The two boys wore glasses, faint moustaches, thick plaid shirts, clashing ties. They most certainly did not exude confidence as they walked, synchronized but tentative in step, across the campus of St Joseph’s College of Engineering on the outskirts of Chennai.
That is how I knew.
It was confirmed a few minutes into our conversation. Logesh and Srinivasan, both 20, are the first in their families to attend college.
Logesh, the son of a contractor, is a member of the most backward caste, as applicants to college label themselves without shame in these parts. Srinivasan, the son of a shopkeeper, is a member of the forward caste, which forms a minority in this and every other college in Tamil Nadu.
With Thursday’s landmark Supreme Court case bringing millions of Indians under an umbrella of possibility, the case of Tamil Nadu presents a hopeful and noteworthy model; I spent a few days in the state earlier this week and was struck time and time again by the sheer number of people who were first-time learners, who spoke perfect English even as they said their parents worked as maids or drivers.
When asked why and how that could suddenly come to be, besides citing the growth of the overall Indian economy, their answers mentioned one common denominator: Reservations.
Tamil Nadu’s liberal reservations policy—where 69% of seats in public and private colleges go to members of lower castes and classes—has resulted in an education and aspiration boom that is remarkable. While this is the case across much of India, the possibility here seems so much more palpable, as though societal upheaval is already happening, instead of simply being dissected for the thousandth time with PowerPoint presentations at a five-star hotel in New Delhi.
A part of that reason is that Tamil Nadu began this discussion early— long before independence. The non-Brahmin movement of the 1920s and then ensuing demands by backward classes spawned laws that steadily increased seats reserved for lower classes. By the early 1980s, it hit 69%.
Regular readers of this column know I support affirmative action as the only means to force the flourishing portions of the economy to let others share their prosperity; it is not a socialist stance, but one rooted in survival and fairness. Because government has failed at reforming primary education, it is not until universities (and eventually the private sector, I hope) are forced to include the downtrodden of society in their fold that someone will take note and fix the sorry conditions under which scheduled castes and scheduled tribes and other backward classes are educated.
Thus, I applauded the Supreme Court decision to add 27% seats for the lower classes, even though I know much of the government’s concern is politically motivated and an 11th hour campaign tactic. So, as the party of India’s independence celebrates its victory—along with human resourced development minister Arjun Singh, who has made implementing reservations seem more a matter of saving his own legacy—they should be aware of their own role in the disastrous state of education and inequality in India.
Yet, even here, the case of Tamil Nadu offers hope. The hunger for education has definitely trickled down into the primary years, seeing increased importance and innovation on the state’s part. Today, estimates of children in the state attending school vary between 96% and 99%.
As in India, the majority of Tamil Nadu’s residents are members of lower castes or classes. The same debates wage over displacement of mainstream students, the exclusion of the more affluent “creamy layer” of each caste and just how long such a system needs to be in place to correct historical wrongs.
Indeed, there are numerous critics of the way Tamil Nadu has implemented its reservations system and the fraud, corruption and suffering of upper castes as a result. Allegations abound that those benefiting are, indeed, the creamy layer and children of the affluent and well-connected who don’t necessarily need a leg-up.
But not all—or even most. There will be some who exploit the system, abuse it, devise ways around it. Yet, for countless millions across India, the Supreme Court’s verdict has opened the door to possibility and prosperity. As in Tamil Nadu, there will be a trickle-over and trickle-down effect so that even poorer members of upper castes will see the need for an education to compete, as Srinivasan told me happened in his case.
Nowadays, piped in Logesh, “all people want to study more. Computers are levelling us.”
“Not reservations?” I asked.
“That helps,” Logesh said, with Srinivasan agreeing.
And as they also showed me, a day might come in the rest of India where you ask two young men on a college campus what caste the other is—and each will say he doesn’t even know.
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