That reservations encourage “mediocrity” & discourage “merit” is a highly atrocious claim. In recent months we’ve seen a large uptick in its expression. I was moved to write this after a particularly misleading monologue by TV presenter Palki Sharma. The essay uses evidence from the history of the medical profession to inspect this oft-made, offensive claim.
It was published on Dec 3rd, 2021 on the India Forum. Here is the link, and below is an excerpt:
Philosophically, this is not a spectacular revelation. The absurdity of the claim that scores in exams and interviews are sufficient to help us identify the “best” doctors, scientists, or bureaucrats has often been called out in the past. The Mandal Commission report, for example, said that “what we call merit in an elitist society is an amalgam of native endowments and environmental privileges.” The political theorist Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd dubbed conventional merit as a brahminical version of merit, “based upon imported textbooks and mugged up reproduction [and] recitation, as a Hindu priest does in a temple.”
But myths are frequently more powerful than facts; so powerful they even kill people. Myths around reservations and ‘merit’ have caused the institutional murders of many of India’s young, including medical students and resident doctors who were stigmatised, taunted, and harassed by seniors and professors. Despite plenty of real-world evidence to the contrary, many influential persons from privileged-caste groups continue to exclusively equate Dalits, Adivasis, and Shudras (the ‘reserved category’) with ineptitude and incompetence. Among the many insults which the colleagues of Payal Tadvi — a resident doctor from an Adivasi background who died by suicide in 2019 — subjected her to was the barb: “People like you are only worthy of being clerks” (my translation). What is most worrying is that many privileged-caste adults socialise kids and teenagers into assuming this false equation as the “natural” order of things. Such deplorable socialisation was evident last year when a privileged caste college student felt they were doing the right thing in ranting against an Adivasi professor and saying that people like her were ‘meritless idiots’.