Building a FAQ on Affirmative Action

Thanks for that nice post.

(16-Jan-2013, 09:17 AM)arvindiyer Wrote: There is a real payoff for affirmative action in terms of more enriching diversity in educational and democratic institutions and the emergence of a society less prone to the threats that structural inequality poses.

This is what I wanted to say but could not articulate it well. These payoffs are not modeled into the GDP calculations. That is why I felt that linking GDP and reservations (affirmative action in the Indian context) into the same discussion was a pointless exercise.
I commend the effort and would be happy to offer my input. Unfortunately, Indian school texts that I read did not address the issue - so a couple of generations have grown up with ideas garnered from granddads, fathers, uncles, aunts - who were themselves prejudiced and uninformed. It is like learning about sex from the street.

Affirmative action is not a poverty alleviation device. This statement is important to counter those who object to affirmative action pointing to continued poverty among vast numbers of Dalits and OBCs.

I do not know to what extent the statement of objects of various affirmative legislations lay down the objectives and to what extent the Constituent Assembly debates shed light on the intent of affirmative action.

My take is that affirmative action's purpose is to provide adequate representation in positions of leadership for underrepresented and weaker sections of society. As a consequence of SC quotas, today we have a nascent Dalit middle class.

Opponents argue that even Ambedkar wanted a time limit on quotas and envisaged a limit of 10 years at the time the Constitution was being drafted. The counter to this argument is that Ambedkar wanted a time limit merely on reserved electoral constituencies, not reservations in jobs and education, whereas the opposition to quotas is primarily in jobs and education. In any event, we are not bound by Ambedkar's thoughts.

Opponents also use double standards. If asked on a Monday morning whether Hinduism condones casteism, they will provide a charitable intepretation to Rig Veda's Purusha Sukta, to Gita's hymns and argue that Manusmriti is not central to Hinduism to make the point that Hinduism does not support the caste system. If asked on a Friday afternoon whether they support denial of SC benefits to those who profess Islam or Christianity, they will take the position that these religions do not support casteism and therefore the denial is appropriate. The trick is to remind them of their Monday morning position that Hinduism is pure desi ghee free of casteism and ask why SC reservation benefits ought to be then restricted to adherents of Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism and Hinduism.

The typical so called middle class Indian laments the downfall of merit when it comes to SCs and OBCs, but is silent about it when it comes to NRI quotas. The notion of "merit" itself is flawed and cannot be merely what gets easily measured as score on an exam.

Opposition also has to do with assumptions about a preponderence of intrinsic talent in some groups (usually one's own) and the lack thereof in some other groups. Brahmins and other upper castes of the 19th century would have looked primitive to educated Europeans that Macaulay's 1935 Minute is testimony to. As an aside, Macaulay's 1935 minute itself is grossly misquoted by nationalists, when the truth is that it is a good reform piece.

The third class/division (i.e. those who score between 40% to 50%) was introduced in the 19th century in Madras to enable then first generation college learners to pass and take up Science courses. Most of these first generation college learners were of upper caste descent. Prior to the lowering of standards by introduction of the third division, a student needed to score 40% to pass. The introduction of the third division allowed those with a 33.33% score to pass.

Reservation in India predates the Constitution and independence. It was in place in British India as well as some princely states - often the more progressive ones. A cursory glance at regions that have enjoyed a longer history of affirmative action in India shows that they are today better placed economically and socially than other regions.
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Here are some more thoughts that deal with some prior posts in this thread.

Creamy Layer

The issue of creamy layer is an intra-group issue. It becomes relevant only where a quota has been completely met. With SCs that is far from the case with huge backlogs.

Creamy layer is a Brahminical ploy to deny reservation benefits. Let me explain. It is almost impossible for a rickshaw puller son or daughter to get into IAS. Creamy layer restrictions ensure that rules are framed such that it such people with negligible chances who are eligible for quota benefits.

I do not see the poor SCs clamoring for creamy layer restrictions - after all, they are the ones who are affected by creamy layer cornering most reserved seats. The creamy layer restriction proponents are usually upper castes - they dont benefit from creamy layer restriction because it is not as if the unfilled seats are going to be released for the general quota candidates. Yet they propose creamy layer restrictions.

The poor SCs are happy to see one among them make it big. It is no different from upper caste Hindus feeling good when a Vivekananda makes a famous speech in Chicago in the 19th century or a Tagore or CV Raman wins a Nobel prize. The SCs need role models for inspiration as much as upper castes whose self-esteem is enhanced when an upper caste makes it big in a field where Indians showed scant evidence of success.


Historical or current discrimination is merely one of the justifications for reserved quotas. It is true in the case of SCs (former untouchables or outcastes that ranked below the 4th varna of Sudras).

However discrimination is not a necessary justificiation for reserved quotas. In the case of OBCs e.g. Lingayats, Jats, .. these communities were not discriminated against - they were locally dominant groups and still are. Yet a case for reserved quotas for them makes sense because they are underrepresented in the bureaucracy, in key occupations, ...

Enlarge Scope

I support affirmative action even in areas where it is currently not law, in India. I do not see why affirmative action has to be restricted to Govt jobs and education. Why cannot it be extended to private sector jobs? What cannot it be extended to Govt procurement contracts for uniforms, construction, .... and to allotment of dealerships for say PDS/ration shops, petrol pumps, ...?

Legitimate Criticism

Some groups included in the OBC list e.g. Gounders, Naidus, Nadars, ... may have made sufficient progress to be no longer considered backward. The State has a duty to come up with clear criteria for inclusion and exclusion in OBC list and set up a fairly frequent and transparent data collection exercise to see which groups continue to merit reservation. The criteria can be percentage of literacy, women literacy, percentage of college graduates, status of women in the group, ...and how these percentages compare with State averages.
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(17-Jan-2013, 11:36 PM)Cityboy Wrote: A cursory glance at regions that have enjoyed a longer history of affirmative action in India shows that they are today better placed economically and socially than other regions.

Can you please give examples of the regions where affirmative action has had a long history?
(18-Jan-2013, 02:35 AM)Captain Mandrake Wrote:
(17-Jan-2013, 11:36 PM)Cityboy Wrote: A cursory glance at regions that have enjoyed a longer history of affirmative action in India shows that they are today better placed economically and socially than other regions.

Can you please give examples of the regions where affirmative action has had a long history?

The erstwhile Madras Presidency introduced it in 1927. So did the Bombay Presidency.

Among states during the British era, the progressives ones - Travancore, Mysore, Kolhapur and Baroda - had some form of affirmative action.

I could not find one comprehensive link that attests to the above in entirety - a few links taken together do.
One more thought. The claim that reservations allows candidates with low scores (to be distinguished from talent) to secure admission is not one that ought to be conceded without data (beyond anecdotal submissions) about cut-off scores for various categories that supports the claim.

My recollection is that at least in Tamil Nadu medical and engineering admissions, the SC quota cut-off in recent years has been quite high. The cut-offs for MBC and BC categories are even higher. Upper caste candidates and their parents often complain along the lines of "My son would have secured admission, but what can we do when we belong to forward caste". It is pertinent to ask the score of the "bright" son, check if it meets even the SC cut-off for the relevant year, and if it does not, point out that the "bright" son would not have secured admission even if he had belonged to SC.

Added Later

Here is a link that provides recent MBBS admission cut-off scores for Tamil Nadu colleges. Engineering cut-offs are likely lower.

Even SC cut-off scores are in excess of 95%.

Here is a link to engineering cut-off scores.
One other thing to add to this FAQ is the issue of cognitive bias. Specifically, cognitive schemas that make us unconsciously think of group X in one (good) way and group Y in another (bad) way, and how that can cause systemic inequality. Here's where I'm coming from:

On the issue of lack of numbers and professional advancement of women, there is data available that gender schemas play a part. The psychologist Virginia Valian has done a lot of work on this (watch this gender tutorial where she describes her theory along with supporting studies), and here's the summary of her theory from a book called Why So Slow? she wrote on the subject:

Quote:Why do so few women occupy positions of power and prestige? This book uses concepts and data from psychology, sociology, economics, and biology to explain the disparity in the professional advancement of men and women. The claim is that men and women alike have implicit hypotheses about gender differences - gender schemas - that create small sex differences in characteristics, behaviors, perceptions, and evaluations of men and women. Those small imbalances accumulate to advantage men and disadvantage women. The most important consequence of gender schemas for professional life is that men tend to be overrated and women underrated.

Although most men and women in the professions sincerely hold egalitarian beliefs, those beliefs alone cannot guarantee impartial evaluation and treatment of others. Only by understanding how our perceptions are skewed by gender schemas can we begin to perceive ourselves and others accurately. The goal in Why So Slow? is to make the invisible factors that retard women's progress visible so that fair treatment of men and women will be possible. The book makes its case with experimental and observational data from laboratory and field studies of children and adults, and with statistical documentation on men and women in the professions.

Here are some more studies on implicit bias. Also see Harvard's Project Implicit (I recommend taking some of those sample tests if you haven't already - you'll learn something about yourself.)

It goes without saying that this is only part of the reason, and that social systemic forces play a huge part. All I'm saying is, this ought be considered as well. I think this concept of cognitive schemas causing inequality could also be extended to other forms of marginalisation. For example, isn't it a reasonable hypothesis that caste schemas exist, particularly in those people who've been exposed to overt casteism from a very young age? It's entirely possible that such people (both upper castes and lower castes alike) would overrate upper castes and underrate lower castes, even if they think of themselves as egalitarian. And this would then result in the same cumulative effects of advancement for upper castes and lack of advancement for lower castes. Similarly, on the subject of ableism, there might be schemas where we see nondisabled people as competent and people with disabilities - a speech impairment, for example - as less competent. And the same goes for race as well. And so on.

What would affirmative action to solve this problem look like? Valian gives one example in the quote above: make the invisible factors that retard progress visible so that fair treatment will be possible. I.e., we need to raise awareness about these schemas and their harmful effects. This is especially important for schemas which are heavily ingrained right from birth - gender and race come to mind.
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(19-Jan-2013, 05:23 PM)unsorted Wrote: For example, isn't it a reasonable hypothesis that caste schemas exist, particularly in those people who've been exposed to overt casteism from a very young age?

That caste schemas are very much in operation and exert an often unacknowledged influence, can be seen in how many Indians are able to guess the caste backgrounds of strangers at sight or after a moment's conversation. Guesses of the sort parodied here, are not immediately implausible in India due to an endogamous standardizing of phenotypes as it were, and linguistic idiosyncracies associated with insular communities, both of which shape and perpetuate caste schemas.

In India, caste schemas which often intersect with regional schemas, are often not just subliminal but bandied out as conventional wisdom, sometimes even by those who claim to represent the interests of underprivileged caste groups. A case in point is a recent statement by Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav on rural women being electorally disadvantaged because they are 'unattractive'. While there is more than one thing objectionable in that statement, it serves here as an illustration of how pervasive and pernicious unchallenged schemas can be.

Attitudes such as those held by the Samajwadi Party chief perhaps account at least in part for why certain communities are under-represented in show-biz or in visual media such as electronic news. Such under-representation in the showbiz world was highlighted during protests during the release of the Bollywood movie Aarakshan (as reported in movie-related websites here and here), in which Saif Ali Khan was cast in the role of the scheduled-caste student Deepak Kumar. Such casting was a reminder of how Bollywood remains what maybe called an upper-caste and upper-class citadel, and the choice of the 'reigning' Nawab of Pataudi for the role of an underprivileged student was viewed as an instance of Bollywood's refusal to realistically and empathically portray schemas which are too familiar and demonstrably harmful in real life.

Caste schemas contain prejudices not just about appearance, but perhaps more disturbingly, about competence as well. As blogger and IIT alumnus Namit Arora explains here:

Quote:Explain the premise of positive discrimination and see eyes roll. ‘We don’t treat them badly anymore,’ one aunty told me, ‘what are they agitating about?’ Mention the benefits of diversity and question narrow ideas of ‘merit’, only to see hateful fear mongering spew out. ‘Oye, what if a scheddu civil engineer built a bridge that collapsed?’ (‘Scheddu’ is a derogatory reduction of Scheduled Caste, the administrative term for Dalits, formerly ‘untouchables’.) ‘What if a scheddu doctor killed a patient?’ The instinct is to associate low-caste with congenital stupidity. It doesn’t occur to them that the beneficiaries of reservation have to pass the same coursework and training as all others. Besides, they have no empirical data on how many fallen bridges were built by scheddus, nor do they know that Dalit children routinely die due to discriminatory practices by ‘merit’ doctors.[3] What, if not prejudice, makes them assume that scheddus build bridges that fall, rather than corrupt upper-caste engineers who steal public funds and use inferior materials? Nor do they hesitate in sending their own under-performing kids to shady engineering and medical institutes that have proliferated—the so-called ‘capitation fee’ colleges—where the sole criteria for admission is money, not ‘merit’, including obscure colleges in the former Soviet block countries cashing-in on the obsession this class has for ‘foreign degrees’.

The movie Aarakshan (currently available for viewing online), ostensibly about reservations, digresses into issues of access, quality and affordability of education and quite disappointingly, leaves unaddressed questions of the sort raised in this FAQ so far and leaves largely unchallenged the attitudes described by Namit Arora in his posts.
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I recently read this example of a case where reservations did make a difference: a research paper titled "Raising Female Leaders" by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). They did a randomized evaluation of 495 villages in Birbhum district, a largely rural and poor district in the state of West Bengal, to study the effect of the 1993 amendment which requires that one third of gram panchayats be randomly chosen to be reserved for a female pradhan (i.e. only women can run for or be elected pradhan in the reserved panchayats). Their findings are:
1. The reservation policy led to significant electoral gains for women in subsequent, UNreserved elections, but only after two rounds of quotas.
2. Repeated exposure to female leaders changed villagers' beliefs on female leader effectiveness, and reduced their association of women with domestic activities. (However, the reservation policy did not improve voters' implicit or explicit taste for female leaders.)
3. The presence of a female leader in their village significantly increased parents' aspirations for their daughers, as well as female adolescents' aspirations for themselves.
4. The presence of a female leader in the village increased educational attainment for adolescent girls and decreased the amount of time they spend on domestic chores.
The brief goes on to mention the policy lesson that reservation, by increasing exposure to nontraditional leaders, can change voters’ attitudes on the ability of disadvantaged groups to lead.


It's also worth noting that one of the top recommendations of the UN Women's "In Pursuit of Justice" report ( was to "Use quotas to boost the number of women legislators".
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Amitabh Bacchan refused to disclose his caste identity during the latest census, merely stating his caste to be ‘indian”.

Satish Deshpande , professor of sociology at DU, attempts to create a “Biography of the general category” in the April edition of EPW.

Writes Deshpande :

Quote:Having started out at Independence with the common goal of transcending caste – an objective that hardly anyone dared to question publicly and almost everyone seemed to share – we appear to have reached a dead-end six decades later where society is split into two unequal and implacably opposed sections. For one section, caste appears to be the only available resource with which to try and improve life-chances in a game where the playing fi eld is far from level. This section, which constitutes the large majority of the population, includes many disparate groups that nevertheless share an interest in
caste-based politics. For the other section, which is far less numerous and (relatively speaking) much more homogenous,
caste-qua-caste has already yielded all that it can and represents a ladder that can now be safely kicked away. Having encashed its traditional caste-capital and converted it into modern forms of capital like property, higher educational credentials and strongholds in lucrative professions, this section believes itself to be “caste-less” today.

He touches upon the 1932 fast of Gandhi which culminated in the Poona pact which took away the right of separate of electorate for the Dalit nation and the victory of Brahmanism in its defeat at the hands of the Supreme Court in 1951.

Quote:Barely six months after the Constitution of the Republic of India was formally adopted, the Madras High Court upheld in July 1950 the plea of two Brahmin petitioners, Champakam Dorairajan and R Srinivasan, who claimed that theirnfundamental right to equality and non-discrimination guaranteed by the Constitution were being violated by caste and community quotas then in force.3 Although the specifi c order being challenged – known as the Communal GO – predated constitutional reservations, these petitions also had an impact on the new legislation. The unanimous verdict of the full bench of three judges striking down the Communal GO sent shock waves through Parliament when the Supreme Court concurred with the high court in April 1951. The law ministry (then headed by B R Ambedkar) and the government (headed by Jawaharlal Nehru) responded swiftly with the fi rst amendment to the Constitution protecting reservations in higher education with the same special proviso already included for job reservations. The fi rst amendment
was passed in June 1951, less than two months after the Supreme Court verdict, but the state was put on the defensive. In reality the courts had been victorious in defeat. They had managed to PERSPECTIVES Economic & Political Weekly EPW april 13, 2013 vol xlviii no 15 37 fi rmly establish the primacy of the meritocratic norm over the aberrational status of social justice initiatives. At the same time the courts made explicit and endorsed a new kind of agency that the Constitution implicitly offered to the upper castes, an agency based on the universal-normative position of “castelessness”. This was, however, a presumptive castelessness – that is, it did not require the upper castes to “give up” their caste in reality; it simply assured them that they would be presumed to be casteless as long as they did not invoke their caste explicitly. In effect, the new
Constitution forbade the state to name or act against caste-based privileges or advantages as long as they wore the garb of secular modernity. Constitutionally and legally, caste was henceforth to be recognised only as a source of disadvantage or vulnerability, not as a source of privilege or advantage.

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In defence of reservation :
Quick links to Sujai's posts on affirmative action. Read it in reverse order (bottom to top) so that you could get the perfect timeline of this interlinked series.

Reservations and India Inc.

My Stand on Reservations I

My Stand on Reservations II

My Stand on Reservations III

My Stand on Reservations IV

V: Apotheosis of IITs and myth of merit

VI: Hollow arguments from Anti-Reservation groups

VII: Are we dividing our nation along caste lines?

VIII: Are reservations the perfect solution for the problem at hand?

IX: I apologize

X: Visit to IISc

XI: Is there caste-based-discrimination in India?

XII: Corporate Responsibility

Dalits In India: Movie Clip

XIII: How Indian industry discriminates

Can and should Caste be abolished?

XIV: Corporate responsibility- mandatory?

XV: OBC Issue

XVI: Why elite lower castes do not support

XVII: Bad Jokes
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