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Rohith Vemula’s Death & the Dichotomy of Reservation

17th January, 2016 : PhD scholar Rohith Vemula, a dalit (Scheduled Caste), committs suicide in Hyderabad. Rohith was doing his PhD from the Hyderabad Central University (HCU). For more information, here’s the Wikipedia page on him.

      Rohith’s death led to massive protests in the university and across the country. The protesters blamed everyone from the HCU authorities, the MP from the region (who also happens to be a minister in the Govt. of India) and the Union Human Resource Development minister for his death. Politicians of different hues paid visits to the city and empathised with the victim’s family/stoked political fire. The issue provided the ever-hungry media with a pretty big topic to fill the primetime news slots and cry itself hoarse. Concurrently with this issue going strong, there came the news of Mahesh Balmiki, a 2nd year Mining Engg student at IIT-BHU in Varanasi, who had to drop out of his studies, resort to try selling off his kidney and even contemplate suicide because he couldn’t pay off a ₹ 2.7 lakh (₹ 270,000) loan that his family had taken for his studies.

    There are sections of Indian society who struggle to make ends meet, who have the dreams and the ability to touch the sky but whose social and economic realities clip their wings before they even start learning how to spread them. Open Facebook any day and you’d get at least one post on casteism and/or government’s reservation policy in your feed. The posts trolling reservation are generally of the theme that those in Unreserved category have to do all the hard work and still end up with nothing while those in reserved category, particularly SCs and STs, get to enjoy all the privileges without so much effort as having to break sweat. This is a thorny issue in today’s India and divides public opinion right down the middle. And the support or rejection of this particular viewpoint is quite easy, not to forget a passionately debated topic. In my own experience, I have seen guys from all sorts of caste backgrounds, from the higher castes as well as from the bottom of the caste-ladder, having to struggle because they couldn’t finance their studies. I have also seen students from the OBC/SC/ST (let’s call them ‘reserved’) communities who come from affluent families, spending thousands of bucks on their wardrobe and gadgets while waiting eagerly for the government’s scholarship that they receive every year, not for their academic brilliance, but for their background. I don’t think I’ve ever met a person from a well-to-do ‘reserved’ family who has refused to take the reservation/scholarship. Morality applies there too, although a call for that’d probably fall on deaf ears. I spent my childhood in a state where I guess 100% of the native population qualifies as Scheduled Tribes. Yet, seeing the lifestyle and resources of quite a few of them you’d maybe pity the so-called upper castes. Cars, bikes, lavish homes, designer wardrobes, you name it, they got it!
If you’re wondering what point I’m trying to make, it’s that my grudge is with the educational system that forces brilliant people from disadvantaged backgrounds like Rohith Vemula and Mahesh Balmiki, among countless others from various caste groups, to either drop out from their studies, letting their dreams die a premature death, or end their own lives because of the discrimination that they face continuously, day in and day out. 

     This week, all of India celebrated the nation’s 66th Republic Day. We have taken massive strides in almost every sector, and we are much stable both politically and economically than many of the developing nations. But it is a shame for our country when  incidents like the ones mentioned above happen. What we’re doing for our weaker sections still leaves a lot to be desired. Go to any place in rural India, at least in northern India, and you’d find that the dalits have their houses in a separate region of the village, almost like a ghetto. You’d also find that the dropout ratio among kids from these communities is among the highest. Apart from that, most of these kids are from families that are at the bottom of the economic chain, working as farm or construction labourers and barely being able to manage two square meals a day. I accept that you would’ve come across some people from these communities who are, in one word, affluent. But not every ‘reserved’ family is rich, and so too, neither is every family of other, unreserved castes. The policy of reservation, which was introduced on a short-term basis after independence to help the historically-oppressed castes gain a measure of equality and level-footing by giving them preferential treatment in various sectors, has dragged on and, in its present form, is obviously imperfect in that it supports people based on their caste, not their actual economic condition.

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A lot of the people from the socially and economically backward families, irrespective of their community, have to supplement their studies with low-paying part-time jobs, like Rohith who had to work as a construction labourer and a catering boy. His story is heart-wrenching and cruel. See this here as to how the woman he called “grandma” used his mother and his siblings.

We need strong legal and constitutional framework to ensure that no Rohith has to lose his life anymore as also that an effective way forward, driven by strong political will and taking into account the concerns of  the majority of the population, is chosen by the legislature to get out of the current mess of reservation that, while helping the needy of some castes, ignores some others, and in doing so, discriminates against the equally deserving among them, creating what some call reverse casteism.

If reservation is to stay, which it seems it would considering that no political party would like to antagonize its vote base from the reserved communities by abolishing the policy, I propose the following measures.

1) Like most governmental policies and programs, reservation needs to be better monitored the whole way too, although it might sound a bit unwieldy at first but if the state puts its might behind the procedure, it is feasible. People who misuse it – government officials clearing the documents and people enjoying the benefits alike – should be penalised heavily, either through jail terms or cancellation of their jobs or at least heavy fines.

2) Citizens from reserved groups, who are financially well-off and don’t need the cushion of reservation to further their studies/careers, should try to refrain from taking its support. I know this is highly subjective and depends a lot on an individual’s own sense of responsibility and need, but shouldn’t we try to make a start rather than just mulling about the what ifs?

2) Lastly, and this is of paramount importance, it should be something that helps students regardless of the caste that they are born into, depending just on their economic conditions and merit. Otherwise, quite a few times, the benefits of reservations don’t reach the target group of the oppressed classes, instead being devoured by the same privileged people again and again. The benefits should reach every deserving person, whether he’s a General/OBC/SC/ST candidate. Early Vedic period emphasized karma over birth which simultaneously made a lot of common sense and preceded the cruel monstrosity of the caste system.

Let common sense prevail again.

Share your thoughts on reservation and its various issues in the comments section. And as usual, I don’t mean to offend anyone with my personal views. They are just that – views! 🙂

Thanks for reading!

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