Despite decades since the inglorious end of colonial rule, some of the icons of colonial Britain continue to stand tall in British academia. Recently, a group of students in Oxford belonging to former colonies organised protests to remove references in the curriculum extolling former colonisers such as Cecil Rhodes. Toppling of the statues of colonial figures in India was the low-hanging fruit that post-independent India claimed with glee as a mark of their independence. In the early days, the US-led invasion of Iraq post-9/11, was symbolised by the images of Saddam’s larger than life statue being brought down with not a little help from American heavy equipment. But now one does not get to see that image often in the Western media since liberation has had unintended (though predictable) consequences. On the other hand, the IITs have been part of a silent revolution without the drama of toppling statues.
Toppling of the statues of colonial figures in India was the low-hanging fruit that post-independent India claimed with glee as a mark of their independence.
Reservation in admissions to academic institutions in India, including IITs are mandated by law and have been implemented with occasional outbursts of protests. But no political party that is a serious contender for power in the country or even in a state, has dared to publicly oppose this effort at affirmative action. In the early years, there was little public attention paid to this apparent violation of the holy cow of meritocracy, even if there were murmurs of anguish and much hand wringing in private. The Mandal provision of reservation for more caste groups did raise a public storm of sorts, but, without political patronage, it fizzled out. The recent episode in IIT Madras concerning banning of a students’ forum (Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle) was perhaps a weak attempt to put people in their place by taking advantage of the touchiness of the present government to criticism. But when the MHRD refused to be drawn into the controversy, the institute quietly, and wisely, withdrew the ban.
The Mandal provision of reservation for more caste groups did raise a public storm of sorts, but, without political patronage, it fizzled out.
The latest JEE results saw the national media high-lighting the performance of candidates from the so-called ‘reserved category’, who had fought the twin odds of poverty and disadvantage. It is not as if this is the first time that children from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds have made it to the merit list. But now we are ready to celebrate it as a triumph of talent over socio-economic handicap, not decry it as a dilution of merit. This is not to say that all is well. But we seem to be starting to confront the demons in our social structure. These are the demons that must fall in IITs.
For those of us who look at US universities as models of meritocracy, it would be enlightening to read an article by Ron Unz, the publisher of the American Conservative, in the December 2012 issue of the magazine. The article entitled, ‘The Myth of American Meritocracy’ looks at admissions to Ivy League colleges over the years. In the 1920s, faced with increasing number of Jewish applicants (escaping from anti-Semitism in Europe) with high academic performance, the Anglo-Saxon elite who controlled the Ivy League colleges, revised the admission policy to include non-academic criteria in evaluating an applicant. As a result, the number of Jewish students admitted to Harvard dropped from 30% of the class in 1925 to 15% in 1926. This number remained almost steady till the end of the Second World War, after which the Jewish lobby acquired clout and forced the colleges to dilute the non-academic criteria that worked against the new immigrants from Europe. In the 60s this was reversed to accommodate the demands for more representation for minority groups. In recent times, Asian-Americans find themselves in the same position as Jews of 1920s and 1930s. The average SAT score of Asian-Americans admitted to Ivy League colleges is 140 points higher than that of Whites, which is 310 points higher than that of Blacks. He concludes that the admission system is an arena for ‘covert ethnic warfare’. We in India of course know that well. What he recommends as a replacement for this complex and biased system, should provide food for thought to JEE fans. The system he recommends is a mix of merit and chance!