Reservations are more complex than you think
In the course of working for over a decade in the Student Counseling Service the dominant themes heard from the reserved quota students were the following:
They faced enormous pressure from family and community to succeed. Very often being first-generation literate, and the first in their families and villages to have reached the portals of higher education, their success signaled a financially comfortable future and a position of influence that would benefit the extended family and community. Being a relational society, it is expected that the fruits of individual success will be distributed. Initially, the students were gratified to be held in such high esteem and proud to be in such a prestigious institution. But soon, anxiety about succeeding, guilt about failure and a sense of being heavily burdened predominated.
They had worked extremely hard through school and for the entrance examination, and their experience after admission was one of continued and unrelenting struggle just to keep their heads above water. They faced multiple stresses and difficulties including coping with a language of instruction (English) in which they were not fluent; feeling lost, alien and intimidated in an urban, globalised environment very different from their home towns and villages; not being able to approach teachers and others for assistance because of anxieties and cultural norms that inhibited them from approaching authority. Most of all, they were competing in the same league with those acknowledged to be among the highest academic achievers in the country. Although admitted on concessionary criteria, they took the same number and type of courses as other students did and were evaluated in the same way. There was no provision for remedial/ bridge courses or extra tutorials. They thus experienced repeated academic failure and in the course of time, a crippling erosion of confidence and hope.
They felt a double sense of stigma. More overtly expressed was the sense of being academically 'outcaste', inferior and 'not entitled' to these highly coveted seats. Less openly expressed but powerful nevertheless, the feeling of academic stigma resonated with the caste stigma that was inevitably a part of their consciousness. Many carried toxic memories of humiliation and hostility from caste-related experiences in the past. Often, minor incidents (not necessarily caste-related) in the present triggered engulfing feelings of shame and anger. They coped primarily by lying low, by being at the periphery of institutional and student life and by affiliating only with others from similar backgrounds. This corresponded with an internal sense of being ignored and being invisible to the rest of the system.
The shrillness of the merit discourse drowned out the facts - for instance, that the proposed reservations boiled down to 5% reservations in central (federal) government jobs and seats in a few universities for people constituting 75% of the country's population, that caste was neither the only nor the most important criterion for determining the beneficiaries (there were 11 criteria that included educational, social and quality of living parameters ranging from primary school drop-out rates, to accessibility of drinking water, to percentage of women married off before the age of 17), and that there were several other important structural reforms recommended including land reforms. The outrage that fuelled the agitation appeared to have arisen from the fact that the Mandal recommendations directly threatened the prevailing distribution of resources that favoured the 'forward' castes and classes. Although implementation of the Mandal reforms had been on the election manifesto of all the major political parties, in actually daring to implement them the government at the time collapsed. As for the students from the reserved quota at IIT; in the months following the agitation several chose to drop-out saying that they would seek readmission by repeating the entrance examination in the non-reserved category. Others who had been faring reasonably well in their studies deteriorated. In sum, the agitation reflected a twist to the 'internalization of oppression' and seemed to have heightened their sense of disentitlement.