People's Democracy

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

Vol. XXX

No. 21

May 21, 2006

Media’s War Against Reservations

In Higher Education


Nalini Taneja


THE manner in which the government has finally responded to the ‘debate’ on the issue of reservations in institutions of higher education was a forgone conclusion, given the nature of our ruling polity and the media’s widespread support to the anti-reservation sentiment. Very much like the promise of 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament, cold feet and the collapse of will occur in the brink of time—and the veritable solution is found, in creating committees that will look into the ‘complexities’ of the issue (further complicate the issue?). Implementation of affirmation action is effectively postponed till some ‘foolhardy’ political leader/leaders decide to give it centre stage again. And the entire unfolding of the familiar denouement could come about yet again.


There may be some truth in the statement that the reservation is being supported—at least in terms of lip service--by almost the entire spectrum of political leadership for populist reasons, with considerations of vote banks, because the OBCs and the dalits form a very large chunk of our population, but it is at least equally true that the retreat comes for equally vote-bank type of reasons. Only the retreat is a bow-down not before numbers, but when faced with power and clout of those who are privileged and rule the world as it were.


The media, supposedly prone to putting forward the ‘complexities’ of any matter at hand—if we are to count the number of visuals and hours given over to the discussion of the anti-reservation stir—has not managed to see the pragmatism and vote bank concerns involved in not implementing the 27 per cent reservation for the OBCs. The media has in fact become disconcerted that the numerical majority is now asserting some power as well!


The media has put its clout unambiguously on the side of anti- reservation, if we are to go by editorials in the print media, discussions on television channels, and the overall content of news and visuals on the matter.


The truth that affirmation action on behalf of the unprivileged is a constitutional obligation is so hidden and so little mentioned, except by some political leaders interviewed, that even most agitators are not aware of the 93rd amendment, which is now Article 15(5) of the Constitution. It has also been pro-active in promoting the argument about erosion of merit. Every television programme on the issue has counter posed reservation to the principle of merit—and with justice heavily weighted in favour of merit rather than social equity. Equal opportunity is presented as synonymous with an ‘open’ competition for admissions, disregarding how in actual fact these institutions are closed for the majority of even those considered educated in this country. As Prof. Vaidyanathan, a former member of the Planning Commission, has pointed out in a write –up: “Most of the youth who are in higher education institutions, or aspiring to join them, belong to the top 5 or ten percent of households. Aspirants for higher-level professional courses are even more concentrated in this class.”


The issue of merit posed and supported by the media confines the terms of the ‘debate’ to a discourse of the ruling classes. It does not start form the premises of the disparities and inequalities that exist, and which affirmative action is supposed to address. It starts from the opposite premise, and subverts the democratic agenda by painting a picture where the new privileged of the mediocrity rules the roost and the able are rendered marginalised. This is nothing but a conjuring up of visions that have no basis in facts or reality.


‘Open’ entry which debars the majority from participation is defined as openness and equal opportunity, while opening of the doors for the majority is presented as closing the doors to equal opportunity.


Affirmative action against caste preserves is presented as concession to casteism or promotion of casteism, while the agitation against affirmative action gets away with calling itself “Students for Equality”! The same students, among them women, are never asked why we still (justifiably) have women’s colleges, with women teachers, separate lines for women, reserved seats for women and so on, and that they must look at discrimination and disparity in a broader framework than just encompassing gender, which the women’s movement in fact does.


The creamy layer argument is allowed to run unchallenged, ignoring the fact that the Supreme Court directive had brought in economic criteria considerations into the matter already, and that it is only the creamy layer of any caste that anyway manages to get into these institutions even as things stand. For the creamy layer to be transcended we need a common school system, a cause which the media has by and large not supported. It has argued in favour of privatisation which sabotages any chances of higher education being available to anyone not belonging to the creamy layer.


Merit is defined in terms and conditions favouring the privileged. There is no cognisance of the relationship between money and admissions in the debate, although it is an open secret—discussed at other times even in the media—about huge money paid for admissions, not to speak of huge sums that go into tuitions and preparations, the legitimate expenditure unaffordable by majority. There is no mention that affirmative action is only for admission and that once in, all students have to pass the same exams and are subject to the same examination process. Time and again people are allowed to get away with statements that we would have doctors and engineers who will not know their jobs or will not be qualified or competent. What competence itself implies is never subjected to scrutiny. And so on.


One can see that the agitation against reservation has not assumed the proportions it had in 1990. Student organisations and the political leadership of this country have learnt a lot since then. The dynamics of politics is under greater pressure from the democratic forces in many ways, despite neo-liberalism and the globalisation process and the Hindutva forces. There is a popular pressure for inclusion, even as there is the elite pressure for exclusion in a context of shrinking resources.


The bourgeois political leadership of this country seems to have realised this somewhat, even if not willing to give in, but not the media. There is a reason for this. While the political leadership is subject to popular pressure, the democratic electoral process in a positive sense, and accountable to those who elect them, knowing they could be thrown out, the ownership pattern of the media guarantees that the media remains a preserve of, and reflect ruling class concerns. Its own social composition tells a lot.


Therefore, rather than a watch dog for democracy, on this issue the media has been egging on an agitation that epitomises self interest over social interest. Rather than arguing for or promoting reflection, it has been contributing to falsifying and narrowing the terms of the debate. It is also ensuring that those participating in the anti-reservation protests rather than being given opportunity for genuine reflection are lulled into believing they are fighting for equality, and a higher moral ground. On this issue the media has not even thought it necessary to maintain a neutral stance; it has come out openly as the arm of the ruling classes.