Diverse in India: Controversial Film Addresses Affirmative Action in Indian Higher Education

HYDERABAD, India —  Rajesh, a 31-year-old banker, and Ganesh, a 20-year-old engineering student, did something here recently that was banned in other parts of the country until this past Saturday when they both went to see “Aarakshan,” a controversial movie about the contentious class-based quota system in India’s institutions of higher learning.

Both men also have something else in common that is highly relevant to the brouhaha sweltering around “Aarakshan”: Their college education was both directly impacted by the quota system dealt with in the briefly-banned movie, although in divergent ways.

In short, the quota system kept Rajesh out of the college of his choice and ushered Ganesh into the university of his choice.

Ironically, both men say they dislike the Indian quota system, even though the latter benefited from it personally and will probably do so again in the future.

In many ways, the stories of Rajesh and Ganesh show that India’s disposition toward class-based quotas in higher education in India is much like the United States’ own uneasiness and conflicted views toward race-conscious affirmative action in higher education.

Recall the words of United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing the majority opinion for Grutter v. Bollinger, otherwise known as the Michigan Law School affirmative action case, when she said: “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”

If the United States has 17 years before it scraps race-conscious affirmative action in higher education altogether, then it is a small wonder that India, while much older as a society but much younger than the United States as a democracy, finds itself wrestling with the role that preferences should play in bringing about parity in higher education. This is particularly poignant in the context of a caste-based system that extends far back into Indian social history.

For Rajesh, the Indian quota system, referred to as “aarakshan,” a Hindi word which means “reservation,” kept him out of the college of engineering at the highly regarded Andhra University in Visakhapatnam, and forced him to study mathematics there instead.

Asked how he felt about not being able to study the major of his choice because of the reservation system, Rajesh directed his criticism inward, saying he was “embarrassed” for not getting a higher score on the entrance exam among his non-reservation peers. But he also seemed resigned to his fate as a non-engineer, as if he got sent down a different path for a reason.

For Ganesh, he said the quota system enabled him to get into Sagi Ramakrishnam Raju Engineering College (SRKR engineering college), which is affiliated with Andhra University.

Ganesh related that as a result of the reservation system, he got half his tuition money refunded after he graduated this summer with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering.

While Ganesh said he didn’t feel bad about getting his spot at SRKR nor the refund based on the caste system, he, nevertheless, said he opposed the reservation policy based on principle.

“I don’t think it’s a good thing, even though I benefitted from it,” Ganesh said during an interview at the Prasads Entertainment Complex.

“Even if it is beneficial to me,” Ganesh said of India’s quota system in higher learning, “some people will lose.”

At the same time, Ganesh said he planned to pursue graduate studies at one of the Indian Institutes of Technology, and that if he got a seat at an IIT school through the reservation system that he would take it. He noted that his entrance exam score still counts in the relative scheme of things.

As for the movie, both Rajesh and Ganesh said they enjoyed it. They and others seemed to take away different themes from the movie.

Among other things, those interviewed said the movie emphasized the merits of free education for all, regardless of caste position. Others said it seemed to suggest that quality of education was being eroded by the emphasis placed on memorization of facts over critical thinking.

The movie appeared at Prasads Entertainment Complex on Sunday, a day after India’s Supreme Court ruled that states could not ban a movie just because officials thought it might incite illegal behavior.

Given media accounts of the movie’s plot and context, the dramatic scenes from the movie directed by Bollywood film director Prakash Jha seemed reminiscent of movies such as Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988) and John Singleton’s Higher Learning (1995), which both tackle issues of race and class on America’s campuses.

It shows the struggle between the upper and lower class in India” as it relates to reservation in higher education, said Gauri, a native of India who works as an international marketing specialist and travels frequently to major cities in the United States.

He said while some university officials in the movie said they only wanted to admit students with the best test scores, others opposed such a position because it would mean India’s universities would not reflect all segments of Indian society — similar to the ones about diversity and affirmative action in the United States.