Selective indignation

BY Jyoti Punwani| IN Opinion | 02/07/2011
Some kinds of student reservation bother the media. Others don’t. A city like Mumbai has colleges with reservations for linguistic and religious minorities which gobble up as much as 65 per cent of seats.
But few in the media question this. JYOTI PUNWANI’s column.
here’s looking at us
Jyoti Punwani
Cut-offs are making headlines as they do at this time every year. The mad scramble for undergraduate seats in the top few colleges, the tension as cut-offs soar, the comparisons between last year’s cut-offs and this year’s, the analysis of the most sought-after courses…. Day after day, pages are devoted to the annual admission ritual.
As usual, demand outnumbers available seats, because all students want to get into a few colleges. But even within these colleges, just a handful of seats are actually available in the general category. The Times of India (Mumbai edition) published a report on the number of seats available to general category students in Mumbai. Apparently, only 12 % to 32 % of undergraduate seats in most of the reputed colleges are not reserved  and `reserved’ does not necessarily imply reserved for OBC/SC/ST.
A multi-lingual city like Mumbai has the unique phenomenon of reservations for linguistic minorities in colleges run by various communities.  Thus, 50 % of the seats in colleges run by Gujarati, Sindhi, Tamil and other non-Marathi-speaking managements are reserved for students speaking that language. Then there are colleges run by religious minorities, which also reserve 50 % of their seats for students belonging to their own faith.  Minority-run colleges need not reserve seats for OBC/SC/ST students, but have to do so for physically handicapped students, children of members of the defence forces and central government employees with transferable jobs, and students excelling in the arts or sports. All this makes up 13 % of the seats. Added to this is the 5 % management quota. Altogether this accounts for 68 % of the seats.
Many college managements in Mumbai, both minority and non-minority, run schools. Also, unlike Delhi, Stds XI and XII in Mumbai usually constitute the `Junior College’ section. So many colleges reserve 20 % of their seats for students who have studied in their school or in their `junior college’. Thus in a minority–run institution which runs its own school and/or  junior college, 50 % seats could be reserved for minorities and 38 % for other special reservations, leaving only 12 % in the open category.  As happens in all reserved category seats, cut-offs are relaxed for these reserved seats too at management’s discretion. No one has really investigated how low these cut-offs are.
It so happens that some of Mumbai’s most sought-after colleges are run either by religious or linguistic minorities. One would expect a hue and cry about the unpleasant reality that however meritorious a student, s/he can only aspire to a third of the available seats in the city’s best colleges. Surprisingly, even after the Times published a chart showing the number of seats in the `open’ category in five of the city’s reputed colleges (they amounted to just 10 % in one college, run, ironically, by a Marathi-speaking management), there was no furore. Neither did newspapers comment on the unfairness of this nor did students’ bodies or parents.
Remember the furore in the media and the streets over reservations to OBC students first proposed by the Mandal Commission in 1990, and implemented recently in the IITs and IIMs?  Reservations in educational institutions for SC/ST students continue to be hotly debated, with most English-speaking students and journalists opposed to them.
This opposition surfaces every time the IIT JEE results are announced. The Times of India, specially, has often reportedon the low cut-offs for reserved category students aspiring to enter IIT (for students belonging to the Scheduled Tribes and Castes, the cut-off is 50 % that of the general category cut-off).
  This year’s JEE results, out in May, showed that SC and ST students had done rather well, with 120 (of the 1950 who qualified) having made it without needing a relaxation in cut-offs.  The IIT press release pointed out that since the number of successful SC students was more than the seats reserved for them, the IITs would not run the preparatory course for them. This course is meant to fill up reserved category seats by further lowering cut-offs for those who fail to make the grade. The TOI report, citing the press release, added that this wasn’t a new phenomenon; successful SC students had outnumbered reserved seats for the last few years.
But for The Times, this wasn’t just good news; it needed probing.  In a separate article on the success of SC students, the reporter wrote:  ``Sceptics, however, have an answer to why the preparatory programme is being done away with this year. The total number of seats across the IITs has gone up because of the OBC quota; the number of IITs too has risen. `It is possible that the IITs had to pull down the cut-off for filling up all the (general category) seats. And with the relaxation formula a lot of SC students made it. This may have eventually resulted in abysmally low scores for quota candidates after the scores were relaxed by 50%,’ said a former JEE chairman.’’
So, one unnamed expert speculates on the unexpectedly good performance by SC students, which, according to him is actually an abysmally bad performance. His speculation is based on no concrete evidence. Yet, he is quoted in the article!
Does this happen when we report on unexpected success stories of other categories of students? Would we speculate why poor students year after year surmount all obstacles to emerge winners?  Muslim students, who rarely made a mark earlier, have in the last decade, emerged as toppers in all streams in Maharashtra. Have we ever quoted experts saying that the reason for their success is that the competition now is easier?  What makes us take such liberties with ``quota’’ students (``popularly called `prepies’ on campus’’)?     
 Now, contrast this with the silence over the 68 % to 88 % reservations in Mumbai’s colleges, reservations that are not caste-based. There has never been a story on what the cut-offs are for minority students (50 % of the total intake in prestigious colleges such as Delhi’s  St Stephens, and Mumbai’s St Xavier’s, Jaihind and NM Colleges), or for the 5 % coming through the management quota.  This year, a Delhi student was quoted as saying: “If I don’t make it to a Delhi college then I will apply through the management quota in Mumbai colleges.”  The reporter didn’t ask him whether he knew anyone in college managements. Imagine a Dalit or tribal student telling a reporter from the English press: `If I don’t make it through the open category I will apply through the reserved quota,’’ and getting away with such a statement with no questions asked.    
One reason for our easy acceptance of minority quotas could be that it is politically incorrect to comment on reservations for religious minorities. But why should that be so? Non-Muslim religious minorities are not educationally backward. In fact, when St Stephen’s decided to implement the full 50 % Christian quota in 2008, there was a hue and cry, specially from its own faculty. But it was nothing like that seen after Mandal or when Arjun Singh introduced OBC reservations in IITs and IIMs.  
And what about linguistic minorities?   In Mumbai, Gujaratis and Sindhis are seen as rich business communities, hardly in need of reservations. Tamilians, it was said, monopolized key IAS posts in Maharashtra’s capital for three decades after the formation of the State. There has certainly been no discrimination against these groups as such in education. Yet, they are entitled to half the seats in prestigious city colleges.  And no English newspaper comments on this.
Could it be because many of those who work in (and own) the English press, come from these communities? But shouldn't we be concerned about Marathi-speaking Mumbaikars who are left out because of these reservations? Perhaps they aren't.  The really brilliant among them, as among any community, get into the college of their choice anyway. For the rest, there exist equally prestigious colleges where they form a majority. The ambience in these colleges is distinctively Marathi - and upper caste.
So who does get left out? The faceless mass of less-than-80 % scorers and probably non-English-speaking students, who end up  joining nameless colleges far removed form the English press' concern. When we English journalists talk about the lack of `Open’ or `General’ category seats, we refer to seats available to upper caste students (since the so-called lower castes have their reserved seats anyway). Yet, when we discover that these general category seats too aren’t  all that `open’, that they too are reserved, why do we not  get worked up the way we do  over caste-based reservations?  Could it be because it is people like us - upper caste and upper class- who benefit from these other reservations?  Perhaps the easy acceptance is because this reservation for the already privileged forms part of the unofficial reservation that we have lived with for centuries – the reservation of education for upper castes. To quote BP Mandal, author of the Mandal Commission report:
``In fact the Hindu society has always operated a very rigorous scheme of reservations, which was internalised through caste system. Eklavya lost his thumb and Shambhuk his neck for their breach of caste rules of reservations. The present furore against reservations for OBCs is not aimed at the principle itself, but against the new class of beneficiaries, as they are now clamouring for a share of the opportunities which were all along monopolised by the higher castes.’’
PS:The Times' front-page anchor reported on IIT Delhi's bid to ``groom'' SC/St students. The article had quotes criticising this as a form of ``apartheid''. The reporter was the same who has all along done negative reports of SC/ST JEE cut-offs. Just proves the danger of stereotyping any journalist.
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