With Affirmative Action, India’s Rich Gain School Slots Meant for Poor

Gardiner Harris, New York Times, October 7, 2012

The two women both claim that affirmative action cost them coveted spots at elite public universities. Both cases have now reached the Supreme Court.

One of the women, Abigail Fisher, 22, who is white, says she was denied admission to the University of Texas based on her race, and on Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court is to hear her plea in what may be the year’s most important decision. The other woman is from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and two weeks ago the Indian Supreme Court ordered that she be admitted to medical school pending the outcome of a broader court review.


Though the outlines of the two cases are similar, differences between how the world’s two largest democracies have chosen to redress centuries of past discrimination are striking. While affirmative action in the United States is now threatened, the program in India is a vast system of political patronage that increasingly works to reward the powerful rather than uplift those in need.

Indeed, the caste-based affirmative action here raises questions for nations like Brazil and Malaysia that have adopted anti-discrimination programs that are in some ways similar to India’s. Without diligent judicial oversight, experts say, the efforts can help perpetuate inequality rather than redress it.

In Tamil Nadu, for instance, 69 percent of university admissions are now set aside for what the state has determined to be “backward castes.” Many of those favored with these set-asides have controlled Tamil Nadu’s government and much of its resources for generations, but they claim special status by pointing to a caste survey done in 1931. (Ms. Gayathri, 17, is a Brahmin whose parents are civil servants with modest incomes.)

Five prominent university officials in Tamil Nadu said in interviews that those given set-asides at their institutions were generally the children of doctors, lawyers and high-level bureaucrats. The result is that rich students routinely get preference over more accomplished poor ones who do not happen to belong to the favored castes. {snip}

India’s caste system was created nearly 1,500 years ago to organize occupations in a feudal agricultural society. Those at the bottom of the system, now known as Dalits, were forbidden in some places from even allowing their shadows to fall on those at the top, known as Brahmins. Most castes were deemed “backward,” which meant that they were consigned to menial jobs.

Over the last 30 years, however, India’s economy has been transformed, much of its populace has moved from villages to sprawling cities, and once distinct castes have been scrambled. That has led to the erosion of historic differences in education and increased income mobility within castes in India, recent studies have found.


Nonetheless, quotas have transformed the taint of “backwardness” into a coveted designation.

The Gujjars of Rajasthan, for instance, held violent riots two years ago to protest the government’s refusal to declare them as “most backward.” Politicians win elections in India by promising to bestow this one-time curse, which has led to a dramatic expansion in those considered backward decades after the designation had true economic meaning.

Indeed, caste awareness among the young is sustained in part because of set-asides, so a program intended to eliminate the caste system is now blamed by many for sustaining it.

“When I was filling out my college application forms, there was this box for caste,” said Sneha Sekhsaria, 25, of Calcutta. “I had to ask my dad what our caste was, and he had to think about it for 15 minutes before telling me that we were in the general category.”

The general category meant that she received no preference, a fact that Ms. Sekhsaria blames for her failure to qualify for medical school. She went to dental school instead.


But she remains bitter that some of her friends who scored more poorly than she did on entrance exams were able to become doctors even though she and others in her circle were entirely unaware that they were “backward.”

Nonetheless, the benefits that flow from caste quotas have made them popular, and supporting them is one of the few issues on which the present government and its opposition agree. Within the next few months, the Indian Parliament is expected to overwhelming approve a constitutional amendment that would allow caste-based quotas not just in educational settings and in government hiring but also in government promotions.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly tried to curtail the scope of caste quotas, but the Parliament has passed amendments in response to protect and even expand them. The court has ruled that quotas should not exceed 50 percent of university admissions, but Tamil Nadu has ignored this restriction and a case challenging the state’s larger quota has been pending since 1994.

In the meantime, the court has ordered the state to provide extra slots to at least some students who contest the higher quotas, including Ms. Gayathri, who has been admitted to Tirunelveli Medical College. {snip}


D. Sundaram, a retired professor of sociology from Madras University and a longtime member of Tamil Nadu’s now-disbanded Backward Classes Commission, defended the state’s quotas by saying that even three generations of wealth and power cannot reverse centuries of backwardness.


To be sure, many Dalits and people from tribal backgrounds are still overwhelmingly poor, and even many critics of India’s caste-based quotas acknowledge that set-asides for them may still be worthy.

Ravi Kumar, general secretary of a Dalit political party in Tamil Nadu, agreed that many of those who benefit from the state’s vast caste-based quotas are wealthy and powerful. But his party supports quotas, also known as reservations, for the wealthy “because if we opposed them they would stop all reservations,” Mr. Kumar said.


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  • crystal evans

    From what I read once, caste is not as big of an issue as it once was. Now, the amount in one’s bank account is more important than what caste a person comes from.

    • IstvanIN

       But it means something if the government will give you something because of it.

  • jedsrael

    If SCOTUS “takes a shameful step backward” and finds for Fisher, Affirmative Action is still secure and supreme.

    The case is to determine a technicality about Texas’ usage of the Top 10% from each school getting a guaranteed spot.  

     SCOTUS can find against that program and for Fisher, and Diversity is untouched in all its other powers, profits, preferences, and privileges.

    A victory for Fisher is not a victory for us, and will only hurt us more as the Diversity mau maus their outrage to get mo’ dat free stuff and funding from White college administrators.

    A Fisher victory means that MSM, especially FOX, will have weeks of “black commentators and social justice adovcates” screaming hysterically about fire hoses and german shepards and “taking us back”.

    You will see Civil Rights icon and living legend John Lewis break down in tears on live TV and be loviningly and tenderly comforted by 100% of the Whites Only studio who “affirmatively demonstrates” their commitment to Civil Rights by supporting Rep. Lewis “during one of his most trying hours”.

    We’ve been sick for so long, our symptoms are automatic and instantly predictable.   Whites will fall in line and start weeping over the “historic injustices against the suffering Other in our midst whom we have wronged for too long”.  

    White fathers will shout on TV, “If my White daughter can’t sit next to a buck nasty Diversity in class, then I just don’t want to live in America any longer”.

    White mothers will cry on TV that, “How will my White daughter give me a black grandbaby now that our beloved and transformation Intergation is over?”

    Just as Jared Taylor’s speech at Towson University was more of a net plus for black power than for the White Student Union, because black will get more funding to make amends for “anti Diversity hate on campus,” a Fisher victory will be a net loss for White privilege.

    Has anybody seen her? Is she a hottie? Needs love?

    If you are a White Nationalist, you want Fisher to lose. Anything that keeps showing White Humanity how much we suffer and that no one coming to our rescue will be an Unintended White Consequence.


    • crystal evans

      Fisher could have graduated from University of Texas if she attended another school for two years and transferred in as a junior. Many students do that. Why couldn’t she?

      • jedsrael

        UT proved that it didn’t want her when declining her admissions, therefore, she had no reason to expect they would protect her from the Diversity Curse on campus if it later admitted her on a technicality.

  • .

    Affirmative action never helps the real “underprivileged”. It nearly always helps middle and upper middle class people who are lucky enough to check the right boxes. Harvard and Yale aren’t scouring the projects looking for black applicants. They’re looking for middle and upper middle class blacks.

  • IstvanIN

    Affirmative Action anywhere is almost impossible to kill.   Please like getting something for just “being”, like an Obama phone.

  • CourtneyfromAlabama

    Comments like this irritate me. Just because other races put their own first, that doesn’t mean they are smarter than whites, or that whites are “backwards” and “mutant”. If that is the case, then why doesn’t most of the nonwhite world have higher IQs than us? Showing a basic animal instinct of defending your own doesn’t make you smarter; even blacks do that. In a way, it makes sense that the same race that put a man on the moon is also the race that spends so much time worrying about global equality. Can we please stop insulting our own people on this website?