03/06/2016 7:56 AM IST | Updated 18/09/2017 7:41 AM IST

That Reserved Seat You 'Lost' May Never Have Been Yours

Young Man Using Laptop in Stairway
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Young Man Using Laptop in Stairway

Recently, a viral Facebook post described how a general category student had written a Quora answer about a reserved category student who worked less, scored even lower, yet could get what the first guy could not, because of reservation. The post had nearly 10,000 likes.

This flawed logic has often been used to criticize reservations. There is definitely a lot to improve in the reservation policy and the related politics, but moaning over the seat that couldn't be yours is misguided.

I couldn't get into a top IIT despite being at a comfortable position on the merit list. I couldn't manage one of the top three IIMs despite being in the top half-percentile. But I never complained. I already knew what I was up for; and the challenge of bypassing reservations did not present itself to me unwarned. It's unfortunate how students personalize the whole argument instead of talking -- or even knowing, in most cases -- about the bigger picture of caste in the country.

The fight must be about the bigger cause rather than about petty personal examples which only make one look like a loser.

It suddenly seems to become an issue when it hits them personally. Continuously ignoring the bigger picture in the face of personal struggles is unfortunate. The fight must be about the bigger cause rather than about petty personal examples which only make one look like a loser.

Reservations are not about some people receiving benefits they do not deserve. It is about neutralizing a disadvantage accumulated through generations, which they did not deserve.

Here's a simple calculation:

Let us assume a sample set of 1000 applicants who take an exam (700 general, 300 reserved). A general student, X, ranks 500 (overall) and 450 (general). A reserved category student, Y, ranks 600 (overall) and 80 (reserved). This means in the top 500, there are 450 general students and 50 reserved students. And in the bottom 500, there are 250 general students and 250 reserved students.

Assuming that the top 400 general students and top 100 reserved students get through, X has not made it. X is now upset because Y got through.

Now consider an imaginary situation. Suppose the communities of X and Y would have got equal benefits for the last 500 years. Ideally, then, the top 500 would have 350 general students and 150 reserved students (and same for the bottom 500). The percentage of students below X would likely be the same, whether calculated overall or for "general" students: i.e. 450/700 = 64.3%. His rank would be 643, and he would anyway not have made it.

Had things been fair all these centuries, the general category guy might not have got a place anyway...

So, when X complains over this logic, he is complaining about a seat that was anyway likely not his. Giving it to him without recognizing the context of previous generations legitimizes the past atrocities which today limit the chances of those the seats are reserved for.

My argument has nothing to do with any of these valid concerns about the reservation policy: quality of meritorious students in top institutions getting affected; deserving students not benefitting; undeserving doctors and engineers coming out to work and putting lives at risk; vote bank politics, and so on. The features of the policy and what we have made out of it deserve scrutiny.

But had things been fair all these centuries, the general category guy might not have got a place anyway, irrespective of who ended up replacing him on that seat. If one accepts this point, then the debate becomes about whether this general category guy is sacrificing his seat for a deserving person -- and the policy has a lot wanting there, as is usually and rightfully discussed in the discourse around reservation.

The sole point I want to make through this post is that complaining based on emotional personal examples is an incomplete and sometimes ignorant struggle. When students do so, they often do not help the public discourse on caste and reservation. Rather, it degrades this topic, which deserves a wider discussion in so many aspects bigger than personal complaints.

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