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Rethinking Diversity: Beyond the Reservation Question

The Social Justice Forum has been protesting since 20th March, first inside the campus and then outside the gates, demanding a caste census, an Ambedkar Memorial Lecture and reforms to the fee payment policy. The caste census numbers would, according to the SJF, solidify their demands for caste-based reservations in the University*. The administration and SJF had locked horns, primarily over reservations. There has been some progress in the negotiations, which is welcome. But there are larger issues in the conversations surrounding caste and diversity. The discourse in the University, over dinner table conversations and dorm room chats, is symbolic of the popular discourse around reservations outside the University also: trapped in the binary of implementing vertical reservations or remaining elite. 

As such, there is an acute need to reframe the question of diversity and inclusion innovatively and work towards a more practical solution. Keeping an open mind will also allow us to think about the issue more comprehensively and work towards achieving the goal of a campus that is more representative and inclusive of various disadvantages. Dogmatic approaches to reservation betray a serious lack of imagination. While limiting the methods of reaching our stated objective, they also blind us to the flaws of the existing reservation system in public universities. The compatibility (or lack thereof) of reservations with Ashoka’s admissions process also needs to be thought about. While numerically mandated quotas for marginalised communities are one tool in the arsenal of affirmative action, it also contains many other instruments that are being ignored. 

Why are we at Ashoka unable to go beyond the binaries of reservation or not reservation? Innovative solutions require innovative politics. For some reason, however, we seem hell bent on emulating the politics of a JNU or a DU. With copy-paste politics comes copy-paste solutions; the politics of these public universities can barely suffice in our context. Their politics has also been influenced by national politics to a great extent. The reason why Ashokan politics never really becomes mainstream amongst the student body is because it is not really an Ashokan politics: it is a politics that aspires to shed the tag of being ‘Ashokan’. 

The politics of any community is specific to its context. It is shaped by factors specific to the place, time, culture, and issues facing the community. While looking at other models is instructive and inspirational for us, it should not overpower our own imagination. Ashoka’s politics need not be dumbed down or excised of its ability to confront its opposition or assert its own demands; it must invent a new vocabulary suited to the sensibilities of this community and consequently arrive at original solutions. 

There are three stages at which we have to act to achieve a truly representative campus. Before actual admissions take place, there needs to be concerted efforts by the administration to expand outreach beyond the metros and private schools. By expanding outreach in rural areas, tribal and backward districts, and low-income, government schools, we significantly increase the diversity of applicants in the first phase of the process. Partnering with local NGOs working in these regions to discover and encourage the most talented to apply is another option. Advertising our admission and financial aid programmes in local language newspapers to reach a wider subset of people is also thinkable. 

Next, people with various kinds of disadvantages, ranging from physical to socio-economic, need more accommodations during the application process than are being given now. Requirements like Essays, Extra-Curricular Activities and Letters of Recommendation, while making the process holistic on one hand, also stand as obstacles to those not aware of this vocabulary. Waiving some of these requirements and accepting certain responses in mother tongues may make the application process easier for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. More radical changes to the admissions process may include adopting certain features of JNU’s deprivation points model, which gives additional points to applicants coming from certain districts, communities and genders. Considering parental education as a criterion for affirmative action is another innovative approach that is often overlooked. Policy recommendations designed by our own faculty members, such as Ashwini Deshpande’s Diversity Index or Debayan Gupta’s RAMSES framework, or even the models by researchers such as Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande need to be discussed more widely. Furthermore, It is critical to acknowledge and appreciate the massive amounts of financial aid already provided by the university, unparalleled in the Indian landscape, and reconcile the methods of affirmative action with it. 

Post-admission begins the most arduous process of our job. The existing Academic Bridge Programme, while really impressive already, needs to be scaled up to prepare people for life at Ashoka and afterwards. Its mandate needs to be substantially expanded from a one-off training at the beginning of university to a consistent training throughout university life. Supplementary measures like remedial teaching, counselling and skill enhancement need to be given much more attention. The Bridge Programme, Office of Learning Support, Centre for Writing and Communication, Ashoka Centre for Well-Being, Office of Academic Affairs, Office of Student Affairs, Career Development Office, and Office of Postgraduation Studies all need to be bolstered and act in a coordinated manner to aid students in need. Alums, faculty members and seniors can be allotted to students for specific or general guidance and mentorship. This is not to say that this should be the menu of solutions that we implement but to provoke us into thinking of more ingenious solutions to our problems. 

Whatever the policy outcomes of this protest are, the university needs to do more than what it is currently doing and we need to demand much more than we are asking for, but all of us need to think much more creatively and ambitiously about these issues, rather than getting trapped in narrow dogmatic lanes. As some speakers highlighted in the recent Department of Sociology talk on Enumeration, Identity and Action, we at Ashoka have the advantage of a clean slate and of being small, where newer projects, much more innovative and comprehensive in their scopes, can be formulated. We have the benefit of autonomy and resources that many others in the world don’t, as well as a wealth of knowledge from other universities’ experiences, so it is incumbent upon us to think more deeply about these questions. Indeed, there are also valuable lessons to be learnt from Ashoka’s efforts to bring more women and people with physical disabilities onto the campus. 

We need to realise that diversity is neither just a buzzword nor is it at odds with excellence. Equity and excellence go hand in hand. If we really want to fulfil the vision of becoming the best in the world, we will need to commit more resources to finding and supporting the best, not just in the Mayos and Sri Rams, not just in Bangalore and Mumbai, but wherever they might be. Until we do that, claims of excellence and diversity will remain what they are at most universities across the world: a lot of eyewash.

*The administration, on 1st April, has agreed to an annual socio-economic survey, which will include caste without being exclusively caste-based. 

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