“Auto-driver’s daughter tops national CA exam“, “Hawker’s son clears IIT-JEE“, “Bidi labourer’s daughter clears UPSC exam“. April-May is the exam result season in India, and one invariably finds news headlines about such fantastic individual accomplishments. Indeed, clearing such demanding exams is a major accomplishment, and to do so with all the odds stacked against oneself is nothing short of remarkable. However, the response of the India’s middle classes and elites to such news deserves some scrutiny. It is one thing to be inspired by such achievements, but quite another to hold these rare events as triumphs of ‘merit’, as opposed to something else (aka reservations).
First, even if the triumph of ‘merit’ claim had any statistical backing (it doesnt, as we will see in a bit), being asked to clear extremely competitive exams to simply achieve a decent middle-class existence is not exactly fair. The workers that entered the middle class on the back of the automotive and other manufacturing industries in the US, and the factory workers moving out of poverty in modern China did not have to clear any competitive exams. These hyper-competitive exams are really the gateway to the elite and upper middle class worlds, sometimes the poor can get in through sheer grit and brilliance, but it is mostly a gateway to which only the middle classes have access.
To see this, we need to see where the vast majority of the people who clear these exams come from. 56 % of the successful IIT candidates came from the CBSE board, whereas only 5% of the total student body is enrolled in that board. Indeed, the CBSE board schools have traditionally been reserved for employees of the Central Government, although now they are the board of choice for the general middle class. Based on anecdotal observations, if we consider the set of students enrolled having a parent employed in a Government service (which cannot be more than 10% of the population), the vast majority of the successful candidates of the IIT, CA and UPSC exams will have such a background. So yes, the one odd poor student clears the exam, but the 99 other clearers are from the middle classes with educated parents.
So why does the middle class celebrate the achievements of these marginalized students ? After all, for most of the year, it shows nothing but disdain for their ‘vernacular’ and ‘regional’ culture, and seeks to sequester itself from them by building gated communities and barricading public spaces for its own use. The answer is perhaps related to the mythologies of hard work and perseverance that middle classes around the world construct around themselves. Be it America, Brazil or India, the not quite elite and definitely not poor sections of society seek to create a discourse that legitimizes their own position of relative privilege in the society. By pointing out the ‘merit’ in the achievements of these marginalized students, the middle class is pointing to its own ‘merit’ and pointing to the ‘non-merit’ness of the reserved candidates, and the remaining poor.
More broadly, this celebration of merit is also a subtle endorsement of the status quo, notwithstanding how clearly unfair it is to the marginalized. The middle class is telling the marginalized, “Look its possible to move up the ladder, you just need to work hard enough.” Perhaps, it is time for the marginalized to tell the privileged sections, “If only the contractors who employ us to build your houses, paid us the salaries that we are due, factory owners compensated us fairly for the limbs we loose making your appliances and toys, doctors and teachers provide us with the essential services that both you and we paid taxes for, there would be fewer poor to ‘celebrate’ the achievements of.”