Meritocracy Becomes Legal

C.B.B. Tilak

The Judgement

What is legal may not be ethical but with the Supreme Court judgement scrapping reservation for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Castes candidates in postgraduate medical education (and probably postgraduate engineering education) it can be known that what is legal is not necessarily in conformance with social justice. The thrust of the legal argumentation is that giving reservation to eligible candidates does not go along with the 'national interest'. The case fought by Dr. Preeti Srivastava with the state of Madhya Pradesh and along with five other cases were considered by a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court constituting of five judges. This gave a verdict against reservations at the postgraduate level in medical education. This bench gave a divided verdict by a majority of the judges (4 out of five) which includes the Chief Justice of India Dr. A.S. Anand. It was dissented to by Justice S.B. Mujumdar as he did not agree with the conclusion which took away the right of state authorities (including the legislature and executive) to alter the norms set for admission procedures by the Medical Council of India. More important he did not agree with the part of the conclusion which links declining standards of education and training to reservation in admission procedures. Despite these important disagreements Justice Mujumdar agreed with the rest of the bench that there cannot be a wide disparity between the minimum qualifying marks for reserved category candidates and the minimum qualifying marks for general candidates thereby diluting the unity of his disagreements and hence giving the verdict a unanimous look. This judgement referred to 24 cases already decided upon and most of the arguments available for and against reservation were considered and commented upon. This judgement is itself going to be an important precedent for future litigation connected to this issue. If the supreme body of legality decides on an important issue of this measure where will aggrieved people go?

The Judgement Judged

It is noticed throughout the world that reservation given to women in education and in employment has helped women as people. In the same way in India reservation given to Dalit-Bahujans has brought observable changes in their lives. Political parties in India have made use of the reservation plank as an election issue. As the Mandal issue has shown, the dominant view opposed reservation policy and has dubbed the pro-reservation arguments as being 'casteist'. But there were different shades within the anti-reservation arguments. Some argued that economic upliftment and rigorous academic training must replace mere reservation in jobs. This went with the identification of the causes of educational backwardness in dalit groups and one such cause given was their poor language skills in English. The problem with these exercises is they are primarily anti-dalit because they never take into consideration the situation of dalits, the domination of the upper caste educated, unchanging caste hierarchy and all kinds of undeclared, illegal 'reservations' implemented on account of caste, region, sex, political pressure and money.

Merit has been a much used concept and there is no merit in doing that. It is well known (and Marxist truth) that each class/caste of people when they become conscious of their being construct those concepts which will articulate their interests, aspirations and expectations. Upper caste ideologues have argued for 'merit' against the recommendations of the Mandal Commission and subsequently because it suits them. It does not require any scientific proof to know that in arguing in certain ways the upper caste ideologues have associated 'merit' with their own castes. The honourable court in its verdict has sided with this class/caste argument of the upper castes.

There is a complete non-difference between the conclusions of the honourable court and the arguments given by the upper caste ideologues. Shall we now be pessimistic and say that the courts in general and the Supreme Court in particular are serving the interests of the upper castes in our country?

If the performance of Indian science in the world is an indicator we can understand how much merit there is in the argument of merit. In terms of the number of scientific institutions run by the government and scientific personnel employed by the government India used to stand 3rd in the world. But if you look at scientific output India was faring badly and was in the 83rd position in the world (this was some years ago). We all know that because of upper caste domination and the feudal culture that exists in scientific institutions there has been only a minuscule percentage of eligible, deserving dalit candidates recruited. If this is noticed in the government figures by implication we know that the part of Indian scientific community which is employed by the government is dominated by upper caste persons. And therefore it is not difficult to place the responsibility for the poor performance of Indian science.

From the above we know that merit is a myth and it has no universal meaning or applicability due to the unequal development of medical and engineering institutions. We have premier institutions like the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences which are urban and elitist and we have private medical colleges without the same kind of infrastructure and without teachers of the same calibre or academic reputation. Even in one sense merit not is understood in the same way nor is it available structurally in the same way everywhere. Equality of opportunity is thrust upon unequals in terms of their training, teaching and situation, which denote problems in public policy and governance. So long as reservation existed (in the way it used to) in admissions to postgraduate medical education it at least acted as a leveler for the structural inequalities that existed. If inequalities exist in facilities that different medical college students get in their institutions and the cultural and social problems that dalits face in civil society are taken into account whatever abstract measures which are conceived as levelers are bound to be better than nothing. No reservation quota of whatever kind has ever been completely filled. In job advertisements one can see a lot of backlog notices concerning reservations which are intended to be filled but never have been completely so. The honourable court did not use the term 'merit' in its conclusions. But the essence of the verdict amounts to giving (at least in degrees) a legal stamp to casteist and upper class notions of merit. With this verdict several of the judgements that different courts have given in the past stand modified. In the eligibility criterion for admission into postgraduate medical education the minimum marks which were kept for ST candidates are now raised from 20 to 25 marks and accordingly the Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Castes candidates will suffer. The Supreme Court did not accept that positive discrimination for a section of the underprivileged groups at the beginning of the academic programme does not affect the standards of medical education.

Just as science holds its cognitive authority by defining its methodology in a similar manner the Supreme Court as the legal heir of the affairs of society - which includes medical science - defines how medical science must be taught in order that it is practised in a better way. Postgraduate medical education is connected to care for the sick so the Supreme Court considers that the lowering of marks for the admission of reserved candidates is tantamount to the lowering of standards in treatment procedures. In this way the capacity to achieve marks in examinations is equated to merit. We have legally sanctioned definitions of 'merit'/how science must progress/national interest and whichever interest falls outside of these definitions is not protected. That is why western medicine cannot recognise Ayurvedic/Unani/Tribal medicinal systems for reasons other than science (status politics). There is a workable analogy between the class/caste of people who dominate western medicine and the people who practiced Indian medicinal systems like Ayurveda. The knowledge of medicinal plants was with people who lived in forests (tribal people), the knowledge about those leeches which may be used to suck bad blood was with fisher folk and the ability and knowledge of using meat in medicines and test excretory substances was with people born of forbidden marriages (kaviraj)/impure castes. Traditionally surgery has been practised by professional barbers who occupy a low place in the caste hierarchy. Because of force of circumstances (historically) if these people are lagging behind (for obvious reasons of appropriation and subjugation by upper castes by banning the learning of Sanskrit formerly and by using their mastery of English today) their getting some advantage through positive discrimination is in the national interest. Many of the upper caste meritorious postgraduate medical students use the national resources and end up as costly doctors or leave the country at the earliest opportunity to earn dollars. Even the reservation advantage given to eligible candidates is scuttled by the upper caste classmates by creating an atmosphere where reserved candidates must feel that they are 'beggars' rather than rightful candidates treated within public policy. Untouchability is banned but it has taken an extended form in the whole of society in which the Supreme Court must be included.

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