Is reservation an affirmative action? Understanding caste system in India through the Swiss Education system

My kids study in a public school in French medium. The good thing in Switzerland is that the quality of the public schools is way better than the private and boarding schools. But there is one interesting phenomenon in Switzerland which you need to know to understand their education system better.

At the end of the compulsory primary school (or at the beginning of secondary school), pupils are separated according to their capacities and career-intentions in several (often three) sections. Students who aspire to an academic career enter Mittelschule (also named Gymnasium, or Kantonsschule, a public school by the canton/state) to be prepared for further studies and the Matura (normally obtained after 12 or 13 years of school usually at the age of 18 or 19). Students intending to pursue a trade or vocation complete three to four additional years before entering Vocational Educations which are regulated by federal law and are based on a cooperation of private business offering educational job-positions and public schools offering obligatory school-lessons complementary to the on-the-job education. This so-called “dual system” splitting academic and vocational training has its continuation in the higher education system. While the academic training leads to the matura and free admission to universities, successfully completed vocational education gives access to third level of practical education, the Höhere Fachschule (Schweiz). If in addition to the vocational training the Berufsmaturitätsschule is completed the Fachhochschule may be visited instead. Rather recently introduced is a third, middle path via the Fachmittelschule which leads to a direct access to a Fachhochschule after a successful graduation of a Fachmatura. In some cantons, students with a Fachmatura may also get access to universities after a successful additional year.

So, a child’s life path is determined at the age of 12 whether the child will be in academic or vocational stream. At first, I was shocked to hear this system but quickly realized that the cab drivers and carpenters earn as much as a PhD. Education doesnt affect the quality of life and the government subsidizes the cost of living for people who earn less. Singapore adopted this education model but unfortunately, you can see the cab drivers complaining there about their difficult life.

Now you may wonder what has Swiss Education system got to do with caste system in India? Indian society segregated people 1000s of years ago on the basis of their abilities, just like the Swiss system, and created 4 categories according to the gunas (qualities) springing from their own nature

Brahmins — Spiritual intelligentsia, godly faith and religious rituals constitute the duties of Brahmins

Kshatriyas — Valor, boldness and skillfulness to win battles are the duties of a Kshatriya

Vaishyas — Tilling the soil, cattle bredding and business constitute the duties of Vaishyas

Sudras — Actions that are of service to others constitute the duty of the Sudras.

In the beginning, there was no permanent classification of the individual.

Either by self-development or through education, a sudra could become a Brahmin just like how a Cab driver’s son could become a PhD holder in Switzerland. The cab driver and the PhD holder will earn the same amount and will be treated equally in the Swiss society and this was how the Brahmins and Sudras co-existed with mutual respect. I would even argue that every human being goes through all these 4 classes during their lifetime.

But, over a period of time, this dynamic social structure entered its darkest phase where the structure became rigid and caste was defined through birth. From equals, Brahmins became the upper caste and Sudras became the lower caste. This shameful evolution continues even today where a Brahmin is not someone who has realized god or has inclinations to self-realization but someone who was born in a family of Brahmins. Whether he likes god or not, it doesn’t matter. It is the same for other castes. The upper castes started controlling the lower castes instead of protecting them and unleashed atrocities of all kinds — Not allowing them to enter temples, not allowing them to walk in streets where upper caste people lived, not allowed to bath in the same pond to name a few among the countless more such cruelties.

Social reformers like Periyar and Gandhi helped the cause to a large extent but caste rears its ugly head even today in the 21st century in India. After independence, especially in the 90s, there were significant affirmative actions that were taken to ensure that there is upliftment of the lower castes. The government gives a certain percentage of seats available in educational institutions and jobs in government to lower castes. What it means in actual terms is that a student with extremely high marks will not get admitted into engineering college because he belongs to an upper caste and a student with extremely low marks will qualify because he is from a lower caste.

The student with extremely low marks will go on to get many such privileges including cushy government jobs and the only ‘effort’ he needs to put is to get a caste certificate. Essentially, the cosmic lottery got reversed with people from upper castes now mobilizing their entire community to protest to include their castes in the lower caste categories. These caste people will proudly ascertain their caste in social settings but when it comes to education and employment, they are fine with their caste going down. What a paradox!

Is this really affirmative action? What have we achieved with this reservation and this so called affirmative action? While we can say that the lower castes got uplifted through education and jobs, it will only be successful when people don’t retain their caste identities and everyone treats everyone equally. The society is still dangerously divided on caste lines. What about the kids of the lower caste people who benefited from reservation in education and employment? Do they still need to be given a reservation when their father is an IAS officer? This affirmative action is supposed to work against discrimination which people from lower caste suffered for centuries but it defeats its own purpose by creating a reverse discrimination for upper caste people.

The outcomes of affirmative actions are supposed to be what we see in Switzerland where a cab driver and a PhD get equal salary and equal treatment in society. Also, the structure needs to be dynamic where ‘cosmic lotteries’ can’t decide the outcome. The real outcome of affirmative action is a caste less society where everyone is an equal and every human being will get the same dignity irrespective of caste, job and educational qualification. Seeing what is happening in India now, I know it is a pipe dream.

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