During my childhood, stories of the manner in which feudal upper caste Indians treated their lower caste brethren - the Dalits, Harijans or backward castes (depending upon how politically correct you are) - used to make my blood boil just like the stories of how Americans treated the African Americans or blacks (depending on how politically incorrect you are). Surely both are victims of a vicious system of apartheid that condemns precocious and talented individuals into a life of obscurity and waste, just because destiny decreed that they were born in different circumstances. Add to it the current plight of people displaced by the Narmada project and one really begins to think that the underprivileged do not have a voice and will always be consigned to the dustbins of apathy and neglect. I have often, in the past, tried to talk about the role of empowerment through primary education as the only and correct way to undo this apparently irreversible centuries old tradition of injustice and oppression of the underprivileged. Today, in the wake of misguided attempts at undoing past injustices through policies, which are at best incredibly irrational and misplaced, I feel the need to talk about it once more.
Outraged, as I might have always been at the unfair treatment meted out to the underprivileged in our society, my heart and my mind recoil at the mindless move to reserve seats in institutions of higher education for backward castes. I get even more mortified when I hear that this will just be a precursor to an even more sinister thing - reservations for backward castes in private sector jobs. And here I am certainly not trying to promote upper caste interests in the name of meritocracy. Passionately believing in meritocracy and social justice are not mutually exclusive things. You can always have a situation, when the best of the best get their due rewards even as those who might have been cast aside by elitism and upper caste feudalism get an opportunity to compete with the best of the best. Reservations in institutions of higher education and private sector jobs are definitely not the way to ensure that both the goals are realised. Reservations will merely end up killing India's nascent and still tentative journey towards becoming a bona fide economic super power. If Azim Premji and Narayana Murthy were hobbled with this reservation shackle, one seriously doubts if people like Thomas Friedman would have ever got the opportunity to write so glowingly about India.
My earnest appeal to Arjun Singh, our Honourable Union HRD Minister - if we are really serious about redressing centuries of injustice, let us ensure that there are enough high quality primary schools to provide a decent education to the underprivileged children, so that they can grow up to compete with everyone else on merit. And let us make this primary education free of cost. Not just that, as Malay Chaudhuri suggested in our book "The Great Indian Dream", let us also go to the extent of making even hostel accommodation free for them, so that they can grow up in an environment which is more conducive to learning. Condemning them to fringes when they are children because we will not open schools and then reserving college seats and jobs for them is, without a doubt, being unjustly cruel to them and to the entire society.
And finally, I am very grateful to readers for the overwhelming response to our last Cover Feature on the Judicial system. Even after earmarking four pages instead of one, there still are so many whose letters we will cherish, though unpublished. Thank you once again for caring so deeply about (in)justice