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Fighting the Good Fight May 26, 2006

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I had the privilege of attending a General Body Meeting at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences two nights ago. First of all, hats off to the exceptional people I met there. Nothing I could put into words would ever do those great men and women justice. Consider this: We are all – well, mostly, anyway – extremely affronted by the way the government, nay the legislature, has approached the issue of reservation. Everyone, not just the ruling parties but also the Opposition for keeping silent, is at fault. I am not directly affected. Neither are the residents at AIIMS. What is at stake is a principle. Higher education is a responsibility only those who truly deserve can shoulder. Only those who can use it for the welfare of others, only those who can realise its true worth and only those who have earned it through sheer hard work and the gift of ability should have higher education granted to them. Ceteris Paribus there is no difference between a student of a lower caste and that of a higher one – why we still talk in terms of caste is a question that merits an entire piece to itself – so why reserve seats for either? The Government submits that since several students belonging to the OBCs have not had equal opportunities for quality education at the lower levels they have to be spoon-fed at the higher levels. So, if it is being freely admitted that the fault lies in the education system and infrastructure at the lower levels isn't that where the Government's focus should be? Why then, Mr. Prime Minister, are you ruining the lives of millions and making things no better for the rest? For, we know reservations don't work. Setting aside every fact and study Karan Thapar threw at Arjun Singh in their interview the other day – the interview was basically Arjun Singh harder and harder to look like an idiot and Karan Thapar trying desperately to get out of the way (both succeeded, by the way) – our experiences from our stints of graduation and post-graduation have shown us that reservations don't work. Whether it be Osama or Bush, the world around us seems to be telling us that the only way to survive is extremism. Whether it be religious extremism (bin Laden) or extremism of stupidity (Dubbya) all signs seem to be leading the UPA to believe that only by combining extremism in stupidity, denial and a general detachment with reality can it hope to celebrate another anniversary in office. So the UPA has done what it has done and is doing what it is doing despite every academic, corporate and semi-literate advising it to the contrary. False assurances were given of maintaining the number of General category seats in every institution and now those futile promises have also been renegued. Today's announcement of increasing quotas in one go without any mention of timeframe of increasing the total number of seats is a slap in the face of not just the hundreds of thousands of people protesting Reservations but in the face of justice and democracy itself. The Prime Minister states that, "The Reservation issue is settled." How could it be settled without accommodating, in the least bit, the rightful demands of the multitudes of students whose lives they have effectively ruined?

But hark, I digress. I must pay homage to the people at AIIMS and the other institutes, medical or otherwise, who have joined them in this movement. Every regressive, divisive step by the Government has created fresh doubts in the hearts of all those who still hold the principles of equality, meritocracy and the dignity of labour sacred. Every day has brought news of despair to their hearts. Yet they have stood resolute in their convictions. The only regret they have is that while they have been claiming their right their patients have been suffering. This is not to say that the striking residents have shunned their duties. Sleepless days have given way to sleepless nights and one sleepless week has led to another. The residents have maintained parallel OPDs and no critical patient has been denied care. The only consideration in their struggle with the Government is the welfare of their patients. However, on the whole, they realise that it is better to divert a few patients to other doors today than have the incompetence of the quota-products thrust upon them tomorrow and so they have stayed firm in their path. Special mention must be made of some of the other participants in this struggle which, surprisingly, has not found much organised support from the business and academic community but I will address that later. All Government medical colleges and several colleges of the Delhi University have joined hands with the striking residents at AIIMS. The students of IIT Delhi have devised several innovative means of "affirmative protests" including shining shoes and sweeping the streets to show the Government what the meritorious would be reduced to once the quota system kicks in. A hundred students have been on a hunger strike for the past thirteen days. Of the medical students on an indefinite hunger strike in Surat one student has been admitted to the Intensive Care Unit and another has been diagnosed with acute renal failure. The media has either been gagged or has lost interest in the life and death of the only people determined to save this country from mediocrity and shame. I attended the GBM and pledged my personal support to their agitation and its demands. I swore that I would do what I could at my end. I write, but I am not content with merely writing on this issue. This is too big. This is too personal. I am working on a couple of other inititiatives but this is a fight that will ask a lot more from many more of us.

It was away from all this struggle and debate that the enormity of the situation really hit me. My grandmother passed away yesterday. She died at home, in the presence of all those who loved her and all those she had loved. But I talk of the time we had rushed her to the ICU a day earlier. With all the agitation at the Government hospitals and its effect on the services we had little choice but to take her to a private establishment. The doctor on duty at the time was not of the highest calibre and I feared for my Grandmother's life. It was then that it hit me. Once the quota system was in place and entire batches of non-merit students had joined the ranks of the doctors everyone bringing a loved one to the hospital would feel the same doubt and fear I felt for my Grandmother. When the very competence of the person in charge of a patient's life was in doubt what incentive would there be for the sick to come to the hospitals? For that matter, what faith would you repose in a bridge designed by a non-merit engineer? Would you feel safe in your car? Your home? Using your electrical appliances? Making an online transaction? Sending your children to school or college? After all, what kind of education would they receive if the competence of the teacher was suspect? What good would any education do your child anyway if you knew that he or she would end up competing with people who already had reservations in seats of higher education or private sector jobs? Wouldn't the queues move from the tuition centres to the registrar's office where you could get a caste certificate made? Albeit, for astronomical sums of money because, after all, tomorrow a caste certificate would be a guarantee of education, employment and who knows what else.

I am single-mindedly opposed to Reservation and I support every peaceful protest against it. If you wish to help go show your support to those who are fighting the good fight and ask how you can contribute. Write to your Member of Parliament and demand to know what he/she is doing about this. Write in to the newspapers and express your shame at the autocracy of the government and the dictatorial manner in which it has handled this issue and its dismal abandonment of the starving medicos. Organise groups and think of how you can help. As a last resort write to me and I promise I shall channelise your energies towards helping achieve a society based on merit. If you still haven't been moved to helping out you are either brain dead or worse – already a Member of Parliament, in which case I say Shame! Shame on you!

If you are fighting the good fight, however, I would say this to you. This cause is bigger than me. It is bigger than you. It is, possibly, the biggest cause our generation will ever have the chance to fight over. There is no putting a value to this cause. Is it worth 10 days of hunger strike? Most definitely. Is it worth 100? Absolutely? Is there a limit to how far we are willing to go to in this fight? None at all. Is it worth my life? A hundred times over. Only, you and I are most useful alive. Save your strength for we have promises to keep. And miles to go before we sleep. And miles to go before we sleep.

A Champions’ League final to savour? May 18, 2006

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In a befitting manner, it rained as Arsenal's hopes of claiming a first Champions' League title were washed away by a combination of bad refereeing, bad spirit and plain bad luck. Barcelona are to be congratulated for winning the Champions' League but if Ronaldinho's shirt stayed on and not even Barcelona fans cheered where we sat what service could such a game have possibly done to football? Eto'o and Giully and Deco and Puyol and Iniesta were all champions before they walked on to the turf in Paris. If anything, the pulp of their achievement was sucked out by the incompetence of the officials and their victory will seem hollow when they lie awake at night wondering if they were, actually, the best in Europe. So, did the best team win? I'd love to say No but, honestly, who can say? For the briefest period, when Arsenal had their first choice team of eleven on the pitch, they seemed the snazzier of the two. Arsenal went in the underdogs and they knew they would have had to put the pedal to the metal right at the start. They did. Henry had a wonderful chance in the third minute and, although the pace for the next ten minutes was controlled by Barcelona, Arsenal seemed ready for big things. Going ahead with ten men, after Lehman's sending off, was unthinkable so they did the unthinkable. They went ahead.

Lehman's sending off I will not argue. It could be argued that the advantage could have been played and Arsenal allowed to play with eleven players, albeit a goal down. However, no one can find fault with what the referee did. His exemption from blame, however, ends there. No replays of the Eto'o goal were ever shown from the sidelines to let us judge for ourselves whether there was a hint of offside. And doubt there was aplenty. To give Henry a yellow card for winning a tackle where he didn't even attack a Barcelona player and to ignore the various fouls committed by the men from the Nou Camp is nothing short of evil. While Arsenal were working their posteriors off defending and attacking with ten men Barcelona were unwittingly given a twelfth, and maybe a thirteenth and fourteenth, player in the form of the referee and his assistants.

Henry's comments after the game were noteworthy. Speaking of the referee he said, "If he didn't want us to win it he should have said so at the start." This from one of Europe's most soft-spoken footballers is more than an indictment of the travesty that was the officiating at the stadium of Paris.

It was a depressing game to watch. Of course it was depressing for every Arsenal fan. It wasn't very rewarding for the Barca fans either and the match was a disappointment for every fan of football. But, and take a moment to think about this, can you imagine how it must have felt for Robert Pires to have had to watch the match helplessly from the sidelines for no fault of his? For what it is worth, Pires, I am sorry.

The silver medals around the Arsenal necks must feel heavier than lead. The hearts are heavy. Henry may move to Barcelona. For all Arsenal fans out there one wonders what there is to look forward to, if anything at all. Congratulations, Rijkaard. Well done, Ronaldinho.