When it comes to discrimination, we are an exceptionally tolerant society; we stoically tolerate casteism, sexism, communalism, racism, regionalism, and a broad range of other diverse forms of discrimination in our society. Supposedly a cornerstone feature of our national unity made famous by the expression, “unity in diversity.”
However, among the myriad forms of discrimination we tolerate, the highest level of tolerance we have developed is for ageism: discrimination based on age[i]. In fact our tolerance for ageism is so high that we accept it as a morally justified and a perfectly legal form of discrimination.
Under the fundamental right to equality guaranteed by the Indian constitution, article 15(1) of the constitution reads: “the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.”[ii] It, however, says nothing about discrimination on the grounds of age. So the State, and its citizens, openly and shamelessly discriminate on the lines of age.
[It is pertinent to mention here, in most developed countries of the world, age-based discrimination in employment and education is illegal.][iii]
In almost all kinds of services the State provides to its citizens, be it employment, education etc, there is usually an age restriction to avail it. In some instances age-based discrimination makes sense like for the armed forces because being a soldier requires a certain level of physical fitness that one cannot have after a certain age. However, in most other instances age-based discrimination makes no sense at all. For example, if you wish to join the Indian bureaucracy, or the Indian Civil Services as it is better known, you have to be under the age of 30 years. Everybody over the age of 30 years is forbidden from ever serving his nation as a state-employed civil servant[iv]. That is a privilege reserved only for the younger citizens under the age of 30 years. Moreover, there seems to be no rational or logical justification for such a form of age-based discrimination, because what is it about the civil services job that a person over the age of 30 years cannot learn to do?
Same is the case with the education sector. Many publicly-funded, State-run institutions of learning in India also discriminate on the basis of age. For example, in India’s premiere medical college, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), people over the age of 25 years are deprived from studying medical sciences in their institute[v]. Similarly, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) debars everybody over the age of 25 years from studying engineering, the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) denies everybody over the age of 25 years from studying journalism[vi]; and the list goes on and on[vii].
This kind of age-based discrimination is so rampant in our educational system that many programs in colleges and universities don’t even feel the need to declare their discriminatory practice. An example of this, sadly, is our own Jamia Millia Islamia.
According to a recent news report[viii], Jamia’s Faculty of Education denied a 46-year-old woman from getting an admission into its Bachelors of Education (B.Ed) program, because, as the report stated: the said woman with a Masters in English from Delhi University and with 21 years of life experience, was inept to learn to be an educator because she was more than “40-years-old,” thus implying she was past the age of learning anything new. Feeling cheated and insulted by Jamia’s insinuation about her mental faculties and her potential as an educator, the woman took the university to court and won on a technicality. The court ruled that Jamia did not explicitly list age as a criterion for admission when she applied for the course; because as stated earlier, it is perfectly legal in India to discriminate on the grounds of age, but you got to mention it beforehand. So Jamia lost the case just because somebody at Jamia did not take the trouble to mention in the brochure that Jamia follows ageist admission policies. An oversight they are sure to fix next year.
On a side note; it is ironic that the university that denies mature adults from learning to be educators, is also the same university that runs adult education programs in different communities around Jamia. Go figure.
Interestingly enough, in trying to make their case, the university argued in court that since all State-run schools and colleges have age-based discriminatory recruiting policies for teachers, what could possibly be the point of her education. It’s not like she’s going to get a job anywhere once she graduates from the program. And since the point of education is employment, what practical purpose can her education serve, they in essence argued.
This kind of thinking I suppose explains how public servants with degrees in liberal studies can hold illiberal beliefs and contempt for the public. Apparently for most of us, the purpose of formal education is to fulfill a job requirement. It is no surprise we hear parents say, with regard to girls education: what is the point of sending our daughters to school or college if they will spend their entire lives as housewives. A girl doesn’t need a Bachelors in Education to be a housewife. And it’s not like colleges offer a Bachelors in Housewife they can pursue. So, just like what Jamia said, what would be the point of their education, they ask.
When you think about the whole sordid affair, you find it so tragic to see that an institution charged with the duty to educate the nation, has no clue of its true purpose. It has no idea what it was setup to do.
Now although we know the State discriminates on the basis of age, it is not clear on why it does that. A possible explanation can be that maybe the true purpose of Indian education system is not to educate the nation. Perhaps it is to produce a class of clerks and technicians who maintain the ledgers and run the machines. It would explain the age-based discrimination. Why spend the State’s limited resources training a person with a shorter productive shelf-life when you have at your disposal scores of people with longer productive shelf-life. When the well-being of a nation is expressed in terms of economic growth rate, age-based discrimination just makes perfect business sense.
But that is too cynical a notion to entertain, for no State will treat its citizen as mere cogs in a machine. So we look towards other more benign explanations, such as, in a nation with half of its population under the age of 25, we probably just feel uncomfortable being around old people; where old is anybody over the age of 25 years. Unless of course you’re a 50-year-old Bollywood actor, then you’re just the right age to play a bright young engineering student at IIT.
Reference Links and Endnotes
[i] http://www.alfa.org/alfa/Ageism.asp. Ageism actually works both ways, against the old and against the young. For purpose of consistency and brevity, we only talk of of discrimination against the old in this article. Discrimination against the young is equally wrong.
[vii] Stated age restrictions are for General category. Reserved categories have a different age restriction.