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A Case for Affirmative Action in the World of Meritocracy

Guest Opinion

Coined in 1958 by the sociologist Micheal Young in his book The Rise of the Meritocracy—describing a dystopian society in which intelligence and merit have become the central tenets of society, creating a society stratified between a merited power-holding elite and a disenfranchised underclass of the less merited—the nightmare of “meritocracy” has become the reality.

Defined as a social system in which advancement in society is based on an individual’s capabilities and merits rather than on the basis of family, wealth, or social background, the system came into prominence with the advent of capitalism and cemented itself after the two world wars when democracy became the norm in the majority of the world. Meritocracy presented itself as the antithesis of aristocracy, where power had been concentrated in the hands of few privileged individuals, who commanded these powers not on the basis of their own merit but on the accident of birth.

But in a world riddled with inequalities, are a person’s capabilities enough? Is the playing field levelled enough? Are the doors of opportunities open enough? In his book, The Meritocracy Trap: How America's Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite, Daniel Markovits answers with a resolute “no”. He offers an eye-opening critique of the system and posits that meritocracy produces radical inequality, and stifles social mobility. He draws these conclusions by studying the composition of students in Ivy League institutions and their varied socio- economic backgrounds.

He presents a vicious cycle playing out in the United States. On average, children whose parents make more than $200,000 a year score about 250 points higher on the SAT than children whose parents make $40,000 to $60,000. Only about one in 200 children from the poorest third of households achieves SAT scores which are acceptable to Ivy Leagues. Further, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale collectively enrol more students from households in the top 1 percent of the income bracket than from households in the bottom 60 percent. Legacy preferences, nepotism, and outright fraud skew the results further to the advantage of the rich applicants. Meanwhile, the top banks and law firms, along with other high-paying employers, recruit almost exclusively from a few elite colleges. So the cycle continues. Markovits concludes that the only way to correct this grave wrong is, among other things, affirmative action.

Affirmative action originally referring to policies and practices to prevent discrimination based on race, creed, colour, and national origin, has now expanded into policies that give historically disadvantaged groups adequate representation in areas of education and employment. In the United States it is based on race, in Europe it is based on gender and in India it is based on caste.

India has the most unique and perhaps the longest history of affirmative action, known as reservation. Unlike other countries, reservation in India is enshrined in Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution, allowing the Indian government to set quotas to ensure that "socially and educationally backward classes of citizens" are properly represented in public institutions. Though popularly the history of reservation can be traced to Shahu Maharaja. He introduced reservation in favour of non-Brahmins and backward classes in the princely state of Kolhapur. Interestingly, the first act of affirmative action was not for the backward castes, rather it was for the Brahmins.

In his article, Why discuss Aarakshan with an immoral upper class? Chandra Bhan Prasad uncovers an incident when Tamil Brahmins petitioned the Governor General that a Third Class be introduced as their children were not able to cross the minimum pass percentage of 45 percent. Consequently, realising the enormity of the problem, a Third Class was introduced and the pass percentage was brought down from 45 percent to 33 percent. Prasad uncovered this incident from a report of the Indian Universities Commission of 1902. In the report, the commission was analysing the matriculation examination results of 1901 as it was worried about the low percentage of students who passed. According to the report, out of the total 21,750 students from all over British India only 7,953 managed to pass – a success ratio of just 36 percent. The report also tells us how the pass percentage was brought down from 40 percent to 33 percent.

It is important to note that this student body consisted mainly of Dwijas – Brahmins and Kayasthas in particular. The untouchables – then called the Depressed Classes – didn’t find any representation in this body. In the first quarter of the 19th Century, British officials undertook an extensive survey of the indigenous system of education to find out how many students there were from the Depressed Classes. “Sir Thomas Munro, the then Governor of Madras, in his survey of 1822, stated that there was no student from the Depressed Classes," says a report on the indigenous system of education. The report adds: “Mount Stuart Elphinstone, the then Governor of Bombay, had carried out a similar exercise in the Bombay Presidency in 1824. He too stated that there was no student belonging to the Depressed Classes in his presidency.”

Comparing the system of Third Class with the current system of reservation, Prasad remarks, “Thankfully, Dalit parents never demanded a Fourth Class for their children, and they didn’t pray before upper caste administrators to bring down the minimum pass percentage to 16.8 percent. They just asked for Aarakshan.”

The case against reservation in India, mainly has three arguments. First, the caste system in India is a thing of the past and reservation perpetuates the caste system. Second, instead of caste-based reservation, it should be on economic grounds. Last and most importantly, reservation kills merit.

On August 23rd, Kangana Ranaut tweeted, expressing her distaste for reservation, “Caste system has been rejected by modern Indians, in small towns everyone knows it’s not acceptable anymore by law…” But a simple Google search and a look at the statistics is enough to know that the caste system is very much alive and thriving in India. Caste-based atrocities take place every hour across India. At least two Dalits are assaulted every hour, and every day, three Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered and two Dalit homes are torched on average. The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, enacted for the protection of SC/ST, has not aided in the protection of these communities. The conviction rate under this act is an abysmal 16.3% in 2017-18, according to data provided by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Interestingly, the Act is often seen as unjust and is often the cause of worry for being misused; but the statistics show otherwise.

It is not uncommon to hear the argument that instead of caste-based reservation, it should be on economic grounds, because rich Dalits take advantage of the policy. Varun Grover, in his article, Vinod Kambli was reduced to his assumed (‘lowest’) caste identity, hits the nail in the head when he writes, “If we are okay with poverty-based reservations then merit is not a genuine concern. That means we hate its bypassing only when a ‘lower-caste’ person gets ahead and not when a poor from our own caste does. That’s casteism 101.”

It is also important to note that the purpose of reservations is not alleviation of poverty-stricken communities, rather to ensure proportional representation of the disadvantaged groups. In the case of India, it was the lower castes and tribes who had been denied access and opportunities in public institutions.

Lastly, coming to the argument of merit. What is merit? It is often defined as the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward. But what makes an individual meritorious? Is it the inherent talent of an individual or their hard work? Maybe a combination of both? On the surface it does seem that hard work and talent is all it takes to become successful; but like all the things in this meritocratic or rather capitalist world, this is a just a farce, concealing the structural inequalities and the systems of oppression. All around the globe, societies are designed and developed to limit opportunities of groups based on class, gender, race, ethnicity, ability, sexuality, and other social markers.

While oppressing one group, the system gives an undue advantage to the other. The dichotomy of the oppressor and the oppressed can be seen in white and black, rich and poor, men and women, upper caste and lower caste. The meritocratic system has been unable to break this system, even though it had been built to promote social mobility. Instead, now it acts as a smokescreen for inherited privilege as can be seen from the vicious cycle presented by Markovits. He terms this as “inherited merit”.

All this not to say that reservation as is operating in India is perfect and above criticism. A panel led by retired Delhi High Court Chief Justice G. Rohini was formed in October 2017 to examine the sub-categorisation of OBCs. According to its finding only 40 out of 5,000- 6,000 (which is less than 1 percent) castes among the OBCs have cornered 50 percent of the reservations benefits. Sub-categorisation seems to be the most logical course of action, with even the Supreme Court giving it a go ahead in its recent judgement. A five-judge bench of the Supreme Court led by Justice Arun Mishra held that states can sub-classify Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the Central List to provide preferential treatment to the “weakest out of the weak”.

But sub-categorisation, as the possible solution for equitable distribution of the reservation benefits, is also fraught with issues. Anand Teltumbde in his Republic of Caste: Thinking Equality in the Time of Neoliberal Hindutva, points them out: how can the statutory 27 per cent (for OBCs) be equitably distributed among 5,000- 6,000 castes? The average share per group would come out to be less 0.0054 per cent. He poses the question, “When and how with such a hare-braided scheme would the weaker castes hope to benefit?”

Teltumbde provides “an amazingly simple solution to such a vexatious problem.” Instead of a “caste-based solution” he states that the nuclear family should be seen as a basic unit. The reserved communities should be divided into two categories of family, those that have availed reservation and those who have not. Reservation should be prioritised to the families that have not availed it so far. The family that has already had access to reservations will now get it only after those who have not availed of it are given access to it.

In the end, in this meritocratic world, strife with inequalities and structures of oppression, affirmative action is the first and the smallest step towards social justice. It is time we give up the idea of winner takes all and gaslighting and blaming victims of oppression for their “failure”. It is time we make far reaching changes in this society to make this world inclusive and safe for everyone.

By Ananya Anand


Ananya is a History major in Hindu college, who hates billionaires and dreams of a proletarian revolution.


1. Grover, Varun. July 12, 2020. Vinod Kambli was reduced to his assumed (‘lowest’) caste identity. The Indian Express: https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/reservation-vinod-kambli-dalits-varun-grover-6501257/

2. Markovits, Daniel. September 10, 2019. The Meritocracy Trap: How America's Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite. Penguin Press: https://www.amazon.in/Meritocracy-Trap-Foundational-Inequality-Dismantles/dp/0735221995

3. Prasad, Chandra Bhan. August 12, 2011. Why discuss Aarakshan with an immoral upper class? Firstpost: https://www.firstpost.com/politics/why-discuss-aarakshan-with-an-immoral-upper-class-60016.html

4. Teltumbde, Anand. January 1, 2018. Republic of Caste: Thinking Equality in the Time of Neoliberal Hindutva. Navayana: https://www.amazon.in/Republic-Caste-Thinking-Equality-Neoliberal/dp/8189059866

5. Young, Micheal. January 31, 1994 (first published in 1958). The Rise of the Meritocracy. Routledge: https://www.amazon.in/Rise-Meritocracy-Classics-Organization-Management/dp/1560007044

By Ananya Anand

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