People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 34

August 21, 2011




Aarakshan – Indian Education


R Arun Kumar


IT is unusual for this paper to carry a review of films. But that does not mean there were no precedents. The film Aarakshan, on its cinematic merits might not warrant a review in this paper, but the subjects dealt by it certainly deserve. It deals with two important issues concerning Indian education – one, as the title indicates, reservations and two, the commercialisation of education. The title, it appears, is only to attract audience to the theatres and rake in profits (the raison d'etre of capital invested by Reliance), by raising curious apprehensions and controversies. Be it may another Bollywood formula. It should be appreciated that education, as a concern, is attracting the attention of our film makers, be it Taare Zameen Par, 3 Idiots or now Aarakshan.


The film explodes into action with the Supreme Court judgement legitimising 27 per cent reservations in 2008. One serious drawback of the film is that it fails to specify the limited scope of this far-reaching judgement. This judgement in favour of the legislation for the implementation of 27 per cent reservations for the OBCs is confined only to the central government institutions – IITs, IIMs, AIIMS and the like. In many states, reservations for the OBCs were already in vogue, tuned to the specificities of the respective states. The judgement, moreover, does not give its consent for the implementation of reservations in private self-financing institutions whose numbers are growing by the hundreds.


The film starts from a completely wrong premise, or as a dialogue of the chief protagonist of reservations in the film, Deepak Kumar (Saif Ali Khan) goes, 'the starting line for the race itself is different'.  The basis for the plot in the cinema grows from one particular scene, where the beneficiaries of reservations, semi-naked (reasons unknown) march in a huge celebratory procession to the college whose principal is Prabhakar Anand (Amitabh Bachchan) and in which all the chief characters are involved, either as faculty or students or trustees. This scene is used to show that the beneficiaries of reservations are 'provocating' the 'others' who are not covered by the scheme of reservations. This is contrasted with a scene depicting the demonstration of those against reservations – a meeting explaining their position. This is quite contrary to what had happened in the aftermath of the Supreme Court judgement. As far as one can remember, there were no 'huge pro-reservation celebratory rallies'.  On the contrary, what one had witnessed in fact are the limelight hogging, antic filled, anti-reservation demonstrations. This factually incorrect representation questions the sympathies of the film maker.


To the credit of the film makers, the arguments for reservations are good, well put forth by Saif. Any rational human being, sensible to the plight of fellow humans would identify oneself with the socially discriminated and deprived of our society. It is they who toil hard, often at the cost of their lives, to build our country. Celebrating 64 years of independence, how can one be blind and mute to caste-based discrimination prevalent not just in our villages but even in our elite institutions? According to a study, since 2007, 18 dalit students have committed suicides in our IITs and AIIMS. The reason: unable to tolerate the harassment just because they were from 'lower castes'. In those institutes, run on tax-payers money (majority of which comes from the huge amounts of indirect taxes paid by these very toiling unprivileged sections) they are not allowed to dine with the 'higher castes', play carrom-board, cricket, basketball and share the same wing in the hostels. The least we speak about the academic harassment, the better. These are our 'elite institutes' unmasked! The film only skims some of these inhuman practices.


Some facts, quite important in the debate on reservations are not mentioned in the film. The government after enacting the legislation to provide 27 per cent reservations for OBCs, decided to stagger its implementation. This staggered implementation was supposed to be accompanied by an equivalent rise in the number of seats available for the open category students. Rs 17,270 crores was sanctioned for this entire project. The film poses the questions of equality (reservations) and quality (commercialisation). What it should have also posed to really answer the above two questions is about the quantity.


Any discussion on such important issues necessitates the government, which is surprisingly absent in the film, barring the one corrupt minister, a 'caricature politician'. The arena where the entire drama of this film unfolds is a private, non-profit, charitable educational institution established by a powerful woman, Shakuntala Thakral (Hema Malini). It is naοve to think that expansion of education or for that matter equality in education is possible under the aegis of private educational institutions. It is upon the government to ensure that 'no one is denied of higher education because of his or her socio-economic background'.




The film rightly raises the question of coaching classes and their omnipresence. The evolution of residential coaching centres in Andhra Pradesh would be a revealing study in the concentration of capital. The phenomenon of residential coaching centres had started in the late 1980s. By the mid-1990's they had mushroomed, of which eight emerged as market leaders. These eight, called corporate colleges, had multiple branches in multiple cities. In another ten years, many small residential centres were 'forced' out of the 'market': many of them either 'acquired' by these eight or closing out unable to bear the 'competition'. By the middle of the first decade of the new century, only two remained, eliminating even the other big-six. These two institutions spread their tentacles to 14 states in the country, and in Andhra Pradesh alone coach at least 40 per cent of the +2 students. Their estimated annual turnover (aptly termed!) is around Rs 3000 crores. Thanks to these institutions, education now is blessed with new terminology – corporates, market, turnover, stakeholders, etc. It would be interesting to note that this monopolisation in education had taken place in the overall background of the implementation of the World Bank dictated neo-liberal policies in the state.


Controlling this behemoth is not as easy as has been depicted in the film – the powerful woman with noble and charitable intentions dials the chief minister of the state, asks him to call back the government officials who had gone to raze the free-coaching centre, (hero's answer to the commercial institutes) and there ends the matter. Neither would they end by just starting remedial centres for the educationally backward students. These can be curtailed only by understanding the reasons behind the mad rush to these institutes in spite of their exorbitant fees and unscientific teaching methods. The reason: eagerness to gain access to the limited seats available in the few quality institutions in our country. Every year 2,00,000 students apply for 77 seats in AIIMS and 4,68,000 apply for 9618 seats in the IITs! Without acknowledging this huge gap between aspirations and availability, we cannot discuss reservations – it would be pitting one against the other. This problem can be overcome only by increasing the number of seats available and ensuring that quality is not compromised.


It is true that the government has started few new IITs and promised to start six new AIIMS-like institutions. These measures by themselves are not sufficient to meet the growing demand for higher education. According to an estimate, at least Rs 9 lakh crores are required to increase the number of students in higher education from the present 13 per cent to 30 per cent. The government has allocated only Rs 81,000 crores, which is less than one per cent of the requisite amount. Recently, in a startling revelation it was found out that the entire money sanctioned for the expansion of education, the Rs 17,270 crores mentioned above, was returned unspent. These facts just reflect upon the priorities of the government and its unwillingness to assume social responsibilities. The government instead, wants to leave the field open for the private and foreign players to reap super profits cashing in on the dreams of the students. This is neo-liberalism in education.


Can we expect the private institutions to ensure social justice or equality in education? Without a binding legislation, private institutions have refused to implement the reservation policy, putting out the nearly 63 per cent of higher education institutes out of bounds for the majority of the SC, ST and OBCs. The government is not serious to enact such a legislation and in its draft Foreign Education Providers bill, has exempted foreign institutes from adhering to the policy of reservations. And if anybody harbours an illusion that quality education can be found in private institutions, the World Bank itself, in one of its reports, states that they are the worst culprits.


In order to ensure equality and quality in education, it is imperative for the government to play a more predominant role. It is upon the government to ensure that private institutes adhere to norms for providing quality education and implement reservation policy. For this to happen, the government should shun neo-liberal policies. Only then can commercialisation of education and the reign of coaching centres be halted. Otherwise, the situation would benefit only the few who can afford, as Manoj Bajpayee says in the film: 'Sir, even reservations are for our benefit, it increases the competition and thus admissions in our coaching centres'.


To tackle the questions posed in the film – reservations and commercialisation – one need to understand the relationship between equality, quantity and quality (the eternal triangle) and the role of government in education system. The film makers lack precisely this understanding which gets reflected in the moral dilemma of Amitabh Bachchan when posed the question, 'are you for reservations or against? There is no middle-path'. Can we expect the film, which shows a glossy dalit basti, to take this approach? It should, if it is a 'realistic' cinema addressing a 'social issue'.


PS: In the concluding scene of the film, a Pandit helps Shakuntala Thakral in lighting the lamp inaugurating the remedial classes institute. Why not Saif? Why does not Saif go to mobilise the youth from his community instead of Deepika? Does it in any way point towards the bias of the film makers?