Eklavya and the merit debate


In striking down reservations in specialty and super-specialty posts in medical colleges, the Supreme Court may be endorsing a worldview that ignores the complexities and context behind affirmative action.

By Ram Vilas Paswan and Abdul Khaliq

In its recent judgment striking down reservation in appointment to faculty posts in specialty and super-specialty courses in medical colleges, including AIIMS, the Supreme Court referred to the poignant story of Eklavya in the Mahabharata. Eklavya was a tribal boy who tried in vain to be accepted as a disciple of the great teacher, Dronacharya. Thereupon, he set up an image of the master, and through rigorous self-discipline, was able to master the art of archery even better than Dronacharya’s favourite pupil, Arjuna. Dronacharya was displeased, and when Eklavya declared that he was willing to offer anything in his power to the guru, Dronacharya asked for Eklavya’s right thumb. The devout disciple immediately cut off his thumb and gave it to Dronacharya. He was thus unable to compete in the archery contest, which Arjuna won. The counsel who invoked the story observed that the lesson to be learnt is that there are many Eklavyas today who would possibly outshine those belonging to the higher echelons of society if given the opportunity. However, the more important message is that it symbolises the inequality and deprivation that generations of Dalits have endured. The question is, what would have constituted equal opportunity for Eklavya after his dire sacrifice? This is the crux of the debate over affirmative action in favour of Scheduled Castes/ Scheduled Tribes.

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who fought ceaselessly for the depressed classes against the might of the colonisers and the Indian power elite, was prescient when he observed: “On January 26, 1950, we will be entering into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life, we will have inequality.” In a society of glaring disparities, our founding fathers recognised that social and economic justice would remain a pipe-dream so long as the lot of SCs/ STs was not improved drastically. Hence the various provisions, such as Article 46 of the Constitution, which enjoins upon the state “to promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people and in particular of the SCs and STs, and protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.” This sacred pledge should rightfully be among the foremost obligations of every governing institution. As interpreter and protector of the Constitution, the courts cannot escape proactive engagement with this commitment.

Caste discrimination is still rampant in 21st century India. That attitudes have not changed is evident in the unrelenting atrocities perpetrated on Dalits in various parts of the country even today. It is not only untouchability and violence that afflicts the Dalit community, but also inequality in schooling, employment and income. Given their miserable plight at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, it is only reasonable that Dalits are provided jobs and benefits in government proportionate to their numbers in the population.

The sad reality is that even in the limited sphere where SCs/ STs are beneficiaries of affirmative action, the statistics of Dalits in various tiers of the hierarchy are a damning indictment of the system. There is not a single judge in the Supreme Court from the SC/ ST category. Of the 749 high court judges, not more than 20 belong to the SC/ ST community. There are only two SC/ ST officers among the 280 secretary-level and equivalent posts in government. In contrast, SCs and STs constitute 45.5 per cent of the total safai karamcharis or sweepers in the Central government, in keeping with the centuries’ old practice of the Dalits being assigned the lowest jobs. The dispossessed still have a lot of catching up to do in an unequal society.

In striking down reservations in specialty and super-specialty posts in AIIMS and the like, the Supreme Court has endorsed the argument that merit and excellence cannot be compromised in highly technical fields. Curiously, the judges treated a general, omnibus observation of the constitutional bench in the Indira Sawhney case regarding the inadvisability of having reservations in various specialised posts, such as pilots, technicians, scientists, medicine, engineering, mathematics, et al to be its reasoned verdict — a highly debatable interpretation. Moreover, by observing that “the concept of reservation implies mediocrity”, the court has endorsed a worldview that ignores the complexities and rationale behind affirmative action.

The court has alluded, in detail, to earlier Supreme Court verdicts that have undermined reservation as conflicting with efficiency and excellence. However, there are other Supreme Court judgments that have been equally critical of the elitist perception of merit and efficiency. In K.C. Vasanth Kumar vs State of Karnataka (1985), Justice O. Chinnappa Reddy launched a scathing attack on the “meritarian principle”, and asked, how an SC child, brought up in an atmosphere of penury, illiteracy and deprivation, who scores 40 per cent in a competitive exam, could be considered inferior to a child brought up in the lap of luxury, who studied in the most exclusive schools and colleges and got 70 or even 90 per cent. He makes the point that securing high marks in an exam does not necessarily make a good administrator (or doctor). He observed that while “efficiency is not to be discounted… it cannot be permitted to be used as a camouflage to let the upper classes take advantage of the backward classes in its name and to monopolise the services, particularly the higher posts and the professional institutions.”

Justice Krishna Iyer, in N.M. Thomas vs State of Kerala (1976), was emphatic that “efficiency means… not marks in examinations only, but responsible and responsive service to the people… The inputs of efficiency include a sense of belonging and of accountability which springs in the bosom of the bureaucracy if its composition takes in also the weaker segments of ‘We, the people of India’. No other understanding can reconcile the claim of the radical present and the hangover of the unjust past.”

AIIMS was set up as a model institution of national importance imparting the highest standards of medical education and promoting advanced medical research with facilities of a high order for training of personnel in the various medical fields. For the last five decades, AIIMS had earned the reputation of providing the finest quality of medical services, apart from excelling in medical research and training. During much of this period, reservations have been in place and have in no way detracted from the well-earned reputation of the institute. On the contrary, the egalitarian, caste-diverse and socially sensitive work ethos nurtured in the institute has ensured that its first and foremost concern is the ordinary citizen.

In a social milieu riddled with all forms of discrimination against the most vulnerable section, is it fair to curtail reservation for Dalits on the tenuous and questionable grounds of merit?


Author: madhubaganiar

Madhubaganiar loves to write on social issues especially for downtrodden segment of Indian society.

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