Published: 08th February 2021
Inefficiency of Merit: Have India's top technical, scientific institutes used the ‘merit’ debate to deny jobs to teachers from oppressed communities?
Technical and scientific institutes have maintained that due to the ‘sophisticated nature’ of certain jobs, they cannot allow people who come in through reservation to occupy them
In November 2019, the Ministry of Human Resource Development issued a directive to all central government technical institutions such as IITs, IIMs and IISER to implement reservations in their faculty appointments, even in senior posts. Previous governments had also advised the institutes to follow the quota system a few times in the past. However, this was the first time that the centre was issuing a directive, after reports showed that 90 percent of the posts were occupied by members of privileged communities.
In January 2020, all the 20 IIM directors wrote to the MHRD demanding to be ‘exempted from reservations’. In July 2020, an 8-member expert panel constituted by the MHRD to suggest measures for effective implementation of reservation rules in admission and faculty selection at IITs recommended that IITs be exempted from reservations in faculty appointments.
The IIM Directors and the expert panel asked that the institutes be recognised as ‘Institutes of Excellence’ under the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Teachers’ Cadre) Act, 2019. Section 4 of the Act states that the central government’s quota norms do not apply to “the institutions of excellence, research institutions, institutions of national and strategic importance”. Before the government’s 2019 directive was issued, technical institutes across the country would cite the 1970 Order by the Department of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensioners to argue against reservation in their faculty. The Order states that technical and scientific posts required for conducting research or for organising, guiding and directing research can be exempted from reservations. In the 1992 Indra Sawhney vs Union of India judgement on a similar case too it was observed that in such posts ‘merit alone counts’.
Decoding the Caste of Merit
In their letter, the IIM directors made similar arguments — they claimed that their recruitment process was fair and that they are trying to employ candidates from disadvantaged sections through the same process. “But reservation may not be the way to go since we are competing globally,” were the Directors’ words. Another faculty is quoted in an article saying that the IIMs cannot ‘compromise on merit’, “Will you get operated on by a surgeon who is coming into the system through quota? Is there any quota for pilots? It is a matter of pure merit,” an IIM director said once in an article in the Hindustan Times.
Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, the Chairperson of IIM Bangalore, was also quoted in the same paper as saying, “You cannot be giving non-deserving candidates preference just because they are SC or ST.” The expert panel, also made similar observations, “In order to complete with other top institutions in the world in terms of excellence, output, research and teaching, a system emphasising targeted goals over a period of time, rather than specific quotas, to address diversity issues through outreach campaigns, targeted recruitment, etc is recommended.”
In this article, we analyse whether directives like the 1970 Order have been used as a shield by technical institutes to avoid addressing the appalling lack of representation in their campus. And also ask, if by recycling the same argument about ‘merit’ for over 70 years, they have helped sustain the caste divide that continues to keep candidates from OBC, SC and ST communities out of some educational spaces.
The Myth of Merit
‘Merit’ is the first argument that members of privileged communities use to criticise and diminish affirmative action, or as we call it ‘reservations’. Is the word merit opposite to the word ‘reservation’? “Reservation and merit have been built to become parallel arguments by the dominant castes. This argument became more aggressive post 1970 because people demanded that the IITs also have reservations in their posts,” said N Sukumar, Professor at the Department of Political Science, Delhi University, who has done extensive research on casteism and social exclusion on campuses. “A writer once said that since most dropouts come from marginalised communities, that they were ‘failing’ to cope which is why they cannot fit into these institutes of excellence. It is because of such perceptions that we continue to debate on merit until today,” the professor adds.
N Sukumar, Professor, Delhi University
Jenny Rowena and her husband, Hany Babu, both professors at Delhi University and anti-caste activists, are part of the Alliance for Social Justice, a front that includes students, teachers, administrative staff, and organisations of SC, ST, OBC, and minority communities from Delhi University and outside. Rowena feels that in a competition where the majority cannot participate at all or can only participate with their hands and legs tied, the minority who are privileged to participate without any disadvantages, will surely win, “Now even if, for argument’s sake, we buy into the idea of merit, this cannot count as merit. Because this is only the merit of privilege. Being a country which is founded on the highly hierarchical and discriminatory caste system, we have never been able to create an equal playing field for the population in politics, media or education.”
This is why our modern educational institutions have a large upper caste representation, the professor adds, “Not because they were great but because others were not even aware of the competition or the caste interest of the upper-castes were at work, which made them fill modern institutions with their people. When this monopoly exists, they also work to hide any kind of corruption and they work in order to preserve their caste interest rather than the ‘public’ interest. This kind of monopoly actually destroyed the idea of the public institution and thereby the idea of the public itself.”
In her book, Caste of Merit, Ajantha Subramanian, quotes a study done as far back as 1968 which found that on an average, students had at least two relatives who were already engineers. Subramanian, who is a Professor of Anthropology and South Asian Studies and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University says that if the goal of the technical and scientific institution is to maintain caste exclusivity, then the ‘merit’ argument is the right one to use, “The social exclusivity that these institutions foster in the name of merit is inimical to the democratisation of educational opportunities and, ultimately, to the enrichment of technical and scientific disciplines, which, like any field, suffers from homogeneity,” she tells us. She says policies like the 1975 Order ‘rest on the assumption that excellence and equity are antithetical principles, which is patently false’.
The argument is illegal, says Sonajharia Minz plainly. Minz recently became one of the first Adivasi Vice-Chancellors of the country at the Sido Kanhu Murmu University in Dumka, Jharkhand, her home state after teaching at JNU for 28 years. “When access to equal quality education is not provided, when equity is not practised, then demanding merit, is illegal. It is against the Constitution,” the VC said.
Interestingly, Disha Wadekar, Supreme Court lawyer, points out that the word ‘merit’ figures nowhere in the Constitution. “An argument must have some constitutional basis, right? But where do you see the word merit in the Constitution?” she asks. However, she believes that the language that we use to defend merit is not organically coming solely from the administrators of the institutes, “It is the popular anti-reservation rhetoric which has been reflected in judicial pronouncements on reservation,” she added.
A History of Merit
Wadekar points out that in the very popular 1992 Indra Sawhney vs Union of India case, the bench said that merit and not reservation should be the sole criteria in filling up positions in certain super speciality jobs. “We are of the opinion that there are certain services and positions where either on account of the nature of duties attached to them or the level (in the hierarchy) at which they obtain, merit as explained hereinabove, alone counts. In such situations. It may not be advisable to provide for reservations,” the court had stated. But subsequently. the Union Government came up with Article 16 4(A) amendment which allows that State to make any provision for reservation in matters of promotion, with consequential seniority, to any class or classes of posts in the services under the State in favour of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes which, in the opinion of the State, are not adequately represented in the services under the State.
It all comes down to the definition. And this is what Article 335 states — The claims of the members of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes shall be taken into consideration, consistently with the maintenance of efficiency of administration, in the making of appointments to services and posts in connection with the affairs of the Union or of a State.
“Note that the word used here is ‘efficiency’. So efficiency became linked to merit by the court,” the lawyer says. In 2006, a five-judge constitution bench of the Supreme Court delivered its judgment in M Nagaraj vs Union of India which validated the government’s decision to ensure reservations for SCs, STs in posts and promotions but with three riders — the government must prove there is an inadequacy in representation, to ‘prove’ the backwardness of the community and to show how the reservation would improve ‘efficiency’.
“The Nagaraj judgement, while upholding the validity of Art 16(4A), clarified that efficiency in administration cannot be compromised just because we want to implement reservation. This, according to the judgement, requires quantifiable data from the State to implement reservation and has served as a major hurdle for the State to implement the reservation policy for the benefit of SC, ST, OBCs. What it is essentially saying, is that giving posts to oppressed communities would be compromising the efficiency. There is an inherent assumption without any data or basis, that reserved candidates are not meritorious,” Wadekar opines.
There are two judgements, Wadekar feels, that have understood and factored in social justice in their decision — one, KC Vasanth Kumar vs State of Karnataka, a case presided over by Justice Chinnappa Reddy who said — “Efficiency is very much on the lips of the privileged whenever reservation is mentioned. Efficiency, it seems, will be impaired if the total reservation exceeds 50 per cent; efficiency, it seems, will suffer if the 'carry forward' rule is adopted; efficiency, it seems, will be injured if the rule of reservation is extended to promotional posts. from the protests against reservation exceeding 50 per cent or extending to promotional posts and against the carry-forward rule, one would think that the civil service is a Heavenly Paradise into which only the archangels, the chosen of the elite, the very best may enter and may be allowed to go higher up the ladder. But the truth is otherwise. The truth is that the civil service is no paradise and the upper echelons belonging to the chosen classes are not necessarily models of efficiency. The underlying assumption that those belonging to the upper castes and classes, who are appointed to the non-reserved castes will, because of their presumed merit, 'naturally' perform better than those who have been appointed to the reserved posts and that the clear stream of efficiency will be polluted by the infiltration of the latter into the sacred precincts is a vicious assumption, typical of the superior approach of the elitist classes.”
The other judgement, Wadekar says, she appreciated was one she herself worked on, BK Pavithra vs Union of India (2020), with the popular Justice Chandrachud — Efficiency of administration in the affairs of the Union or of a State must be defined in an inclusive sense, where diverse segments of society find representation as a true aspiration of governance by and for the people.
“Justice Chandrachud said that a system that doesn’t have space for people from certain communities, that system itself lacks merit. He moved the focus from individuals to the system,” Wadekar said. However, the young lawyer does feel that the judiciary has largely looked at reservation as a threat to meritocracy.
The Four Walls of Merit
Technical institutes claim that they conduct fair recruitments — they put out rolling advertisements and in these advertisements they mention that members of belonging to SC, ST castes will be given preference. “When the administration says they give preference, it also means that they are not compelled to fill those posts,” Sukumar pointed out.
Deepak Malghan, a professor at IIM Bangalore says that we must face the hard fact that at the present time, 90 percent of IIM faculty members are drawn from less than 10 percent of India’s diverse social groups. “It cannot be anybody’s case that 90 percent of India is without merit. Also, it is important to recognise that IIMs through a series of both errors of commission and some errors of omission has not created a faculty pipeline. For over four decades, they skirted reservation in their PhD programme,” he points out.
Deepak Malghan, Professor, IIM Bangalore
“Since there are so few representations of SC, ST, OBC faculty on campus, nobody raises their voice. So they can’t organise themselves and another problem is that not all of them speak the language of the Bahujan and are trained to speak the language of merit. If they do speak up, they are penalised for it and sometimes, excommunicated,” he adds.
An IIT professor we spoke to, who preferred to remain anonymous, says that nobody seems to want to address the gigantic elephant on their campus. The professor, who comes from a privileged community, says that in his 12 years of experience, he has barely seen any representation from marginalised communities but that the institutes are adamant about not diagnosing this problem. “Since they are technical institutes, they feel they are apolitical and neutral. They believe that technology and science are neutral subjects, so they feel it is devoid of any kind of politics and so nobody should question them about these problems,” he said. The professor recalled that he has been part of campuses where the administration has not put even the slightest effort to bring in people from marginalised communities and only do so when a group takes the initiative to alert higher authorities about these administrative failures. And even then, it is done unenthusiastically.
“The problem is that the issue is not stark,” the professor says, elaborating, “For example I know two people from marginalised communities who are phenomenal researchers. But for the longest time, they kept trying to get a promotion and simply weren’t able to get one. Now we cannot definitely say if it is because of caste, even though it probably is. This becomes a very isolating experience for those suffering because unless the discrimination or abuse is direct, there is no way they can point fingers,” he added. He recalled the case of Prof Vasantha Kandasamy, who fought a 30-year-long court case against IIT Madras for refusing to give her a promotion while promoting another person who was less qualified than her.
“Who has this divine right to decide what merit is? And what is merit after all? It is great networking, something that is historically acquired,” he points out. “One’s progress in an institution requires great networking - connections with the ‘goras’ (foreigners), the ability to travel, study there, meet people and collaborate on research. This is why in some IIT campuses, there is a complete monopoly of upper caste communities, so much so there you will find that most will share the same three or four surnames,” he explained.
Vikram Harijan, a professor at Allahabad University also raises a similar question, “If it really is all about merit, why have we never won a Nobel? Why are we still struggling as a country? We’ve not made any great technological or scientific advancements. So what is this merit they are talking about?” In September, last year, Harjan had to go into hiding after he was attacked with casteist abuses and threatened with dire consequences because he had allegedly made ‘anti-Hindu’ comments during a session on the promotion of rationality and scientific temperament.
“I’ve seen it with my own eyes. The minute my roommate in college mentioned his surname to our professor, there was an immediate change in his attitude, a certain warmth when he found out that he was a Brahmin man. It might be subconscious but it’s definitely there,” the professor recalled. “The Dronacharyas of yesteryears are still present in the educational institutions, denying Eklavya an opportunity to study. They talk about merit. How do they define merit? If you know Sanskrit then you are a Pandit. And then make sure that Bahujans do not have the right to study Sanskrit. This is how they ensure exclusivity of merit,” says Anil Wagde, an IIM alumni who is currently leading the alumni effort to increase social diversity at the IIMs.
Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud, Judge, Supreme Court
The Science and Technicality of Numbers
When Kiran Gowd, the President of the OBC Students’ Association and scholar from University of Hyderabad heard about the IIM Director’s letter, he immediately shot off an RTI to the MHRD demanding to know the existing number of faculty from the OBC category. These were some of the replies he got back for the IIMs — question not applicable, administration does not maintain category-wise info, vacancies yet to be filled, faculty recruitment is on merit basis. Some had single digit numbers, others had ‘zero’. The IITs on the other hand, had 385 OBC faculty members out of 5586 of their total teaching positions, which is a mere six percent even though OBCs occupy over 40 percent of the population.
“We will request the Ministry of Education and all the IIMs to follow reservation policy. We will approach the judiciary if nothing else is working out. A legal fight will be our last but one option before hitting the roads and protesting for our demands through a democratic process,” a frustrated Gowd says. Despite being an academic for the last few years, Gowd said it angered him that he barely had any faculty who came from a similar background as his.
The other set of numbers that matter in this discussion are the numbers of the students, Minz points out, “How many are enrolling? How many of those who are dropping out are from marginalised communities? Have the institutes done enough to ensure affirmative action? Only if students are being allowed to sustain in campuses, will they be able to achieve the ‘merit’ that these institutes are demanding. These institutes have deliberately not trained students from these communities, even though they’ve had the chance to do so for so long.” Malghan adds that a huge number of the faculty are ‘trained within the system’, “About 35 percent of the current IIM faculty members were trained within the IIM system. If IIMs had not wilfully skirted reservation in their PhD programs, they would have had the “merit” that they seek.”
Kiran Gowd, All India OBC Students' Association
Minz stresses on the fact that the selection does happen on a minimum eligibility basis, so the people who qualify have already proven to be capable. “Obviously we want the best but if the difference in the marks is just by a point or two and yet a member of an oppressed community is not given an opportunity, then how is it about quality?” she asks. Minz has been on hiring panels and has seen how the merit lists are prepared, “For example, once we had four positions available, four SCs and 2 UCs applied, taking their marks into account, we decided that one SC candidate should be hired through the open category quota, while the other two can come in through SC quota because they were all so good. Yet, despite the recommendation, both the UCs came in through the open category quota.” Sukumar also says he has had similar experiences on panels, that even if perfectly capable candidates apply, many are dismissed for not being ‘upto the mark.’
“A healthy modern institution like an educational institution, can only be created in a healthy ‘meritorious’ way by doing something to change the uneven playing field and by allowing for the entry and representation of diverse communities in the sphere and in the field of educational institutions, this alone will create merit, that is if there is anything like that. This alone will create a healthy institution,” Rowena adds.
The Teacher-Student Equation
The lack of representation in faculty is directly proportional to the increasing cases of discrimination and suicides of students from marginalised communities. Many academics have cited the lack of faculty representation as reasons why student problems never get addressed. When Dr Payal Tadvi died by suicide allegedly after she was forced to suffer casteist harassment, torture, bullying and discrimination from her peers, her mother Abeda Tadvi said, “Even is one SC, ST professor had been in her college, she would have survived.”
Subramanian agrees that presence of teachers from these communities has a huge impact on the students, “The absence of OBC, SC, and ST faculty makes technical and scientific campuses hostile and isolating for students from these backgrounds whose life experiences and struggles are not understood by upper caste faculty. The presence of such faculty would profoundly shape these students’ experiences as well as their aspirations.” In her book too, the professor calls caste and merit as not just proximate but also intimate concepts. The frequent use of the ‘merit’ debate by professors is also something that can leave a deep impression on young aspiring students who enter these campuses with hopes and dreams.
“Words like ‘dilution of merit’ is an expression of caste prejudice that assumes the intellectual inferiority of students from marginalized communities. Such phrases are used to stigmatize and scapegoat these students who are accused of gaining admission illegitimately and therefore do not deserve to be at such institutions. What the phrase obscures is that "merit" is not a mark of individual talent. Rather, it is the product of a long history of unequal opportunity that has afforded upper castes advantages denied to lower castes,” the Harvard professor elaborated. Not just students, even the faculty are disadvantaged by the lack of diversity, Malghan feels, “It impacts everybody. The institution is poorer as we do not have a faculty body with diverse life experiences.”
So, is the merit argument meritorious?
Rowena outrightly calls the merit argument a fraudulent one and created by those who want to maintain caste hierarchy on campuses, “No one is really bothered about merit and we really don’t have that many great and meritorious institutions and most of them did not implement reservations till the 90s when the Mandal Commission was convened. They were and are still filled with upper castes. We have unhealthy corrupt public institutions that produce nothing and serve no one and the public that pays the taxes to maintain them be it educational institutions like IIT or IIM or others, gets nothing in return,” Rowena believes.
So for how long can we be challenging this argument? “Whenever the judiciary has made anti-reservation judgements, the Parliament has always come through and made appropriate amendments. So I think while in court we have to be on the defensive and ensure no irrevocable damage is done to the existing social justice measures in the constitution, the legislation has to be on an offensive and come out with better policies,” Wadekar feels.
Malghan and Wagde are hopeful that better days are ahead because of the efforts being made to make their space more inclusive, “Thanks to the efforts of alumni groups, IIMs now recognise the acute diversity deficit. Some institutions like my own (IIMB) have taken proactive steps to reverse years of neglect.”
“Reservations alone will make this public sphere healthy. Reservations alone will represent the interest of a larger public and reservation alone will create diversity. At least for the new generation. And the present generation needs to know that reservation is integral to maintaining the merit of any public institution, especially top educational institutions that receive a lot of funding through the common people’s tax money. And it is as important for the upper castes and for the lower castes that such robust educational institutions are created,” Rowena believes.
Minz is in complete agreement with her fellow teacher, “In JNU, we had this concept of ‘unees-bees’ (19-20) where we decided that even if someone didn’t get the highest marks, we should still choose them because the race isn’t a fair one,” the VC says, “When one makes a merit list, it isn’t enough to look at the name right on top, we can look at the second best person too and see where they came from. How many generations did it take for them to get here? How did they overcome their obstacles? How did they manage to become the second-best? We have to look at where their start line began because we have to credit the ones who had the longer journey getting to that interview.”
And there's merit to that argument.