Caste and Affirmative Action in an Indian College

Caste and Affirmative Action in an Indian College

Shobna Sonpar, a clinical psychologist specialising in conflict resolution, genocide and the violence of India's 1947 Partition, recently spent 3 months at CSVR as an intern. In this article, she shares with us her reflections on prejudice, caste and privilege at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Delhi. She highlights the difficulties of tackling a system of discrimination and dealing with inherited and ongoing patterns of injustice. As such, the "Indian Experience" resonates closely with the debates that surround affirmative action, education and 'meritocracy' throughout the world, including South Africa. Shobna points out that oppression does not only affect those who are discriminated against. Instead, it also impacts on those who benefit by creating a sense of exaggerated entitlement and superiority. When a system of prejudice is challenged, she argues, there is often great resistance to relinquishing privilege and, it is these feelings of exaggerated entitlement, as much as the flip-side of disentitlement, that need to be addressed if equitable social reconstruction is to be achieved.


Caste continues to be an issue that is very alive in Indian society. Newspapers consistently carry reports of atrocities directed at the 'lower' castes. The caste card is also a powerful factor in the way that electoral politics is played. In urban educational institutions, caste may not be dramatically visible; it operates in a subtle but no less damaging fashion.

This article shares experiences and thoughts about caste and privilege in the context of providing counselling to students at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi (IIT), an elite state engineering college in India. Under a government policy of affirmative action, 22.5% of seats are reserved for students from the traditionally oppressed castes and tribes since 1973. All students gain admission after a highly competitive entrance examination but concessionary criteria apply to those eligible to benefit from the reserved quota. This article focuses on the experience and perception of such students, the response of the faculty/management, and their relational dynamics.

In the course of working for over a decade in the Student Counseling Service the dominant themes heard from the reserved quota students were the following:

  1. They faced enormous pressure from family and community to succeed. Very often being first-generation literate, and the first in their families and villages to have reached the portals of higher education, their success signaled a financially comfortable future and a position of influence that would benefit the extended family and community. Being a relational society, it is expected that the fruits of individual success will be distributed. Initially, the students were gratified to be held in such high esteem and proud to be in such a prestigious institution. But soon, anxiety about succeeding, guilt about failure and a sense of being heavily burdened predominated.

  2. They had worked extremely hard through school and for the entrance examination, and their experience after admission was one of continued and unrelenting struggle just to keep their heads above water. They faced multiple stresses and difficulties including coping with a language of instruction (English) in which they were not fluent; feeling lost, alien and intimidated in an urban, globalised environment very different from their home towns and villages; not being able to approach teachers and others for assistance because of anxieties and cultural norms that inhibited them from approaching authority. Most of all, they were competing in the same league with those acknowledged to be among the highest academic achievers in the country. Although admitted on concessionary criteria, they took the same number and type of courses as other students did and were evaluated in the same way. There was no provision for remedial/ bridge courses or extra tutorials. They thus experienced repeated academic failure and in the course of time, a crippling erosion of confidence and hope.

  3. They felt a double sense of stigma. More overtly expressed was the sense of being academically 'outcaste', inferior and 'not entitled' to these highly coveted seats. Less openly expressed but powerful nevertheless, the feeling of academic stigma resonated with the caste stigma that was inevitably a part of their consciousness. Many carried toxic memories of humiliation and hostility from caste-related experiences in the past. Often, minor incidents (not necessarily caste-related) in the present triggered engulfing feelings of shame and anger. They coped primarily by lying low, by being at the periphery of institutional and student life and by affiliating only with others from similar backgrounds. This corresponded with an internal sense of being ignored and being invisible to the rest of the system.

Conversations with faculty/management revolved around the following major themes.

  1. They perceived affirmative action as reverse discrimination and were resentful that their siblings and children whom they felt were more deserving on the basis of academic merit might not gain entrance into the institution whereas aspirants from the reserved quotas might do so despite lower academic achievement. They spoke of the government policy as unfair, as discriminating against the meritorious whom they felt should not have to pay the price for the historical wrongs of previous generations, and as leading to a general fall in standards.

  2. In direct contrast to the students' perceptions of themselves, faculty tended to describe the reserved quota students as not working hard enough ('they are used to taking it easy because they know they have reservations'), being inept, and exploiting their political clout to get away with shoddy work. Adding to the sense of reverse victimization, they said they felt helpless and forced to comply because caste has become a highly politicized issue and there is considerable caste-related mass mobilization.

  3. Some spoke about the need to 'bring them up to the general standard' but did so in insensitive and patronizing ways. For instance, in one of the very few initiatives taken, a national workshop entitled "Workshop on Slow Learners at Regional Engineering Colleges" was held to address the academic problems of reserved quota students. The organizers seemed oblivious to the connotations of the term 'slow learners' and how it was loaded in this particular context.

In practice, the dynamics that were set up between these two categories – student and teacher – fell into various patterns: Very rarely, the relationship was represented as close to the cultural ideal between a benevolent and indulgent superior and a grateful, obedient and deferential student. More often however, the relationship was characterized by indifference and/or an anxious or sullen withdrawal on the part of the student. At worst, the dynamics were characterized by indignant, self-righteous withholding in the face of the student's perceived manipulation of academic leniency through tales of woe, sometimes with an undercurrent of menace (by virtue of the caste political lobby). The teacher was perceived as uncaring and punitive, sometimes with the undercurrent of being a closet 'casteist.'

While much has been expounded on the nature, experience and effects of oppression in terms of disentitlement, discrimination and deprivation, there is relatively little on the subject of entitlement, superiority and dominance. From a broader perspective, some of the dynamics at IIT may be seen to result from a culture of disentitlement (for the reserved quota students) on one hand and a culture of exaggerated entitlement (for the faculty/management) on the other. Exaggerated entitlement derives from a sense of deservingness coupled with a belief in one's superiority (Foster, 1999). Caste and class undoubtedly contribute to an uncritical and unaware assumption of entitlement among those accustomed to the privilege of upper class/caste status. This may be likened to Howard's (1999) description of how white people may be quite unaware of the privileges their whiteness automatically confers. In addition it was seen that in the IIT setting, a belief in their intellectual and academic superiority made for a marked sense of exaggerated entitlement among the students from advantaged backgrounds. It was also the major source of their self-esteem. When this superiority was threatened or challenged, the most frequent reaction was a devastating deflation of self-esteem, often manifesting itself in symptoms of depression. The other reaction by those from advantaged backgrounds was of anger. Often their depression would be coloured by a bitter, contemptuous and other-blaming quality. It is probably such narcissistic rage that emerges in stark and undisguised form in responses to high profile episodes of caste-related collective violence: 'how dare they…!'

The perceived threat to entitlement was a major factor in the nationwide 'anti-Mandal' agitation of 1990 which was led by the 'forward' castes and which contributed to the fall of the government. The protest was directed against the government's intention to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations for the upliftment of the oppressed castes/classes. It was the first time since India's independence in 1947 that an agitation took place on such a wide scale and included the front line participation of the relatively privileged classes, particularly the middle class. The agitation focused almost exclusively on the recommendation to reserve some university seats and jobs for those sections of society identified as 'backward'. Students at IIT, otherwise notorious for their absorption in studies and complete lack of involvement in anything extracurricular, joined the agitation enthusiastically and with some degree of belligerence caused the Institute to shut down for a few days. The agitation rode high on moral outrage – that the implementation of the Mandal recommendations would be the death knell of merit in the country leading to its ultimate downfall and that by emphasizing caste it was actually encouraging and prolonging casteism.

The shrillness of the merit discourse drowned out the facts – for instance, that the proposed reservations boiled down to 5% reservations in central (federal) government jobs and seats in a few universities for people constituting 75% of the country's population, that caste was neither the only nor the most important criterion for determining the beneficiaries (there were 11 criteria that included educational, social and quality of living parameters ranging from primary school drop-out rates, to accessibility of drinking water, to percentage of women married off before the age of 17), and that there were several other important structural reforms recommended including land reforms. The outrage that fuelled the agitation appeared to have arisen from the fact that the Mandal recommendations directly threatened the prevailing distribution of resources that favoured the 'forward' castes and classes. Although implementation of the Mandal reforms had been on the election manifesto of all the major political parties, in actually daring to implement them the government at the time collapsed. As for the students from the reserved quota at IIT; in the months following the agitation several chose to drop-out saying that they would seek readmission by repeating the entrance examination in the non-reserved category. Others who had been faring reasonably well in their studies deteriorated. In sum, the agitation reflected a twist to the 'internalization of oppression' and seemed to have heightened their sense of disentitlement.

At one level caste is a highly visible and vocal issue but at another level it is rendered invisible and talk about it is avoided. The system of reserved quotas begun in 1973 and it was seen that such students fared miserably academically. Many dropped out or were dismissed, most took at least a year longer than usual to complete the program and almost all were on probation for poor academic performance for some if not all of their stay in IIT. Facts and figures about this in a related institution in Bombay were documented and published (Kirpal et al, 1985). Yet it was not until the early 1990s (partly as a result of being badgered by the Student Counselling Service) that the problem was squarely addressed. English language courses were begun for those not at ease in the language and a system was devised that tightened the requirement to meet stated levels of academic achievement and also chalked out a sequence of study that allowed students to take a reduced work load initially but ultimately complete all the required courses to graduate along with their batch. They were also actively guided and monitored by a team of senior faculty members.

Prior to these changes however, typical conversations with the faculty/management would run through the following sequence: any problems that a reserved quota student had was the responsibility of their adviser (the adviser was a single faculty member required to deal with all the problems of all the reserved quota students in the institute); even if such students needed additional academic inputs, the faculty were already too burdened to provide this and furthermore, such students should not expect special treatment forever; their sensitivity should be respected because they were likely to feel further discriminated against if special provisions were made that set them apart; and finally, management had to step very cautiously on any move concerning the reserved quota students because the lower caste lobby is very powerful and always ready to 'create an uproar'. Thus, yet again, the disadvantaged sections ended up being seen as potential persecutors.

Ultimately there is no easy way in the process of equitable social reconstruction. In large measure the difficulties arise from the resistance to relinquishing privilege on the part of those who are socially, politically or economically dominant. Also when a subject is highly emotive and politicized, one kind of reaction is a sort of denial manifesting in a failure to take any action. Unfortunately, such silence may give scope for prevailing notions of disentitlement and exaggerated entitlement to flourish as self-fulfilling prophecies.


Foster, D. (1999). Entitlement as an explanation of perpetrators' actions. Presented at the 5th Annual Congress of the Psychological Society of South Africa, Durban, South Africa.

Howard, G.R. (1999). We can't teach what we don't know – White teachers, multiracial schools. Teachers' College Press. New York: Columbia University.

Kirpal, V., Swamidasan, N., Gupta, A. & Gupta, R.J. (1985). Scheduled caste and scheduled tribe students in higher education – A study of an IIT. Economic and Political Weekly, (Vol. xx, No. 29) 1238-1248.

Unpublished article, September 2003.

© Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

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