Waking the sleeping dog: caste, excellence and finding the right answers

back to issue

SO much has been written and said about reservations, at least in the media, that one would think that the central questions would by now have become crystal clear. Unfortunately, while there have been informed contributions of the highest quality, the debate so far has proved as inconclusive as it has been heated. Amidst a cacophony of voices ranging from those of manipulative politicians making holier than thou speeches, to the natural concerns of an ‘upper’ caste who see a few coveted seats becoming ever more distant, it is increasingly important to ask the question – is there a real social problem for which reservations might be a solution? Or is the quota system an instance of terrible policy born from populist politics?

Unfortunately there seems to be little or no substantive, quantitative research into the long-term effects of the quotas that are in place. As a consequence, arguments on both sides have been based upon the rhetorical devices of anecdote and thought experiments. It is no surprise therefore, that it is hard to change opinions. In that context to simply argue ‘for’ or ‘against’ reservations in an absolute sense is to venture into unknown territory without a map. The purpose of this note is to try and define the problem better and to suggest what we might need to look for in order to assess how successful we have been in reducing caste bias.

So What’s Not to Like? Let us begin then by examining some common criticisms of the quota system. The first, and most oft-heard, is that reservations destroy merit – images of incompetent doctors, useless engineers and inept lawyers are regularly trotted out as a dire warning of what will happen once anything other than an examination is allowed to determine admissions. The justification provided for this is the fact that students getting in through quotas tend to have performed significantly worse in entrance examinations and often perform worse in internal evaluation as well.

A second objection made against quotas is that they do not reach the truly poor and instead are gobbled up by a creamy layer which is economically reasonably well-off and, therefore, should supposedly not be benefiting from biased selection policies. Once again, there is no dearth of anecdotal evidence trotted out by anti-reservation activists, all of whom have stories to tell of SC/ST students who drive up to college in fancy cars, talk on expensive cell-phones and wear designer clothes. The images are exaggerated of course, but the underlying point deserves to be considered.

The third argument is a suggestion that it is not necessarily reservations that are bad, but reservations based on caste. Surely (goes the line of reasoning), we should prefer seats for economically backward sections of society, rather than specific castes. Since poverty is a problem that cuts across caste lines, why are we not talking about caste-neutral reservations on the basis of economic status?

The Fly in the Ointment: Now these are serious criticisms and are so persistent because to a large extent they seem individually true. As a recent student from one of the IITs, in my personal experience, it is true that SC/ST students (with a few exceptions) tend to have done much worse in the JEE.1 Within IIT, as well, many of them have low grade point averages. Similarly, it also seems true that students getting in through quotas are often not poor and a large number come from middle class families. Regrettably the statistics necessary to prove these statements with authority are unavailable, because institutions such as the IITs and IIMs have consistently argued that they are caste neutral and do not keep these records. However, there seems to be widespread agreement that the performance of quota students is cause for some concern and that the ‘creamy layer’ phenomenon does have some basis in fact. Let us, therefore, examine where logic leads us once we proceed a little further.

Hidden within these critiques is an inherent self-contradiction, and one that lays bare a real problem in our society. If the academic performance of students belonging to certain sections of our society (the so-called backward castes) remains poor, even though they are not economically badly off and even though they are a subset selected through intense competition (for even the quota seats are very hard fought prizes), then surely there is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

The very fact that the students who tend to avail of quotas (and as is observed, tend to under-perform academically) are not being held back by economics alone, points to the fact that caste as a constraining factor cannot be ignored. Sadly it seems to be true that for certain groups in our society some professions and institutions remain unwelcoming and difficult, not because they lack money, but due to deeper, more subtle biases in the roles we as a society see as ‘correct’ and ‘fitting’ for different people. This is an entirely different problem from that of economic backwardness and it is this difference that lies at the heart of the rationale for reservations. There is also evidence that these caste divides are marked (see Table 1), and more, not less so, in richer, urban India.



Percentage of Graduates in Population Aged Over 20 Years


Rural India

Urban India

Scheduled Tribe (ST)



Scheduled Caste (SC)






Hindu OBCs









Hindu Upper Castes



Other Religions



All India Average



Source: Reproduced from Deshpande and Yadav, ‘Meeting the Challenge of Mandal II’, The Hindu, 22 May 2006. Data from 55th Round NSS Survey 1999-2000.


It is important to realize when talking about higher education, in particular of the few institutes of excellence, that there is an acute shortage of supply. It will astonish nobody that the ability to pay for a good private school, specialized coaching and every book you might need will translate into better marks in examinations. It is thus no surprise that the creamy layer benefits from quotas; indeed it is the relatively well-off who make up the overwhelming majority of general seats as well. The issue being tackled here is not the huge dilemma of how to educate and provide opportunities for the poor in our nation. Instead the problem is one of a concentration of societal power and prestige that make it easier for certain students to do well, by virtue of who their parents are and what their surname is.

In its essence this is a problem similar to the low representation of girls in these institutions. Across caste lines and irrespective of economics, families tend to provide more support to boys studying to get through these hugely demanding entrance examinations. Engineering and the sciences are seen as ‘male’ subjects and professions. The result is that women are a tiny minority in many areas of study and often perform worse in examinations, not because they are less intelligent but because the support structure and expectations from society they have to contend with are very different from that enjoyed by boys.

This kind of phenomenon is not particularly unique to India. A great deal of work has been done by sociologists in the United State,2 on the pressures and expectations that surround African-American teenagers and how that affects their career choice and performance. Steven Levitt in his best-selling book, Freakonomics, talks about the strong correlation between the performance and success of children, and the values and professions of their parents. Both these examples only serve to highlight the crucial role that underlying attitudes in society have on the choices and performance of children.

The Nature of the Beast: What reservations in our ‘institutes of excellence’ will achieve, therefore, is not to uplift the Indian poor (if for no other reason but that a thousand seats is a drop in the ocean). What they might do though is reduce an artificial segregation and concentration of power that occurs along caste lines amongst the middle and upper classes. It is this distinction that is of fundamental importance to the debate. The problem of poverty and a consequent lack of access to good higher education is one challenge. The issue of caste and the fact that, even after accounting for wealth, there seem to be differences in access is an entirely different one. This is not to say that there is no relationship between the two, or that the same person cannot suffer on both counts. However, it is possible that a section of the community may have wealth and still be disadvantaged by caste, or alternatively be poor and held back primarily by economics. The problem with the ‘creamy layer’ argument against reservations is that reservations are not a way of addressing the problem of poverty. That is a huge challenge and requires change at every level of education from primary and secondary school upwards. It requires more and better schools and a state that is able to provide the fundamental right to education to all its citizens. Reservations on the other hand, are meant to address caste discrimination. They may or may not be a good way of doing this, but to talk about the creamy layer as a flaw is to miss the point.

The Arithmetic of Ability: This is a good point then to address the question of merit. The commonly made argument that quotas dilute merit is seductive but inherently flawed. Since a number of students benefiting from quotas are more middle class than poor, they are likely to have had a reasonably good education at the school level. It is also true that even the quota seats are fiercely contested and successful candidates are an extremely motivated group. When we make the statement that merit is being diluted what we are actually referring to is relative performance in examinations. Yet grades and marks are strongly dependent on social and family backgrounds and only have a very broad relationship to actual ability. If at all, it is far more likely that reservations based on economic background might dilute this intangible notion of merit. In the case of poor students, there are real inputs in their primary and secondary education that are absent, and there are real disadvantages in terms of access to resources. Backward caste students from an economically affluent background have at least the benefits of a good school education and a strong basic educational grounding. They are also less likely to be held back by the expense of books or educational aids.

American colleges have a far less taxing style of examination than the IITs. Yet there is no doubt that some of the best engineers and scientists in the world are produced from universities in the United States. Indeed, while a number of remarks are made about the poor performance of the ‘backward’ castes, it is interesting to note that within the IITs, students admitted from outside India (under the Direction Admission of Students Abroad programme) and exchange students, also do extremely badly in internal examinations. Unless we plan to argue that SC/ST students, US and French exchange students and Indian expatriates of different castes, are all somehow intrinsically lacking in merit, it seems far more likely that students sometimes have lower grades, not because they have no ability but because of strong cultural and social factors. In the case of the policy of reservations the attempt is to ameliorate the socio-cultural constraints arising from the factor of caste.

The Evidence We Lack: Having distinguished between the central issue that reservations seek to address and other problems (such as poverty) that our country suffers from, the question to ask is whether this is the best way forward or if we need different kinds of affirmative action. One possibility, provided by Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande,3 is the use of a Deprivation Index that seeks to combine caste and poverty into a unified measure. They suggest using such an index in combination with an academic assessment tool, such as an entrance examination, to determine an overall score to be used for admission.

In itself this is a good starting point because it at least allows for a more nuanced approach. The idea is far from being immediately usable however, because determining how we should assign weights to different factors is dependent on actually obtaining data on the efficacy on quotas as they stand today. It would be helpful, for example, to know the caste composition of students and faculty in our schools and universities. We also need information on the economic background of applicants and their scores in entrance examinations and internal evaluation. Finally, a study of how quota students were placed after graduation and if possible, the career progression of a random sample over the first few years, would greatly inform this debate.

There are serious questions about whether the quota system is the best way forward, how long reservations are needed and how their effectiveness can be measured. In order to do this we need comprehensive studies and clear indices against which to measure the effectiveness of quotas. It is in laying out this methodology that institutions such as the Knowledge Commission could have contributed (and it is to be hoped they will eventually do so). In the midst of sensational protests and emotive arguments made by our politicians, medical students, doctors and the media, we desperately need academics to bring a little more depth to the issue, with or without Supreme Court intervention.

In the ultimate analysis, the protests on the grounds of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences highlight, more than anything else, the utter failure of the state to provide enough quality higher education (or to allow private enterprise into this area). It is somewhat ridiculous that reservations in an institute such as AIIMS, which admits a mere handful of students every year, becomes somehow emblematic of a removal of options. In fact, with or without quotas, there are far too few good options for children of any caste in India today. Let us hope then, that through this clash between extreme positions on either side of the reservation issue, we may end up answering some of the important underlying questions as well. And perhaps if we are truly lucky, the ugly upper class/caste divisions that have been laid bare by this episode will end in a greater understanding and catharsis, rather than further divisiveness.

Anant Sudarshan


* Acknowledgments are due to Arundhati Katju for a number of stimulating discussions and for suggesting many of the central arguments of this article.



1. The Joint Entrance Examination, the entrance test for admission into an Indian Institute of Technology.

2. See, for example, Kirk A. Johnson, ‘The Peer Effect on Academic Achievement Among Public Elementary Students’, CDA Report No. 00-06, May 2000, Heritage Center for Data Analysis.

3. Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande, ‘Meeting the Challenge of Mandal II’, The Hindu, 22 May 2006.


Fine tuning reservation policy

THE first census operation in India was carried out in 1901 under the astute leadership of W.W. Hunter. Subsequently, when Hunter was inking a book on his experience of conducting this gigantic task, he noted a peculiar feature – the tendency among a large number of Indians to record their names in the caste list of the census operation as backward. Initially, he was taken aback by this peculiar propensity when the more prominent intention of most of the countrymen was to rise in the local caste hierarchy in terms of rituals and social status. Hunter soon understood that the intention was to attract government sponsorship and patronage, both in terms of cash and kind. The British government responded accordingly and formalised the concept of declaring lists of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes entitled to attract protective discrimination.

The introduction of the reservation policy does have a long history and some natural justification. But politicisation of caste and casteisation of politics is largely responsible for turning many educated urban Indians into vociferous opponents of the prevailing reservation policy of the Union government. The protest essentially draws its clout from educated urban Indians, some even calling it a movement of (rural) Bharat against (urban) India. At this moment, however, it is not possible to shelve the reservation policy as it enjoys substantial consensus both within and outside the Parliament, at least in the political class. Not a single political party has dared to challenge the reservation policy, which incidentally is a constitutional pledge.

Notwithstanding the juridico-administrative compulsion of the government to implement the reservation policy in letter and spirit, a more rational formula must be chalked out to prevent the formation of a ‘creamy layer’, which is actually impeding the programme of solace in the form of protective discrimination to the dalits comprising the SCs, STs and to a large extent the OBCs. Indian society witnessed the emergence of a creamy layer soon after the process of implementation of the reservation policy, owing to the fact that the families who benefited did so repeatedly, leading to the formation of a group of advantaged within the disadvantaged. The losers stand to be loser perennially. In this situation a rethink of the reservation policy is a must.

The government should declare that the reservation policy which was introduced to mitigate the social, educational and economic disadvantage of the dalits, should have the scope of obtaining sponsorship only once for gaining admission in educational institutions – whether in primary, secondary or at the higher level, but not in various phases of one’s life. Attainment of recurrent government support on account of garnering the same privilege was one of most important reasons behind a discernible rise of a creamy layer. This has made the reservation policy a matter of concern for the general public. Moreover, the intention behind the reservation policy was to ensure a level-playing field for the perennially disadvantaged social strata. This required a push factor from the government to emancipate them from their age-old fetters of backwardness. But it is not clear how an extension of reservation policy for gaining access to super-speciality educational courses is in consonance with the avowed mission. If anything, the consensus among the political parties in Parliament has foregrounded the divergent articulation of interest of a common Indian on the one hand and the average political party on the other.

Be it in gaining access to centres of learning, or getting economic dividend either in terms of jobs or soft-term cash loans, the same principle needs to be pursued. A suitable law needs to be drafted by the Parliament to formulate a national policy so that a member of a backward community can access such an opportunity only once. For example, those who are fortunate enough to have got a job by virtue of reservation policy should not have the scope to get any government sponsored soft-term cash loan for self or any member of their family. Moreover, a constitutional amendment should be introduced to debar a particular beneficiary getting a job from deriving post-entry promotional facilities on the basis of a backward card. It is a matter of substantial concern in many of the government and quasi-government organizations when beneficiaries of protective discrimination policy not only prevail on the basis of their backward identity but encash further post-entry service promotions by dint of caste-based quotas. As a result, a great divide is often created between members of the forward and backward castes working within the fold of a single organization.

Getting recurrent promotional opportunities within the span of a particular person’s service career was not possible previously. But a mandate of the apex court modified this decision and instead opened up the floodgates, enabling members of the backward castes to reap additional benefits. Such misuse of the protective discrimination policy has now made members of the forward castes raise their voice against the policy. Unfortunately, this expression of frustration by a large number of educated, deserving students against the reservation policy seems to have resulted in widening the cleavage between the advantaged and disadvantaged sections.

A scrapping of the reservation policy is neither possible by virtue of national consensus within the Parliament nor desirable on humanitarian considerations. It ought to continue for some more years till education and jobs are universalized. But the government has to modify its populist stand and make protective discrimination available only once – once for getting a berth in an educational institution and again, once for deriving economic advantage. Each member of the backward community at the time of his or her birth should be given a PAN-type beneficiary card in which each benefit needs to be incorporated and the same should be put on a website so that each and every member of the backward community can access information about the benefits that are being received by a particular beneficiary at the individual level and doled out by the government at the national and regional level.

This will make both scrutiny and monitoring of benefits received by a particular beneficiary more transparent. This will also lower if not wipe out the creation of a creamy layer within the beneficiary strata. Such fine-tuning of the reservation policy is now needed for the sake of generating greater confidence and trust among the general masses of India who naturally aspire to get increased opportunity and mobility in their life. In the absence of such measures Indian society is destined to fall apart with a desperate cry for more equality and more justice.

Samit Kar


The OBC quota and the ‘new economy’

IS this ‘total recall’ Mandal 1990? Should we, once again, pose the debate as that of merit against caste? Is it possible to argue, as was done earlier, that historical injustices can be addressed through reservations/quotas? Would it be accurate to insist that OBC quotas in IITs and IIMs are an inevitable social correction? Or are we staring at an entirely new context altogether, though stated in the somewhat familiar and tired language about social justice and meritocracy?

If anything, the recent anti-reservation agitation must be faulted for employing the most unhelpful and anachronistic language of protest. Anachronistic, because the OBC quotas this time around are not principally about caste discrimination nor about merit. They are not even about vote bank politics. The OBCs have already arrived as India’s most powerful political class, both North and South of the Vindhyas.

For any understanding of the current situation, therefore, it is crucial to conceptually separate Mandal (part one, 1990) from Mandal (part two, 2006). Part one, as it is now widely known, essentially acted to pry open a window of opportunity for sections of the OBC to make a grab for bureaucratic power – an administrative access that ironically was being opened up just at the point when liberalization or the New Economy was being ushered in.

More significantly, the New Economy was being assembled as the battering ram to simultaneously break down the then prevailing post-independence consensus around the Nehruvian mixed economy and the Congress social alliance (upper castes, minorities and dalits). In many ways, the ferocity and violence that dogged the anti-Mandal agitation (part one) was brought about by the mismatched strengths of the middle to lower middle class upper castes versus the emergent aspirations of a confident OBC elite. Mandal (part one), in other words, represented the birth pangs of a powerful social pincer-like movement – involving, on one hand, the rural OBC elites attempting to move into urban contexts through government jobs, while the second arm was almost unconsciously seeking to harmonize the political dominance of the OBC castes with bureaucratic power. But it is important to underline here that the effects of the Mandal (part one) agitation predominantly facilitated this double OBC movement in North India, as the South had to a fair degree already achieved the political and administrative fusion of its ‘shudra’ castes.

In the almost sixteen odd years following the tectonic social shifts brought about by Mandal (part one), the Indian economic landscape has been aligned on completely new foundations. The New Economy today is on a sharp screeching right-turn away from license-capitalism, command-driven production, economic self-reliance or saving-based consumption. The New Economy is the explosion of high finance, business process outsourcing, information technology, software exports, media, entertainment, corporate health care, consultancies, brokerage, real estate speculation and, above all else, the grasping desire for hedonism and the endless search for the ‘good life’. It is not the economy for the fainthearted. It is not your nine to five working hours and pensionable income. It is about living on the cutting edge of want-driven consumption through inestimable wealth acquisition and vice-versa. The New Economy exists on global time and in global space. An entire generation is now being fattened in feed-lots, reared to work hard, party hard and think advertising. This is life lived as an ad-campaign and designed to respond unequivocally only to discounts and sales.

But the mother of all ironies is that the children of the New Economy have, like never before, also created their own social capital: the cultural endowment of manners, connections and the English language petrified in the pure commodity-form. In other words, in the New Economy doors continue to open for the socially pre-packaged with only the odd straggler let in. In the last sixteen years it is perhaps not wrong to argue that the mysteries of wealth acquisition in India have tended to remain within relatively closed social circuits and cultural loops, notably the predominantly upper castes who cashed in their generational holdings of urban assets so as to become stakeholders in the New Economy.

Meanwhile, government jobs are not only drying up, there has been an incredible thinning in bureaucratic possibilities and opportunity. While it is no longer a monstrously uphill task to make the journey from the rural to the low urban, for many castes it is now almost impossible to climb the final high social walls of the New Economy. The skill sets have changed, the cultural idioms are different and the very image of life has been transformed beyond contemplation. Hemmed in thus, increasingly in northern India the high end of the OBCs have become specialists of politics, the middle rung are contractors and policemen, while large chunks wallow in the depressed rural economy, kept viable mostly through state subsidies.

Put differently, the movers of the New Economy and managers of political infrastructure are rooted in distinct non-overlapping social bases. The elite OBCs dominate politics and the elite upper castes control the New Economy. It is this palpable tension between the domains of the economic and the political that has now boiled over to a ‘tipping point’. For the New Economy, politics must be reduced to theatre and entertainment. Ideally, for high finance the economy should be on auto-pilot. The political class, on the other hand, by being systematically thwarted from acquiring effective stakes in the New Economy, have increasingly become economic predators. In northern India the economic outlaws, in other words, are becoming political Robin Hoods. Mandal part two is essentially playing out the tensions between the narrow social base of the New Economy and the bottling up of political specialization amongst the OBC. If the political does not socially connect with the economic, volatile days are ahead. Caste will soon become the feet of clay of the New Economy and the political will turn upon itself.

Rohan D’Souza


How diverse is our media?

THE recent anti-reservation agitation has once again drawn attention to how often only one side gets a full hearing in the news media. The impression created by the English language ‘national’ newspapers and television (with the exception of Outlook and Frontline) was of a nation, standing as one behind the medical students protesting the extension of reservation to elite professional universities. Regional language media, in southern India, does offer a somewhat less uniform picture, but is not the focus of this discussion.

In some senses this was a repeat of 1990-91, when the media was decidedly one-sided in reporting the fight against the Mandal Commission’s recommendations. Newspaper front pages, day after day, raised the banner on behalf of the anti-reservation agitators. Then, any form of distress in an upper-caste family was somehow linked to reservation. One illustrative news story sticks in the mind after all these years. At the end of what seemed like weeks of news reports of purported ‘Mandal related deaths’, this story laid at the door of Mandal the suicide of a young Brahmin woman, the oldest of four sisters, whose family did not have the means to provide the dowry necessary to find them grooms.

It seemed then, as now, that there was no room for lower decibel voices or anything amounting to a proper debate. Certainly no room for a discussion about designing public policy that could be made to work. It was black and white, for and against, us and them. The arguments being made on the street were the arguments made in the newsroom. There was a certain lack of introspection about why newspapers weighed in for one and not the other side.

At the Times of India, where I had just started on my first newspaper job, some senior journalists concerned about the obvious bias in the media’s response examined the caste origins of the journalists on the companies payroll. Among a total of 300 they found no Dalits, three OBCs, and the rest – ‘twice born’ – Brahmins, Kayasthas, Vaishya and Kshatriyas.

The media’s self-image is one of a fearless and liberal conscience of the nation. And, in the English language media, it is simply not done to look at social origins. The newsroom is a democratic space and, at least in the big-city editions, once you’ve entered this space social origins do not appear to impinge negatively on work or progress up the ladder. But, as the Times of India ‘survey’ found, this self-belief has not been much tested.

In the absence of any proper data on employment patterns in the industry, I did my own (admittedly unscientific) ‘mini-surveys’ at other newspapers that I worked for subsequently. At one well-attended news meeting at the Indian Express in New Delhi in 2001, of the 20 odd people attending there was one Parsi, and two OBCs, one from Andhra Pradesh and one from Kerala. All the rest were upper caste. At The Hindu’s Delhi office in 2004, the support staff (peons etc.) were all upper-caste, as were the computer staff and journalists in the news bureaus, with the exception of two Syrian Christians and one and a half Muslims.

A survey of by-lines in any English language newspaper, and of reporters and news presenters on television, only confirms this trend. The directory of accredited journalists in Delhi, published by the government’s Press and Information Bureau ( is a selective list of Delhi-based journalists (including editors and television cameramen and technicians) who have access to government departments. This list too confirms the anecdotal evidence. For instance, Brahmins with the surname Sharma outnumber OBCs with the surname Yadavs by 67 to 8. There are also 13 Tiwaris, 4 Dikshits, 15 Joshis, 6 Tripathis and 5 Upadhyayas. Apart from caste, this list also reveals that men far out number women and that there are practically no accredited journalists from the north eastern states, apart from Assam.

A short survey, the first of its kind, of the social backgrounds of 315 ‘key decision-makers’ in 37 Delhi-based (English and Hindi language) publications and television channels underlines this fact: they are predominantly Hindu upper caste and male.1 Almost 90% of decision-makers in the English language print media and 79% in television are of the upper castes, although the upper castes are about 16% of the country’s population; Brahmins alone constitute 49% of this segment, and 71% of the total are upper caste men. Not one of the 315 is a Dalit or an Adivasi. Only 4% are OBC, 3% are Muslims (13.4% of the country’s population). Christians do better (4%) as a proportion of their population (2.3%). Women are vastly under-represented, 17% of the total, although they do better (32%) in the English language electronic media.

Does the stark absence of diversity in the employee pool of a newspaper have anything to do with the absence of diversity of opinion in the newsroom? I would suggest that it does. For while a large number of journalists in the English language media will claim to have no consciousness of caste or of social origins in general, this is perhaps because they have not really thought about it, having attended selective private schools and the same state-subsidized metropolitan universities as a right, and have lived and worked among people from similar backgrounds. Except for episodes like the 1990 anti-Mandal agitation or the recent anti-reservation agitation, they may not have had to consider what they take for granted as something that is hard fought for by other groups.

The news media might not so easily have thrown itself on the side of anti-reservationists quoting ‘merit’ as its defence, had its reporters and editorial decision-makers grappled with issues of access in the first place. They would have perhaps left room for a more nuanced exploration of affirmative action policies, how they work and who they fail, had they given themselves occasion for a wider discussion. But wider discussions are not really possible in enclosed groups; they tend to become self-referential. The fact that arguments for and against reservation this time round were no different from what they were in 1990-91 suggests that the worlds may have collided but they still do not overlap.

In the 15 years since the anti-Mandal agitation not one English language newspaper nor TV channel (now channels) has focused on issues of economic development in any serious manner. They have not found it necessary to contribute to a public discussion that might offer alternatives to the caste-quota based focus of affirmative action policies in India. Then as now, one argument against caste quotas, in jobs and higher education, was that affirmative action policies that give equal access at the primary stage made more sense, and that political parties which were really concerned about social justice would take this route.

However, these assertions were not followed by investigations of the state of primary education, the quality of literacy of the average school leaver, attendance or dropout rates and their causes or the job or higher education prospects of the average school leaver. There has been plenty of academic research on these subjects during this period and news reports of these studies have occasionally appeared in the media, but have not inspired the sort of campaigning journalism that might be expected of a purportedly socially conscious Third World media. As far as can be recalled the focus on school education in the large circulation English dailies and on television is largely limited to a slew of seasonal stories about the stress of board exams, the celebration of good results and the competition for university admissions in the metros, balanced by reports of a few suicides by the disappointed.

As the political milieu has become more openly defined by caste and religion, the media has mastered the business of deconstructing party rhetoric, electoral agendas and poll outcomes using caste and religious affiliations and alliances as parameters. The English language media is critical of this trend in politics which has, in its view, reduced the citizenry to ‘vote banks’. Yet, by and large, the majority of India gets media attention only as a vote bank, unless they are part of a story about a natural or man-made disaster or an insurgency which threatens the idea of India.

The national media’s ‘nation’, however, does not quite stretch to incorporate the outlines of the map usually recognised as ‘India’. News of the ‘North East’, with the slight exception of Assam, has a somewhat lower chance of finding space in a major English language newspaper than obscure disputes in the United States legislature, unless it relates to an election, an insurgency or ‘illegal immigrants’. The North East, remains an undifferentiated outpost, more foreign to most Indian consumers of the national media than Europe or the US. Few newspapers have staffers from the north-eastern states, and almost none of the ‘national’ newspaper have staff correspondents in the region. The reason cannot be cost. For, given the salaries paid to non-metro journalists (and the rising profits of most media groups), the salaries and expenses of a couple of hands in Nagaland or Arunachal Pradesh or Mizoram would be small change.

With few and inconsistent exceptions, the English language media does not make the effort, even while commissioning comment articles or opinions from outside the media, to seek diverse voices. While the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman can be read in more than one English language newspaper, only one Dalit writer, Chandrabhan Prasad, has a regular column in one – the decidedly right-wing and minuscule circulation Pioneer. The pool of comment writers and TV talking heads is tiny and the same names appear simultaneously in different publications or television channels. There isn’t even the semblance of public discussion, only predictable posturing. The number who can and do write, with an eye on the bigger picture or on the salience of process over dramatic events or sound-bytes are in single digits.

Does diversity make a difference to what gets reported or debated in the media? One example (and there are not many to choose from) would suggest it does. The entry of women into the mainstream media has had an impact, however small. While women are still a minority in most media organisations, their growing presence in the mainstream media has run parallel with increased reporting on what are considered ‘women’s issues’ – health, work, education, sexual crime and so on. These issues still remain marginal, proven by the fact that a male journalist would never be found reporting on such issues, and that for a woman journalist not to be typecast as a ‘women’s journalist’ she would have to focus on ‘hard news’, like party politics and war. There is only one journalist, Kalpana Sharma in The Hindu, who has a column that deals with gender. But, the fact remains, space in the media for women’s voices that did not exist 30 years ago does exist now.

In the US and Britain, at whose media we still doff our caps (as the inordinate reproduction of comment from their papers in Indian newspapers points to), issues of diversity in the newsroom have been addressed by the media. The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) formally acknowledges the need for diversity in the employee pool for newspapers to fulfil their journalistic and commercial functions. It has also set voluntary targets for newspaper staffing patterns to reflect the diversity of society. It maintains annual records of changes in employee diversity in hundreds of newspapers across the country. Newspapers that have taken these concerns seriously run internship programmes to level out disadvantages of access. Successful interns have the opportunity of employment with the paper. While racial divisions and disadvantage remain big issues in the US, and the media elite is still predominantly white, the newsrooms and back offices are more diverse than they were 20 years ago. The ASNE figures ( show that the percentage of newsroom employees, from ethnic minorities went up from 3.9 in 1982 to 13.8 last year. The most recent ASNE survey, published in April of this year, shows the percentage of ethnic minorities at the New York Times as 19%, at the Washington Post as 22.9% and at the Miami Herald as 35%.

Like the rest of the private sector, media companies in India do not have affirmative action or diversity promoting policies. While questions of diversity and affirmative action in all sectors are sometimes discussed in the media, few have felt the need to shine the torch inwards. The opaque issue of media ownership and the interests that media companies (with 80% of their revenues from advertising) represent is at the heart of this question. It’s a subject much studied in other countries with claims to a free and independent media. In our case we have not even tried to scratch the surface.

If the media, in particular the English language media, is to play its role as the fourth estate in a developing country democracy these are issues it simply must address.

Anjali Mody



1. The survey was designed and executed by Anil Chamaria, freelance journalist, Jitendra Kumar, independent researcher from Media Study Group, and Yogendra Yadav, Senior Fellow, CSDS. It was carried out by volunteers of Media Study Group between 30 May and 3 June 2006.