Many years ago (1997-2001), I was a student of IIT Kanpur which was, and continues to be, a great place to learn. The experience was exhilarating for a small-town, middle-class adolescent maturing into a young adult. With wonderful, brilliant learners and a beautiful campus, the IIT years were a time when I was living my childhood dream. It was a seemingly liberal place where you could watch a movie sitting on a chair while your professor was seated on the floor, where a girl could come and stay in male hostels, even during the night. To contextualise the above examples, please bear in mind that it was still the 20th century and the IIT was situated in Kanpur, UP.
Books, exams, grades, research, scholarships, US universities, jobs, green cards, etc. — all good things of life — were there to be had. It was great to be alive in such a place, nothing was amiss, or so we thought. Almost nothing, if we were forced to be more precise. There was something jarring in the idyllic reality that I have just described above — a not-so-palatable sideshow in the celebration of merit and hard work that the IIT seemingly was. The IIT dream, like the more popular American dream, had a seductive appeal — and the myth overwhelmed reality to create a larger-than-life half-truth at best, a blatant lie at worst.
The Mecca of merit and industriousness had a perceived underclass — those from the reserved category — who were often referred to with demeaning epithets, which questioned their intelligence and right to be at the institution. Many saw them as a blot on the fair name of IIT Kanpur; impostors who had usurped the domain of meritorious kids like us, just because India’s half-literate politicians had propped them up for vote-bank politics. Their low ranks in the Joint Entrance Exams did not prevent them from getting “better” branches of engineering while we and our helpless teachers and parents could merely wring our hands in despair. If we were asked to name the greatest injustice in the world, it would have been reservation — in a country with widespread poverty, exploitation and inequality of every conceivable sort!
The collective rage we felt had two significant consequences for “us”, as well as for “them”. The most sinister result of our anger was something every alert and sensitive reader would have noticed by now: It was the “othering” of the reserved category students by the general category students and the faculty, which itself was drawn almost fully from the general category. There were two different universes between which there was almost no porosity of affection, empathy, camaraderie or shared existence. We barely spoke to each other, and rarely were students from the reserved category a part of our charmed circles. The compartmentalisation was water-tight, though unstated and un-ordained in formal terms.
This was also not the horizontal compartmentalisation of gender-based rest-rooms. It was a vertical, hierarchical stratification, loosely parodying the Jew-Aryan ideology of Nazi Germany or racial segregation of apartheid South Africa. Our humanity was mutilated by such othering and our reserved category batchmates were subject to potentially soul-sapping degradation — a result of being excluded from the mainstream of the community in which one lives. I learnt first-hand about the deleterious effect that even mild and subtle exclusion can have on one’s self-esteem and educational performance, when later in my life I went on to study at the London School of Economics, which is a story for another day.
Secondly, and more concretely, they were not allowed to partake in the learning environment of IIT. Mostly relegated to the humiliatingly titled “slow pace” programmes, many would soon become “juniors” of their own batchmates. Their grades were mostly poor, confirming the biases of general category faculty members. Thereafter, it was a long and painful journey downhill. Low grades, poor job prospects, no glowing recommendations from professors for admissions to the top universities abroad. Many were likely scarred for life — and all the while, we thought this was just a reflection of the natural order of things. There have been admirable exceptions to the picture I have painted, but the point is that the reserved category students were not allowed to bring out the best in them because of the exclusionary thought and behaviour structures that were programmed into IIT life in my time there.
Two decades have passed since I left the IIT. Reservation for OBC students has changed the composition of current batches. Society is increasingly becoming less casteist and more accommodative of those who may be different from the so-called mainstream. In fact, the mainstream itself has been metamorphosing into something more representative of our populace. In this context, it is pertinent to note that the reservation for faculty posts in IITs is a refreshing change to tackle the deep-seated prejudices of the old guard against reserved category students. Any attempt to resist the broadening of the social base of the faculty would be a retrograde step. Many things will have improved and many others are likely already on the road to improvement.
I have tried to recount the depth of darkness from which we have moved to our current reality, which is definitely better, though I am not saying that it is perfect. Rose-tinted nostalgia about the past should not be allowed to brush such monstrous injustices under the carpet. That would be unjust to our past sufferers while miseducating our present generation. And it will not help create a better future.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 25, 2021 under the title ‘The injustice of merit’. The writer is district magistrate, Kanpur