An Invitation to Beyond Inclusion

– The NotA Collective

Deshpande, S., and Zacharias, U. (Eds.)
Beyond Inclusion: The Practice of Equal Access in Indian Higher Education (1st ed.)
Routledge India (2013)

Beyond Inclusion is one of the shockingly few books about the treatment of Dalit and Bahujan students by our country’s higher education system. Despite what this description might make it sound like, this book is about far more than just reservations.1 It begins with the observation that getting the disadvantaged admitted into colleges is only the first step in what should be a long process, and sets out to study that entire process. This is an ambitious goal, and the editors have gone about it by collecting chapters on a variety of topics, from both social science researchers as well as people in the field.

The ten articles range from pure data-collection on the effects of reservations to simple collections of campus stories from Bahujan students. Since this is an imposingly academic work on an important topic, what we will attempt here is to offer to you an invitation to this book — a guide to what you can expect out of the book if you read it. As such, this article will not try to be an exhaustive summary of this book or a critical appraisal of its strengths and failings.

As already mentioned, this book is a collection of chapters from different contributors, edited together by Satish Deshpande and Usha Zacharias. Each chapter can be read independently, and even reading only the chapters you find most interesting should be a worthwhile use of your time. Overall, one can classify the topics covered into four types,

  1. The theory of reservations: The first two chapters offer broad-brush perspectives on the history of reservations, with particular focus on the ways we as a society have understood it and how those ways of understanding clash with reality.
  2. Practical models of inclusion: Chapters 3–5 talk about the inclusion efforts of various colleges, with particular emphasis on colleges that have gone beyond the letter of the law to support their disadvantaged students in other ways.
  3. Testimonials: Chapters 6 and 7 are collections of stories from campus life, about the trials that Bahujan students have faced in college life. Casual readers will likely find these arresting, heart-wrenching stories the best place to begin reading this book.
  4. NGO programs: Chapters 8–10 describe how NGOs that are not directly a part of the higher education system have set up programs that try to help Bahujan students in ways that have nothing to do with admissions and exam results. Each chapter contains a description of the program and an assessment of its usefulness.

The book kicks off with a chapter that is both the least interesting and the most important chapter in the whole book. It is relatively uninteresting, since in it Satish Deshpande just straightforwardly describes the debate on reservations, pairing it with data. On the other hand, it is extremely important, because of the infantile insistence of our civil society on continuously focusing on reservations instead of substantive questions of equity. The perspective taken in this chapter is not to list counterarguments to reservation and refute them one by one, but to point out that in reality we have to make trade-offs and every realistic policy has some problems that need to be understood with a clear eye. And, of course, the problems with reservation policies are highly exaggerated for ideological reasons. Consider the following fact: in the national conversation on reservation, it is often cast as a special favour awarded to Bahujans — when in fact it is the only concession we offer to the half of our population that our society has oppressed for millennia. It is clear, then, that even the most basic balancing of the ledger is considered an infringement on the ‘rights’ of the upper castes. In this situation, the only policy that even has a hope of working is not one that is aiming for full-blown equity, but one that is easy to enforce. This is just one of the many points made in this wide-ranging chapter. Apart from reading this chapter, we also recommend that you read this mythbuster and this resource kit about reservations to learn some basics about the topic. The next chapter expands on this by comparing the types of education offered to the minority in the ‘general’ category and the majority in the reserved category, relating, for example, the popularity of arts v/s professional degrees to the material conditions of the various groups.

As we must move from theory to practice, so does the book. The next set of chapters studies inclusion in some real-life institutions. Chapter 3 is a short and informal survey on some institutions for higher education that, unlike most others, were begun explicitly with the goals of inclusion. Two of them — Gujarat Vidyapith and Rayat Shikshan Sanstha — were established in colonial times, and while they have continued to have stellar levels of inclusion, their influence and importance have declined. The third one, Adivasi Academy, is a newer college that the author G. N. Devy has some involvement in. Its major innovation is to scrap the usual conception of college as an insulated classroom undertaking, and make involvement with the community an essential component of the program. Such an approach is very in line with our collective’s beliefs that academia as a whole needs to re-politicise itself by engaging with the larger community.

However, it is not enough to study only exceptional institutions; we must also study ‘normal’ institutions. In that spirit, the next chapter studies a medical college, in a so-called longitudinal study. Instead of the ‘cross-sectional approach’ of studying many institutions at the same time, Vandana Dandekar takes the ‘longitudinal’ approach of studying one medical college for the long time-period of 25 years. Being filled to the brim with details, the contents of the chapter are hard to summarise. One finding worth highlighting, however, is that in many reservations went to those who came from poor backgrounds; and this was the only reason they were able to lift themselves out of poverty.

From there, we delve into an interesting alternative model. Chapter 5 is a description of Punjabi University‘s attempts to provide engineering education to the rural area of Punjab, written by two faculty members. It outlines how a program aimed at reaching the rural poor ended up reaching the Bahujans in that area, since the more prosperous rural students were already at the urban institutions. Innovative solutions that go beyond the mandated minimum are possible, and they are rare.

Chapters 6 and 7, working off the same spirit as the testimonials at NotA, are a collection of stories from campus life. These stories are about the barriers that students have faced on the home as well as college fronts. They are very powerful chapters, detailing the mistreatment of these students at the hands of teachers, peers and the administration. Responding to surprise at the level of degradation, one of them dryly asked, “Why do you think the colleges or any public institutions would be different from the outside society?” It seems demeaning to summarise details of these stories here, and we cannot urge readers strongly enough to read the entirety of these chapters for themselves.

Finally, the book moves on from the campus to studying some positive roles that third party organisations have played. The last three chapters deal with the efforts of NGOs, primarily in getting students ready for the new challenges involved in a college education. Chapters 8 and 9 are written by people with high positions in these organisations; in contrast, chapter 10 is written by the academic Usha Zacharias and therefore involves a more critical perspective on these efforts. All three programs use a liberal amount of management workshop gobbledygook, like SWOT analysis, to equip students with the soft skills required for the more professional and westernised environment of college. As Zacharias points out, this amounts to a ‘psychologisation of marginality,’ a translation of social, political and economic disadvantages into quirks of individual psychology; in other words, these programs focus on ‘correcting’ patterns of these individuals’ thought and behaviour to fit an upper class mould believed to be appropriate for a college setting rather than doing anything about the underlying issues causing these differences between disadvantaged and privileged students, or about the reasons these differences of thought and behaviour become a setback. But she also points out that, much as there is to complain about with these programs, they are often the only support that many Bahujan students receive. Therefore, the programs play a crucial role in equipping them for college.

This book, then, covers an extensive set of topics, leaving out many details. But, sadly, this is a necessary aspect of the approach because of the lack of previous books on this subject. One might think that academics would have found quite a bit of time in the last seventy years to study how half the population is faring in their own halls, but they haven’t, and that should tell you a lot of what you need to know about this topic. This book can tell you more. It is important that we educate ourselves about this issue, and this book makes for a good start.

Footnotes

1 A useful book that does review the efficacy of reservations on a large variety of metrics is Weisskopf, T. E. (2004), Affirmative Action in the United States and India: A Comparative Perspective (Routledge Frontiers of Political Economy), Routledge.

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