Sunday, May 21, 2006

What's Your Caste?

A couple of years ago, a friend had thrown a small party at his flat in Chennai, where I met a very attractive girl from Kerala. As luck would have it, I found myself alone in her company quite a few times during the evening. Since I had been to the state quite a few times, I sought to impress her with whatever little knowledge I had then about God's Own Country. Luck seemed to be going in my favour till I made a terrible faux pas. I happened to ask her, “Are you a Nair or a Nambiar or a…?” She cut me short, penetrating my eyes with hers, “In this day and age, how can you ask someone's caste?!”

I wished I could bury myself in the concrete floor. My question, as I look back at the incident, was merely intended at carrying on the conversation. After all, it was her charm that had kept me engaged, and charm knows no caste or religion. But I still can't figure how the evil spirit of political incorrectness gripped me momentarily that evening. Maybe deep inside I was highly nervous to blurt out something so silly. Whatever it maybe, I lost her instantly. But her question still haunts me and makes me wish I could disappear in thin air: “In this day and age, how can you ask someone’s caste?”

But come to think of it, you can — even in this day and age. If some of our politicians had their way, then the application forms for premier educational institutions are going to ask you your caste. And if some overenthusiastic politicians have their way, you would be expected to provide your caste name even when you seek a job in a call centre or in a three-star hotel. If it is politically incorrect to ask someone's caste, it is equally politically incorrect to create situations where the issue of caste leads to tensions within the society.

The dictionary, after all, gives two definitions of political correctness:

1. Of, relating to, or supporting broad social, political, and educational change, especially to redress historical injustices in matters such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.
2. Being or perceived as being overconcerned with such change, often to the exclusion of other matters

Those who conformed to the first definition of political correctness were the founding fathers of the Constitution, including B R Ambedkar, who indeed sought to redress historical injustices in matters such as caste. They provided for 22.5 percent reservation for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in government institutes and institutions. And the reservation was to be in effect for only for 10 years — the idea being that 10 years was long enough for the social imbalance to be rectified.

People who took over from the founding fathers fall under the second definition. They recognise castes as potential votes. At any rate, none of them would like to be seen as anti-dalit. So every ten years the Constitution is being amended to extend the reservation for yet another decade (that last amendment was in 1999, when the quotas were extended till January 25, 2010.) Among these people there are a few overzealous ones, such as V P Singh and Arjun Singh. Both, interestingly, belong to the upper caste and both were fiercely loyal to Indira Gandhi - the same Mrs Gandhi who had put the Mandal Commission report (recommending 27 percent additional reservation for other backward classes, or OBCs) in the cold storage.

By digging out the Mandal report, V P Singh not only dug his own political grave but also opened the gates of power for the Bharatiya Janata Party, which united the Hindus by telling them that their religion was more important than caste. One does not know the political future of Arjun Singh, who has now reopened the Pandora's Box by proposing 27 percent reservation for OBCs in IITs and IIMs and medical institutes, but he has certainly made a million enemies overnight.

Last week, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, or AIIMS, resembled the Tiananmen Square of 1989. If the students’ hunger strike at Tiananmen Square was bad news for communism in China, the hunger strike by young doctors at AIIMS could be bad news for the Congress.

As the nationwide protest against Arjun Singh’s move rages, spokesmen from either ends of the social spectrum are going to offer their views. Even a range of social scientists, much sought after by the media for a quote or two on issues ranging from dowry deaths to rising communalism, are going to offer expert comments.

But I have only two simple questions to ask:

1. Imagine two engineers, Mr X and Mr Y, working in a government organisation. Mr X had got in through the quota, while Mr Y had come in as a general candidate. They get the same salaries, they live in similar houses, they send their sons to the same school and so on. Then why should Mr X’s son be entitled to a quota once he grows up and looks for a job?

2. Sweepers might be an extinct species in metros, where people live in apartments and clean their own toilets. But back home in Kanpur, we have one: a 15-year-old boy of cheerful disposition. His grandfather was a sweeper, his mother is still a sweeper, and now him. It is quite heartbreaking to see him whistling and singing and going about cleaning the house: he should be holding a pen instead of a broom. How does the reservation policy help boys like him?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reservation politics is killing Indian talent and inviting more brain drain, nobody should keep silence about it provided he/she is truly Indian...

12:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

very good article! wish more people would take an active interest in finding ways to abolish caste system from their minds.
this is fed in the minds of young children when their school admission forms are being filled in even today....quite a sad story for independent India.

5:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wise deliberations. Its a Cruel Truth. Many feel the heat and prefer to stay cool, engaging themselves to find an alternative. Youngstars abroad shield themselves from the vices of such discremination and so hesitate to return to India. A bigger platform can review current scenes, + / - yield so far experienced and recommend appropriate step soas to prevent further damages. May God enlighten the big brains and help solve this social issue.

3:36 AM  

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