Saturday, October 30, 2010

You may win some but you always lose more

There’s always a price to pay for every privilege. Business travellers pay more and fly the same distance in luxury. Women have seats reserved in metros and buses, but are classified in the same category as children, the elderly and the disabled. Minorities do have seats reserved but practically no power to wield.

Caste in India is a socio-political issue, just like race in America or class in Britain. Yet ever since the decision on its inclusion in the ongoing census has been passed, the focus hasn’t shifted from political agendas, reservations and resource allocations to the discussion of its implications on our social structure. And in talking about caste in a social structure, it fits categorically under those who have ‘made it’ to the mainstream and those who ‘remain’ marginalized to the fringes of development.

Standards of living have notably improved across sections of the society, sometimes even inequitably so. There is a significant group who may be registered as ‘constitutionally backward’ yet have more money to burn than the common man on Diwali. But this very segment of the society stands testimony to the fact that financial strength can only take one so far, not close enough to the milestones of adequate exposure and access to better standards of development.

A caste census practice could, therefore, move the needle on the development of these very segments who have thrown in the towel to relax under government schemes. But they cannot be easily dismissed as being unmotivated or lazy. Take the instance of Native Indians in America living under umpteen number of government welfare schemes like health care, education, employment, housing etc. Despite support, many live below the poverty line, are less educated, and geographically more isolated. There are many reasons for this but what’s apparent is that, as a race, they have been accorded no contemporary importance (or relevance) in modern day American society.  Thanksgiving, as a tradition, is a persistent practical joke on how they were displaced from their land and authority. For those whose voices have been silenced for so long, it takes a while for them to become audible. 

Thus, it’s not always just lack of ambition that limits them but how mainstream society perceives them. Cultural differences aside, different communities and castes grow up differently in lopsided socio-economic situations also because of an implicit hierarchical structure. Pre-independence, this structure being more explicit, it determined a person’s way of life. Now, even though caste is only one of the defining factors since individual merit counts, studies like those of Prof. Narasimhachary, a Senior Associate Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Vaishnava and Hindu, reaffirm that caste consciousness continues. Prof Narasimhachary’s study declares, “The implication to be of a high or low caste is a matter of innate quality or essence”. How far then is an individual removed from society?

I think the mainstream and the marginalized fall into patterns all over the world: the mainstream, who dominate society’s mannerisms and for whom it is convenient to overlook injustices and dirty loopholes; and the marginalized, who are hyper vigilant about gestures and nuances of behaviour towards them only because they are never made to feel ‘normal’. From a grim perspective, it’s kind of like being branded with the yellow ‘Star of David’.

From a personal stand, I’ve used the reservation system to my own advantage, without coming from a downtrodden situation for which it’s supposedly meant. It has been responsible for some lack of competitive grit in me as I have been entitled to the same, perhaps even more, than those who had more merit on their profile. But make no bones about it when I say I’ve been judged, exposed and humiliated on the sole basis of my background. Reservations were never meant to be leftovers to toss to the helpless but as a means for diversity to infuse the mainstream.

In a recent job interview with a noted social activist, I was briefed about a less than desirable grammar in my compositions despite being a published and well appraised writer. I had been called only to be ‘given a chance’ so that I could make her office “colourful” as I represented, and I quote, “those who came from the far flung regions of our big country”. I wondered if this is a price I will perpetually pay for coming from where I do. Where is the fairness in this and what would be fair, after all?

These are questions that have no easy answers or direct solutions. And these questions are always hotly debated with vested political interests. Inclusion of caste in the ongoing census is neither a solution to the problem nor the problem itself. Neither is caste the problem and the differences caused by it. It is the attitude towards this diversity that makes all the difference in the socio-economic food chain.

“Imagine all the people…sharing all the world”

Will this only remain Lennon’s dream?

For a good comprehensive overview of the caste system, the author recommends the summary of Professor M. Narasimhachary’s lecture in the IK Foundation Lecture series, ‘Indian Culture in the Modern World’

Originally published on 30th September, 2010 in The Alternative.  

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