Reservation one or two stories? (2017)

Written by Ram Krishna Ranjan

Ram Krishna Ranjan, video stills, multi-channel video installation and documents, exhibited at Göteborgs Konsthall, 2017

Contextualizing statement about the work

This art project has its genesis in a legal case involving Uppsala University and two Swedish students. In 2003, the Law faculty at Uppsala University reserved 10% of admissions to the Bachelor Programme for applicants with “both foreign-born parents”. Based on the understanding that their ethnic background was a factor they could not influence (i.e. where their parents were born) two Swedish students, claiming to be victims of unfair treatment, sued the university. The lower courts ruled in their favour, as did the Supreme Court.

Equal Treatment Act (2001:1286) of Sweden prohibits discrimination (including positive action) based on ethnicity, race, gender etc. There is one exception, however, in one of the subsections. “The ban does not apply if the treatment is justified taking into account a special interest that is manifestly more important than interest of preventing discrimination at the university.”1

The key debate was about whether Uppsala University had the right to deviate from prohibition laid out in the Equal Treatment Act and use the exemption. Uppsala University argued that they were justified in taking a such a measure because there was a need to increase ethnic and social diversity in their program. While acknowledging that ethnic and social diversity is a legitimate public interest, the courts in their judgement said that it’s not manifestly more important than the interest of preventing discrimination and therefore positive action based on ethnicity is illegal. Supreme Court remarked that it is not against the principle of positive discrimination, “as long as it is practised between candidates who are equally qualified. Not so, however, when somebody with a foreign background is favoured even though the Swede had better grades, since this is not positive discrimination, but just plain discrimination”.2

The lexicon that exists on issues of diversity and equality in Sweden struck me. The idea of a meritocracy was mobilized to legitimise the decision of banning positive discrimination based on ethnicity. Implicit in the idea of a meritocracy is the pitting of 'equal treatment' against 'special treatment', also expressed as 'positive discrimination', 'reservations', positive action’ and 'affirmative action'. With meritocracy comes the assumption of equality as the default setting but are all inequalities rendered irrelevant by the mere fact of residence in or citizenship of Sweden? How do we address questions of historical and systemic inequalities and injustices within this meritocratic dream? How do we account for differences within this dream of assumed equality? Where does the fine line between equal treatment and structural discrimination lie and do we have the means to delineate it within our current vocabulary?

The moving image installation ‘Reservation: One or Two Stories?’ was an attempt to produce a layered understanding around these questions by shifting the geographies of reason (and being) from Sweden to India where positive action is politicised as a right via India’s constitution.

The system of reservations in India is aimed at creating equal opportunities for people belonging to the lowest caste groups (the political term being Dalit) and Adivasis (Indigenous people). In order to address the historic discrimination and inequality faced by people belonging to Dalit and Adivasi communities, India's first law minister and the principal architect of the Constitution of India Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, popularly known as Babasaheb or Bhim, argued vociferously for reserving seats in different legislatures, government jobs and educational institutions for Dalits and Adivasis. Born into a Dalit family, he had the vision to realize the importance of reservations. It’s because of his efforts that the idea of reservation is enshrined in the constitution of India itself. Over the years, social and political movements led by people belonging to other backward castes - OBC (lower caste groups but not Dalit) have led to an expansion of the reservation mandate. I was born into an OBC community and have benefitted from the reservation policy in India. After moving to Sweden, I have come to realize that there is an urgent need to change (or add to) the lexicon that exists on issues of diversity and equality in Sweden. While there has been a great emphasis on making sure that no one is discriminated against based on ethnicity, race, class, age etc., it has not been acknowledged that everyone does not have the same kind of opportunities. Therefore, the idea that just having a ‘no discrimination’ policy will solve the problem of equality and diversity is far removed from truth.

"Reservation: One or two stories?" aims to foreground other epistemologies, other politics and ethics by shifting the epistemic and social location from Sweden to India, to broaden the understanding around questions of equality and social justice.

This shift has a material dimension and its materiality is coming from the corporeal experiences of those who have been excluded. This moving image installation comprising of a teleprompter, texts and two-channel video installation, weaves together narratives from two different social and political landscapes. While the teleprompter and texts are primarily highlighting the Uppsala University case and my intervention in that narrative, the two-channel video installation explores similar themes – exclusion, social justice and positive action – but the context is set in India. In the two-channel video installation I begin with my story of identity and erasure, built around my caste certificate. Then the narrative shifts to Ram Saheb as the main protagonist and the narrator. Ram Saheb is an Ambedkarite (proponent of Ambdekar’s ideology) and a Dalit activist. He runs a small book shop in Raebareli, a small town in north India, to make Dalit literature accessible to the public at large. By focusing on his life story, I aim to present what it means to create a subaltern vocabulary on issues of social and political oppression. Ram Saheb is an embodiment of the Dalit struggle for dignity and equal opportunities. In my cinematic telling of his story not only have I attempted to present the dangers of assuming equality but I also have focused on showing the contours of struggle for structural changes through positive action.

Ram Krishna Ranjan, multi-channel video installation and documents, exhibited at Göteborgs Konsthall, 2017

Contextualizing statement about the installation

This exhibit was designed as a constellation of multi-sensory experiences, focused not merely on the content of the exhibition but also on the bodily journey of the spectator. The very first thing that the spectator encounters is a narrow, blue niche in the wall with a teleprompter nestled in it. The teleprompter plays the texts from two new reports about the Uppsala University case. Faced with this wall upon entry, the spectating body is then forced to bypass the teleprompter and take a turn in order to access the next element of the exhibit.

This second element consists of a wall of text – pages from the judgment of the aforementioned case, arranged sequentially from right to left. The twenty-one pages on display carry the Google-translated (from Swedish to English) text of the judgment, with an intervention on the part of the artist. The text for the most part has been penned over in blue highlighter ink. The spectating body has to come up close to the wall to be able to read the text underneath the blue ink. On the eleventh page of the judgment, three words in the text are left out of this artistic intervention – Sweden, is, reserved. This omission too is not detectable on first glance but requires the spectator to look closely.

The third element of the exhibit once again forces the spectating body to turn a corner and face another wall. The exhibits on this wall are likely to be alien to most spectators in this context. They are two legal documents from India. One is the original laminated version of my own caste certificate, the text on which was printed in ink so poor in quality that the process of putting it through a laminator erased most of its contents. The other is a photo copy of the document before it got erased.

Next to these exhibits is the entrance to the final element of this composite exhibition. A black curtain leads the spectator into a viewing room where two screens are playing two video streams in parallel. On the screen to the left, I start with the telling of my own story of identity and erasure. At the end of this narration, the image of the certificate remains on the left screen while the narrative shifts to the screen on the right with Ram Saheb as the protagonist and narrator. Throughout the cinematic telling of this story, I adopt an allegorical style with a poem about reservations by a Dalit poet, constituting the narrative thread. During the times that Ram Saheb recites the poem, its text appears on the screen to the left in its original Hindi script. There is a deliberate preservation of a slight sensory dissonance – an uneasy disturbance in the sensory inputs to the spectator. This is done to foreground the implicit discomfort and erosion of status quo that decolonial work entails.

The purposive design of this exhibit is aimed at achieving multiple ends. First off, the aim is to make a decisive departure from the dominant format of an anonymized, external spectator entering a neutralized space to partake of a second-hand representation of a distant and exoticized other. This exhibit aims to directly confront a Swedish audience with the stark political geography of ideas and ideology that implicates them integrally in debates and conflicts unfolding in both Sweden and far-away India. Secondly, the exhibition aims to use reversal as a deliberate technique of exposition. By breaking with familiarity and challenging spectators to act against habit while experiencing this exhibit, I aim to bring forth the oppressive silencing that is implicit in the construction of the normal. The text in the second element has to be read from right to left. Putting the use of highlighter ink, conventionally used to make things prominent, to the very opposite end of near erasure is an exercise in reversal. Thirdly, I use the colour blue to focus on the materiality of this artistic investigation. Within the Ambedkarite movement, blue is not only the symbolic colour representing the struggle against caste, but also the material marker of identity. In their books, posters, clothes, and all other material manifestations of the movement, the colour blue is employed as a metaphor. In these exhibits I place blue strategically, to extract its extraordinary symbolism within the everyday.

By creating spatialized narratives, I attempt to focus not only on viewing but also the process of viewing. ‘Reservation: One or Two Stories?’ is driven by both a thematic and a material enquiry. While the content is emanating from a certain political commitment, the presentation is geared towards creating a hybridity of tactile and sensory registers. A bodily choreography is designed to enhance the immersive experience of the viewer. There is a conscious effort to integrate disparate modes from different media into a new synthesis, new configurations.

  1. From the case law in literature. Supreme Court case number: T 400-06, Date: 2006-12-21, No in NJA: 2006: 84. 

  2. See Accessed on 27-02-2017.