness in the name of equality while completely ignoring the lived experience of disadvantaged sections of society. This has led to a long history of mistaken judgments, like in the case of NEET.
How IITs and AIIMS have placed an unfair burden on marginalised students
Since 1950, the struggle has been to keep the spirit of this ruling alive despite efforts to challenge the democratisation of education. In the higher educational context, it begins with the focus on setting up elite institutions in science and technology, with IIT Kharagpur being set up in 1951 and AIIMS in 1956.
With the aim of nurturing the “best minds,” the entrance examination for IITs and AIIMS was devised to select “meritorious” candidates who could then be further supported. The aims of social justice were completely ignored in this endeavour as the reservation policy was introduced much later in 1973, that too with a clause that institutes of national importance can formulate their own schema instead of remaining accountable to the public.
Many elite scientific institutions continue to use this clause to completely bypass reservation in the name of quality. This fallacy of putting quality and merit in opposition to reservation has been the root of the current crisis in higher education, whose repercussions continue to fall upon the Dalit and Adivasi students.
This discourse of quality and merit in education, which is being gauged by isolated entrance examinations, does complete disservice to both the idea of merit and the constitutional aims of social justice. This dominant educational psychology, which locates intelligence in an individual, completely ignores the role of socio-economic privileges in being able to access support systems, be it nutritional, educational, economical, or social.
What more did Anitha need to do?
For a student like Anitha, a girl from Dalit background whose father is a daily wage labourer and with no mother, its evident that her access to support systems was decimal compared to a student from the middle class or an upper caste. Given the lack of a level playing field, can merit only be measured by the student’s performance in a common entrance test and not take into account the social realities that play a huge role in her access to opportunities? Despite her disadvantageous background and situation, Anitha was able to score 98% in the state board examination.
Did she still need to prove her merit by performing well in a national-level examination conducted by the CBSE board, which has a different syllabus than the state-run government schools that most disadvantaged students access? This is why Anitha petitioned the court – because she knew that adapting to NEET for young aspirants like her would involve the expensive coaching infrastructure, which they simply cannot access.
She approached the court because she knew that the distrust of people like her was becoming institutionalised by exams like NEET, IIT-JEE, AIEEE and AIIMS. Even colleges like Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani, which earlier admitted students based on state board results, have moved to a national-level examination. The pertinent question to ask here is why is there such an impetus for centralisation of entrance exams for higher education and what role do they actually serve?
Discrimination begins at school
Here, one needs to make a distinction between school and higher education in India because the problem lies in the cusp. In the context of schooling, there is a prevalent myth that the “quality” of government schools are bad in comparison to the private schools, and thus there has been a mass exodus to private schools for anyone who can afford.
Private schools have also tried to moderate their fees to attract lower classes who see education as the only promise of a better future. Although there has been enough research to challenge this myth by comparing the learning levels of students from both government and private schools, it persist.
However, when it comes to higher education, there is no doubt that public universities like IITs, AIIMS, Indian Institutes of Management, Jawaharlal Nehru University, University of Hyderabad and Delhi University are coveted institutions for most aspiring students.
This also has to do with the spending of educational budget, where the lion’s share goes to few institutes of higher education while neglecting primary and secondary education. The option to exit the public institutions for a more exclusive private one is not available in the higher educational space. Thus, while government schools have been exited by the upper castes on the pretext of quality, and any attempt to democratise private schools through the Right to Education is met with stiff opposition, exiting public universities in a similar fashion is not an option. Hence, the stakes are elevated in claiming the higher educational space, and only reservation policies continue to provide a glimmer of hope for democratising these spaces. The only way to subvert this democratic aim is by putting more roadblocks, such as that of gatekeeping examinations, which would eventually tire out the marginalised communities in their struggle to enter public spaces.
Anitha was at this cusp between school and higher education, and the promise of transforming her life by getting into a government medical college was real. With state board examination results, she would have easily secured a seat in a premium college. However, that would have only been the beginning of a long struggle inside the campus where reservation is used as an excuse to undermine one’s merit and the place they deserve in a university.
The 2007 Thorat Committee report explicates the magnitude of caste discrimination in elite institutions like AIIMS where not only students but also faculty from SC/ST background are continually excluded in the garb of being non-meritorius and undeserving.
I observed a similar discrimination during my undergraduate studies at IIT Delhi where I saw an elaborate framework of ‘graded inequality’, to use Ambedkar’s conception of caste, at play based on the all India ranking (AIR). This AIR, which is different for general and reserved seats, along with one’s socio-geographic location, known from one’s name, appearance and spoken language, would determine the graded respect one commanded in social life. With an utter disregard towards social justice, savarna students would continually humiliate SC/ST/minority students by employing the (false) merit argument, eventually making the higher educational space hostile for them.
Many such students who have been unable to tolerate this undignified life have resorted to committing suicide. This is viewed as a weakness of that individual to not be able to cope with the high standards of the university, further reifying the anti-reservation stance.
Amebdkar knew that the biggest challenge to democratisation of India is the graded hierarchy of caste and gender, and therefore, without annihilating caste, all our efforts would boil down to nothing. However, instead of dealing with caste directly we have only managed to hide the exclusion through the discourse of ‘individual’ merit. Generations then accumulate this privilege. Public universities have become the most contested spaces as they allow for the possibility of democratising exclusive spaces and becoming exemplars for the society.
However, what we have seen with Anitha, Vemula and many others is that all our attempts towards democratisation are constantly demolished by Brahminical appropriation of merit and quality. To annihilate these new mechanisms of exclusion and truly democratise the universities, we need to challenge the gatekeeping examinations and anti-reservation rhetoric that continue to undermine constitutional ideals. Such discourse simply has no place in the republic of India.
Asim Siddiqui teaches philosophy at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.