Monday, September 17, 2007

The caste saga in India

When I was a student in India, I distinctly remember a certain practice in my school that grated on my young nerves whenever it presented itself before me. It was the requirement in my school's admission form (and a few other forms) of disclosing the caste of the student. I knew jack squat about caste then, at all of 12 years - my previous years of education having been outside the country. Through the next few years of my education there, it came up a couple of times more in different application forms and each time I would blink in a concentrated manner for a few minutes as I looked at the blank that followed that seemingly innocuous word : 'caste'.

I even remember a particular incident where one of my rather intelligent classmates proudly said that she belonged to the Backward Caste (or BC), and that therefore it would be easier for her to gain admission into medical school (She did get a seat). My point though, is that she was smart, so she should have probably got in anyway. Another friend, belonging to the so-called 'forward caste', whose parents had connections in the government, got her a fake certificate stating that she belonged to a backward caste to make her admission into college easier.

The issue didn't really affect me as I wasn't one of those who intended to study medicine or engineering, which was where the issue of caste really held sway over whether you got into college or not. But there was a point where many people were faking certificates and the like to stand a better chance of admissions into college, and I just didn't understand it. No, seriously. Call me an idiot or whatever but I found it ridiculous that people were resorting to things like that. I shouldn't have, I suppose, because I know now that it is certainly not uncommon in India. Plus, when I went to get admission into an arts and science college myself, I found that a certain number of seats HAD to go to students from a particular caste, and so on and so forth, and the issue of reservation for students from particular castes was very much prevalent there as well. If I was looking for immunity, I was disappointed because I certainly didn't find it there.

Of course, controversies will always surround the issue of reservation, and I think it is difficult to come to a 'one-fits-all' solution. To anyone who knows India's history, it wasn't a bad move to introduce reservations in India. Some truly deserving students belonging to SC's and ST's do benefit from reservation, without a doubt. My friend who got into medical school, for example, is doing an M.D at Harvard now. If she did not belong to a BC, it is possible that she may not have got into medical school in India in the first place, and a good doctor would have been lost then and there. But the reverse is also true,which necessarily means that sometimes, some deserving non-SC/ST students lose out on seats as well.

Anyhow, what started me off on this topic was this article I read today that says that the Supreme Court has decreed that schools cannot compel students to disclose caste. Interestingly, a PIL filed by someone from Tamilnadu who sought a complete ban on caste-disclosure forms in schools, was dismissed by the Supreme Court on the grounds that it would create problems for those who wanted to avail of free scholarships and other benefits.

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