Sunday, April 27, 2008

What do we teach Young Indians about reservation?

The Telegraph ran a story yesterday about how NCERT's textbooks dealt with reservation. I don't know how you feel about this story, but it appeared to me to insinuate that NCERT is doing something sinister by including a discussion of reservation in its texts. That made me look at the NCERT's social science text for Class VIII. Here are the direct links to the two lessons discussed in the Telegraph story.

It turns out that reservation forms a small part of what these two lessons are really about: marginalization. One lesson -- Chapter 7 -- is about multiple dimensions of marginalization, with the discussion focusing on Adivasis and Muslims. The lesson in Chapter 8 is about ways to combat marginalization, with the discussion focusing on the Dalits and Adivasis. Reservation is brought up within this context, and disposed off in just two and a half paragraphs!

As part of their effort to implement the Constitution, both state and central governments create specific schemes for implementation in tribal areas or in areas that have a high Dalit population. For example, the government provides for free or subsidised hostels for students of Dalit and Adivasi communities so that they can avail of education facilities that may not be available in their localities.

In addition to providing certain facilities, the government also operates through laws to ensure that concrete steps are taken to end inequity in the system. One such law/policy is the reservation policy that today is both significant and highly contentious. The laws which reserve seats in education and government employment for Dalits and Adivasis are based on an important argument- that in a society like ours, where for centuries sections of the population have been denied opportunities to learn and to work in order to develop new skills or vocations, a democratic government needs to step in and assist these sections.

How does the reservation policy work? Governments across India have their own list of Scheduled Castes (or Dalits), Scheduled Tribes and backward and most backward castes. The central government too has its list. Students applying to educational institutions and those applying for posts in government are expected to furnish proof of their caste or tribe status, in the form of caste and tribe certificates. (Many government and educational institutions also ask for candidates to mention their caste/tribe status.) If a particular Dalit caste or a certain tribe is on the government list, then a candidate from that caste or tribe can avail of the benefit of reservation.

For admission to colleges, especially to institutes of professional education, such as medical colleges, governments define a set of ‘cut-off’ marks. This means that not all Dalit and tribal candidates can qualify for admission, but only those who have done reasonably well and secured marks above the cut-off point. Governments also offer special scholarships for these students. In your Class IX Political Science textbook, you will read more on reservations for the backward classes.

As I said, these paragraphs appear in a chapter where the discussion is largely about Dalits and Adivasis. Within this context, they don't have anything objectionable, since SC/ST reservation is an issue that has not been in dispute for over fifty years. I have no idea why the Telegraph reporter chose to use "OMG, look what they are teaching our kids!" tone.

* * *

The preamble to the section on Marginalization connects the subject with what the students have learned before. For example, in Class VI, students learn about prejudice and discrimination; a sidebar features Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, and his teachings. In Class VII, the first and last chapters are about equality and inequality, and discuss the many ways in which the latter operates in real life.

As one moves forward to Class IX, the chapter on the working of institutions discusses how our government operates, using as an example, one of its major actions. Can you guess what it is? You are right: it's Mandal-I and OBC reservation in government jobs!

On the whole, I was impressed with the texts' authors' choice of supporting material: cartoons from around the world, ads and other pop-cultural references, poems, personal narratives, stories. When the discussion turns to the actual subject, however, I found much of it rather uncomplicated and nuance-free (as can be seen from the paragraphs I have excerpted above); perhaps this is because the text's target audience is made up entirely of mid-teens. While one cannot expect a detailed exposition of why a policy of reservation may be opposed by some people, I think the discussion ought to go a little beyond describing this policy as "highly contentious"!

The Class IX text is a bit better, however; it has a paragraph on OBC quota opponents' views and another on how the Supreme Court resolved the Indira Sawhney case. It also features a couple of Amul ads from that era!

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NCERT's textbooks for Classes I to XII are all available online. Check them out!


  1. Jai_Choorakkot said...


    I really didnt catch the OMG tone in that article: at its worst I found
    - a gimmicky headline
    - quotes around hopeful
    - justify used in a couple of places

    its a stretch from here to sinister insinuations. I only noticed the above because of the warning, else it reads OK.

    He covered the crux of the reservation argument in the text by excerpting the centuries of denial.

    Do you feel he should have talked abt cut-off marks in his article and by not doing so, he opposed the policy?


  2. Pratik said...

    On a different note, I would actually like to see some form of reservations in schools, albeit handled with a little bit of sensitivity (e.g. the school authorities should bring out one admission list comprising of GC as well as reserved candidates without pointing out directly or indirectly who came in via GC and who came in via reservations).

    India, fortunately, has a fairly large number of good government schools (800+ KVs and some other schools run by govt enterprises like steel plants etc.), and the reach of reservations here will be much more widespread than 7 IITs and 6 IIMs.

    However, I have a hunch since 5 year olds dont get to cast a vote, and sending a child to school doesnt get an job (in the short run) for the child or the parent the government is not even going to give it a thought.