Reality Check India

Standardization – the hidden dangers

Posted in Uncategorized by realitycheck on March 19, 2008

I had the good fortune of closely interacting with many Srilankan Tamils in the US and Canada. I could not help notice that almost uniformly they possessed an excellent command of English, unlike those in Tamilnadu.  Eventually, I discovered that the refugee Tamil population in Canada is actually highly educated. Whenever they talked about the discrimination they faced back in Srilanka, they were referring to the standardization system which squeezed them out rather abruptly in 1971. This post is about the mysterious “standardization” system.

‘The qualifying mark for admission to the medical faculties was 250 (out of 400) for Tamil students, whereas it was only 229 for the Sinhalese. Worse still, this same pattern of a lower qualifying mark applied even when Sinhalese and Tamil students sat for the examination in English. In short, students sitting for examinations in the same language, but belonging to two ethnic groups, had different qualifying marks.’

A.M.De Silva (source)

The roots of the current conflict might actually lie in this system.

‘By 1977 the issue of university admissions had become a focal point of the conflict between the government and Tamil leaders. Tamil youth, embittered by what they considered discrimination against them, formed the radical wing of the Tamil United Liberation Front. Many advocated the use of violence to establish a separate Tamil state of Eelam. It was an object lesson of how inept policy measures and insensitivity to minority interests can exacerbate ethnic tensions .’

A.Jayaratnam Wilson (source)

So, what exactly is this standardization system.

The Wikipedia entry says.

30% of university places were allocated on the basis of island-wide merit; half the places were allocated on the basis of comparative scores within districts and an additional 15% reserved for students from under privileged districts.

(Wikipedia caution ! it cites the date this policy was introduced as 1973 while most sources claim it as 1971)

In short, after Sri Lankas independence Tamils were first off the line when it came to English education and were therefore able to compete better and secure a disproportionately larger seats in Universities. I am not sure if the standardization policy was devised to “cap” the Tamils or whether this was a happy side effect. It however seems to be true that all rural people whether Tamils or Sinhalese were able to take advantage of the scheme. The worst hit were the educated Tamils , for whom doors to education were suddenly shut.

This blog has always maintained that such schemes are extremely dangerous if not minutely monitored.  The immaturity of the Sri Lankan government in not being able to secure the rights of Sinhalese without “capping” the Tamils is what has brought the island state to where it is today.

The Sri Lankan ambassador to the United States , Mr Bernard Gunatilake recently published an article in the Washington Times that has caused some furore.  His article grossly underestimates the damage caused by such capping policies.  It is clear that even after these years the Sri Lankan government stubbornly refuses to see merit (!) in the Tamils feelings of discrimination.

He says:

Furthermore, even though the LTTE is attempting to establish a mono-ethnic separate state for about 12 percent of “Sri Lankan Tamils” in the north and east, (”Indian Tamils” comprising 4.6 percent of the population are part of our democratic fabric), more than half of that population now lives in safety and peace among the Sinhalese and other communities in the south.

Source : Article

An excellent response by  Prof Ratnajeevan Hoole

First, he says weighting examinations was never intended to discriminate against us Tamils. I took the common Advanced Level exam in 1969 and was admitted to the engineering faculty.

The government then redid the admissions after adding some 28 marks to the four-subject aggregate of Sinhalese students.

I lost my seat. They effectively claimed that the son of a Sinhalese minister in an elite Colombo school was disadvantaged vis-a-vis a Tamil tea-plucker’s son. Unable to defend this, in 1973 they created the statistical scheme equating Tamil and Sinhalese averages with regional preferences to which the ambassador refers.

Source : Article

I am not interested in taking sides, but the case of Sri Lankan Tamils have a striking resemblance to the fate of the so called upper castes in India (esp Tamilnadu). I bet behind the scenes the Sri Lankan interlocutors waste no time in bringing out a mirror when lectured by Indians. 

(Note for foreign readers : Upper castes should not be taken to imply the current presence in these groups of dominance in education, politics, social, or economic life. It is just a category.  )

What lessons can be learnt from this system for India ? 

For those who do not know India (esp Tamilnadu) has a far more draconian quota policy. In Sri Lanka, at least the Tamils who are in rural areas can hope to get the benefits.  In India, the scheme works on the basis of birth only. The son of a doctor will trump the son of a cook with higher credits based solely on whether or not his caste is preferred.  The benefits are also permanent (TN has has this system for 85+ years and KA for 90 years)  and not subject to monitoring. In other words, they are unconditional. We have no data to show how castes (the staging unit for the policy) have benefited from the system which has been in force for 85+ years.  The Indian judicial system has also been shy about putting its foot down about data (until now) like the Sri Lankan judiciary.

A question :

If the quota system in Sri Lanka caused the affected Tamils to rise up in strong protests ending in violence, why have’nt the affected castes in India resorted to mass protests leading to a comparable violence ?

The answer lies in the size of India. I suspect when the Brahmans were suddenly checked in Tamilnadu in the 1930’s, many of them who were rendered “overflow” (could not fit into TN education or state employment) simply went to places like Bombay, Bangalore, and even northern India.  Presumably, these states did not have a similar “check” on them and they picked up their lives there. I think the same holds true for some Kannadigas and Keralites too.  For Kerala, add caste, religion, and the communist strangehold to the mix. The private sector also offered enough outlets.  Leaving is an easier alternative to blowing yourself up.  The safety valves worked until now.

The current UPA government’s policies, most notably its adamant refusal to monitor the social programs, are designed to further reduce these safety valves and bring more and more areas of life into this fold.  They do not realize that immigration opportunities to the west are limited and that the really backward are also affected by their policies.  The “life stories over data” approach to social problems will lead to further disenchantment among those who really deserve help and will lead them first to extremism.

Tragically, the SL Tamils did not have the luxury of escaping such capping of their life opportunities. These checks placed by the standardization policy were permanent and left them with nowhere to hide. The lack of a safety valve led to deep resentment and subsequently entered a series of events which lead to a downward spiral.

Many claim that the standardization policy also impacted the urban Sinhalese. That may well be true, but its effect on the Tamils has been devastating. The SL government’s inability and immaturity to provide a soft landing to those affected by this policy is an entirely different story.

Update : Fixed typos.

11 Responses

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  1. Mahesh said, on March 19, 2008 at 11:58 am

    Excellent article RC!! I’m interested to know how our Tamil leaders here, would react to this comparison,if brought to their notice.And let me speak something different…you know,RC?Our ‘Kalaignar’, a strong supporter of Nallakannu(CPI,M) ,has maintained silence over Nallakunnu’s suggestion that Dr.M.S.Swaminathan be awarded the ‘Bharat Ratna’.(Obviously!)

    —Moreover,Why no article on incidents in Thillai temple?

  2. realitycheck said, on March 19, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    About Thillai temple : It is unfinished business.

    Tamil is not the issue at all. The deekshitars have excellent Tamil scholarship and themselves sing the hymns daily. These guys have been in Tamilnadu atleast from the early Chola period. That would make them “more Taml” than over 60% of the population, if “who came first” was a criteria for Tamil hood. For example : there were no Naickers in TN until the Bahmanis started hammering at Vijayanagar. So who is more Tamil ?

    The bottomline is this: The Thillai temple is a private temple owned by this group. This group does not know any other skill to survive outside the 40 acre property. They are simply holding up their end of the pledge with the Chola kings. The government cannot suddenly step in and throw them out (ie take over the temple). The right way is to diplomatically coerce them out. I too wish the Dikshitars found other opportunities in modern professions that others take for granted.

    On the other hand, too much water has flown under the bridge. The entire HRCE department is a joke. The only logical purpose of the HRCE is to prevent discrimination or access control. This has not been an issue for many decades now. In all the temples that Dalits are not allowed, the HRCE is not in the picture.

    So what is the purpose ?

  3. […] Reality Check India takes a closer look at the “standardization system” instituted in Sri Lanka in the 1970s and warns of its hidden dangers. Share This […]

  4. Observer said, on March 21, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    You may also want to add the comparison to the Malaysian Tamils, who also suffer from 30% reservation for Malays in education, jobs and business ownership. If 7.8% of the Malaysian population is so incensed at the 30% reservation scheme, then TN with its 69% reservation scheme is in an unmatched class of absurdity by itself. I know from talking to many of my relatives and friends, that children are being told not to go into the medical stream at all, because they will have to score more than 100% to get admission in a medical college. Most of them are middle-class people. Sadly, this will mean that an entire section of people is going to be eliminated from the medical profession in the next decade or so.

  5. froginthewell said, on March 22, 2008 at 8:13 pm


    Are you saying that the standardization policy, as revamped in the 70s, hurts urban Tamil more than urban Sinhalese? If so why?

  6. realitycheck said, on March 25, 2008 at 5:55 am


    I think the question is : Did the standardization policy affect the Tamils more than the Sinhalese ?

    Urban and Rural are weak qualifiers, neither capable of igniting nor sustaining a movement that would involve personal injury. (See my other post on this topic when Tamilchelvan was killed )

    In other words, if the government policy favoured rural tamils at the expense of urban tamils while not seeking to cap the overall tamil interest; people would have simply migrated to rural areas instead of risking sure injury.

  7. realitycheck said, on March 25, 2008 at 6:07 am

    >> Sadly, this will mean that an entire section of people is going to be eliminated from the medical profession in the next decade or so. >>

    Being told repeatedly that “medicine is not for us”, “you cant do it” creates an air of uncertainity in the child’s mind. Only the intrepid or the rich (who reserve seats in Jan anyway) will venture out against parental warnings as strong as this.

    There are two ways to look at it :

    Plain reverse dicrimination as state policy
    Beneficiaries of this policy might call this a fair deal or just payback. Isnt this what the Brahmins did for centuries ?

    Social justice as state policy
    You then have to look at the beneficiaries of the policy. There may be some castes which have 10x the number of doctors. In a land of social justice, they would have to compete openly and make way for the other less privliged castes.

    So which one is it ? In my view, this is the ONE question that must be answered by the court unambigously. Even if it invites trouble for itself.

    Otherwise, the future generations will lead short and eventful lives.

  8. unknown indian said, on March 25, 2008 at 7:35 am


    Your comment on dikshitars absolutely true.But there are striking differences between eelam tamils and brahmanas regarding their history,demography,the political conditions,the land,the cultural context,indian freedom struggle and the relationship between tamils and sinhalese and brahmanas in tamil society.Also the tamils place in indian civilisation is different from the relationship between tamils and sinhalas.

  9. unknown indian said, on March 25, 2008 at 7:38 am


    Superb post.Remarkably sustained effort.Good Wishes.

  10. revathi said, on March 29, 2008 at 8:22 am

    Too much blood has been shed in SriLanka. I think it is really too late to do anything really credible. Unpleasant though it sounds, the only alternative for the tamils is that they demand to be united with Tamil Nadu.

  11. […] Tamils from gaining Sri Lankan citizenship, thus making hundreds of thousands of them stateless. The Standardization Policy (1970s) created a quote system that restricted the Tamils from gaining admission to higher education […]

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