Reporting on reservations and facing inconvenient questions posed by students
The year was 2006 and the Central government had directed institutions of higher education to implement a 27%-reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs). With 22.5% of seats already reserved for the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), this would take the reservation slab to 49.5%. The move led to disquiet among both the SCs and the upper castes. As a reporter, you had to wade carefully while asking questions. Upper caste students from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi took to sweeping the streets in protest. Coded in their casteist act was a message: “We will be forced to pick up brooms if reservation for OBCs is to come about.” “Do you not worry that my friend got 98% and yet, could not make it?” was a question thrown at you. On, the other side of the divide were the SC students, worried not only about the shrinking pie for government jobs — a lifeline for them — but also other implications. So, how did one navigate this quagmire of sensibilities without hurting the sentiments of either category of students?
A quiet unrest
I learnt a valuable lesson while reporting on the quiet unrest among SC students. A conversation over the phone with a student left me bruised. My question was: “How worried are you at the reservation for OBCs?” He countered with a question: “Have you ever been told by your teacher to sit outside the classroom?” My second question was: “Will it become more difficult now that OBCs too have a quota?” His counter-question: “You speak like someone born to privileged life. How can you even begin to understand what it means to see your parents toiling away as scavengers?” I had to confess that I had not faced discrimination on account of my caste or gender. The questioning and counter-questioning made me ponder over the language we deploy as reporters. The research student from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) also asked me about my struggles in life to get to where I was. He then asked whether there was enough diversity in newsrooms. I looked around and mumbled a ‘no’. The struggle, if any, would be nowhere close to the scale he and his parents had endured. That was enough to tell the story of reservations.