Affirmative action: Here and over there

Over the tipline we are often asked by Indians living in India why we (as individuals) don’t blog more about certain Indian issues (especially those dominating the Indian media). The simple answer is that you most likely wouldn’t want to read what we have to say about many Indian issues. We aren’t Indian nationals, we all reside in North America, and we are all U.S citizens (except for our current guest blogger who runs our Canadian operations). This means that our opinions, at best, would provide some with a broader perspective on a given topic, and at worst could come across as ignorant or ill-informed. There are better places to read about Indian issues if that is what you are looking for. And yet, those of us who write for SM have definitely felt some resentment at times from parts of the Indian blogosphere, both when we blog an “Indian issue,” and when we don’t.

I know that the current hot topic in the Indian media is the battle over a quota system in Indian universities. I wasn’t going to write a post about it because the Indian educational system doesn’t affect me in any way. However, my mom mentioned the debate to me over the phone and we got to discussing it. I realized how similar and how different the debate in India is as compared to the affirmative action debate in the U.S. Being a graduate of the University of Michigan, the central battlefield for affirmative action in the U.S., I have some definite opinions on the subject and am generally in favor of affirmative action and the type of educational environment it leads to when implemented and executed properly.

My mom opined that she kind of supported the protestors in India. I pressed my mom on the matter a bit since I am more inclined to support a quota system of some kind. What about 3000 years of class oppression? You can’t just erase that with pithy protest slogans like:

DON’T MIX POLITICS WITH MERIT; QUOTAS: THIS CURE IS WORSE THAN THE DISEASE; MERIT IS MY CASTE, WHAT’S YOURS?… [Link]

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p>Time Magazine Asia breaks down the central arguments in the debate:

“Modern India should be built on merit, not caste,” says Dr. Sudip Sen, 34, a Ph.D. student in biochemistry at AIIMS. “What’s next — are we going to let a slow runner represent India in the Olympics? No, we are going to send our best runner out for the 100 meters, no matter his caste. It should be the same for all fields.”

Countless other Indian medical workers who have gone on strike this week feel much the same as Sen, which is why India’s sudden battle over affirmative action makes the ongoing divide in the U.S. over racial preferences seem tame by comparison. Public hospitals across the country have shut their doors to all but emergency services; private hospitals in some Delhi suburbs are following suit; trade unions have called for a morning of civil disobedience; and students at India’s elite business schools are meeting to plan their own protests. In spite of the disruption, the government has sworn that it will not back down, regardless of who resigns or how many protest. Increased quotas, it claims, are the only way to foster social equality at the institutions that are driving the Indian economy forward.

That fast-growing economy often makes it easy to forget India’s rigidly stratified past. But any country hurtling along the path to modernization is at risk of being occasionally slowed down by the weight of its own history, and in this case, India has been yanked to a crawl by 3,000 years of a strictly codified social pecking order. [Link]

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The underlying argument in support of affirmative action in India, as well as in this country, is that even though the system is “pretty good” today, you can’t just set aside injustices of the past as if they stopped having any effect on the present. In a perfect world everyone would advance only on their merits. The world has never been perfect though. Sometimes two wrongs is the only way to do right, especially given that family wealth has a way of passing from generation to generation, thereby maintaining social and class divides, and often strengthening them.

Unlike race or class, caste is not something that can be read in the color of one’s skin or in the cut of one’s clothes. Caste is written in a far more nuanced language of family name, livelihood, origin and identity politics; yet it is an issue that has managed to polarize the nation. Urban Indians, increasingly categorized by wealth, say that caste has no bearing on the kind of jobs they can get, yet classified matrimonial ads often list caste as a principal criterion in the search for a suitable spouse. In the countryside, caste defines not just social status and employment opportunities, but also access to education. [Link]

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p>Even having been born in America I can easily see the subtle ways that the unofficial caste system has been kept alive in the thoughts and attitudes of many Indian Americans. Caste was not left behind in India but rather came to America like a stowaway rat aboard a ship, and like a rat it does most of its business in the dark corners of the room. As I kept talking on the phone with my mom I realized what was driving my opposition to her support, albeit lukewarm, of the protesting doctors and students. I wanted revenge. I wanted revenge for all the ignorant comments I had heard about “Untouchables” on my trips to India. I wanted revenge against all the people that think being part of the Brahmin-caste actually means something, or is worth mentioning in casual conversation. I wanted the students to continue their hunger strike and I wanted them to ultimately capitulate. I feel bad for them and feel it is unfair that they should have to shoulder the brunt of Indian history, but even society has a collective karma. As many know well, bad karma cannot be protested away and doesn’t care about hunger strikes. It must be worked off, often through the suffering of those that appear to be innocent. Maybe it is a good thing that there is no easy solution to this conflict.

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p>The final decisions will likely be driven by politics anyway. India’s voting poor outnumber the voting middle-class and the rich:

“It is ridiculous to think that those protesting the reservation system are elitists intent on maintaining their superiority and that those who support them are representing the people,” says Andre Beteille, a Delhi University professor and scholar of social inequity in India. “This situation is not about caste, it’s about politics.” Cynics echo that view, pointing out that the lower castes who would benefit from the reforms are one of the most active voting blocs in state elections. [Link]

See related post: Americans love their Indian reservations

185 thoughts on “Affirmative action: Here and over there

  1. Wow. Way to jump on a commenter, A N N A- I think “casual observer” was just trying to encourage Abhi to blog on more Indian issues such as this because this topic is generating a lot of intelligent discussion and interest from SM readers.

    IMO, there’s nothing “casual” about what was observed– and that’s why I reacted the way I did. I read it and immediately thought of the entire “Indian vs. South Asian” debate which has once again crashed our party; unfortunately, it’s the fight that never ends and that is exactly why I pushed back.

    This is a blog where plenty of people have absolutely NO problem telling me exactly what they think of my thoughts and I won’t be denied the right to do similar. You find “intelligence” and “interest” from our readers and that isn’t some happy accident which proves our opponent’s point. I found parts of this discussion offensive, ignorant and rather useless (and that is why certain comments have been deleted and why the trolls who left them were banned).

    Great post, Abhi.

    Yes, it is.

  2. SpoorLam: i lowe the you. You have biggest balls of saffron of all ;) You have arranged a good match for your cousin sister, how about me next (with you)? I shyly hide behind my dupatta hoping for our perfect horoscopic match — I hope we are better match than Ram-Sita (and that you turn me out at my worst moment only if you have to)! If only hope our parents and whole panchayat will bless it too!

    Ha ha Good work friend… would be awesome if you become a guest blogger some day :)

  3. I’m also now a SpoorLam fan — your comments are hilarious. Thanks for making this thread a little more bearable, espcially after the egregiously offensive comments from Anand about “Tattistan.” This person should be banned — you can’t conceal your bigotry behind the veil of legitimate genetics research, the conclusions of which you’ve completely misconstrued to support your agenda.

  4. hairy_d:

    i don’t discriminate, i regulate any shade of the a$$

    saurav:

    the literature on the genomics of caste is big and getting bigger. i cited the bamshad study because it is a universally acknowledged landmark. it was the first large scale autosomal battery (a necessity as mtDNA and Y chromosomal DNA show confounding results, because the males and females of South Asian populations often have different histories — e.g. male introgression w/ local female populations). And Parth Majumder’s group in India independently replicated most of the major results with a different battery of loci in a followup paper in Genome Research.

    jai:

    I love it when people have absolutely no idea about the educational background of other people yet assume that the latter “knows nothing” when discussing a certain topic

    Look. You said, period point blank:

    Caste” is an artificial construct. Genetically, there is no such thing.

    That statement is simply not true. No one who has looked at the sequence data could say something like that. Try publishing a paper that says that in Genome Research or Nature Genetics — you won’t get past review. I’m not trying to be mean or rude, just stating the facts.

    regarding the rest of your comment:

    Using some examples, is there any such thing as a Californian “race” ? For a long time, people in towns, villages, and cities in the West rarely migrated outside of their locality and married only amongst themselves; would it therefore be appropriate to classify such individuals into “actual” races constituting human sub-groups/sub-divisions, even if we use the term “caste” instead ?

    Bolded premise is false as it’s not true that this has happened for a “long time”. Migration dominates the recent past of California. As you may know, if you look at the evolution equation for a quantitative trait or the allele frequency of a single locus, migration on that scale will tend to make a population well mixed and prevent differentiation. You can show this easily with an island model.

    do you really think extramarital affairs, forced assault, abuse, etc. never happened for so many years?

    Yeah, well, the amazing and perhaps counterintuitive fact about South Asia is that populations are in fact not well mixed despite their geographic proximity. Seems like religious taboos were pretty intense. You can in fact work out the amount of gene flow between caste groups from the available sequence data to determine the extent of endogamy. First cite above does exactly that and pegs it at 1-2 percent per generation. Once we start using some of the new Affy 500k chips on South Asian populations we will be able to make that number more precise. However by any measure endogamy rates have been very high.

    I’m not saying this is a good thing. It just is. And to say that caste has “no genetic basis” is simply not true. You can do blind classification studies given genomic measurements to identify caste, just as you can with continental scale race.

    It may be the case that different caste groups are identical in all significant neurological traits while exhibiting significant, measurable differences in genome content. But given the facts on the ground, one cannot presuppose genetic indistinguishability to rule out neurological variation as was done above (“”Caste” is an artificial construct. Genetically, there is no such thing. Therefore, you cannot “analyse” any alleged underlying genetic factors determining IQ.”).

  5. espcially after the egregiously offensive comments from Anand about “Tattistan.” This person should be banned — you can’t conceal your bigotry behind the veil of legitimate genetics research, the conclusions of which you’ve completely misconstrued to support your agenda.

    And he was.

  6. Genetics do play a role in academic excellence. Definitely part of skills carry over from parents to kids.. But that does not mean skill can’t change. For example, second generation kids of parents who made use of the reservation system to change their jobs/professions etc.. turn out to be equally good to their counterparts. A sample case is the cutoff marks for admissions to medical courses in Tamilnadu. It is around 295-OC / 294-BC / 292-MBC / 287-SC / 274-ST.. out of 300.. Many of the students who avail of reservation benefits who score such high marks belong to the creamy layer. But it puts paid to the notion that somehow merit is tied to one particular group by the use of endogamy (or arranged marriages within the same gene pool).. If you think about the person who scored the last qualifying mark (91%) from the Scheduled tribes, a couple of generations before his/her ancestors were doing menial jobs.. This is a good reason why reservations are needed and doing the intended job pretty good..

    Reservations with the skimming off of creamy layer is what needed..

  7. it will be interesting to see south asians loosing admissions in prestigious universities in US as a result of affirmative actions or quotas.its too hip to say you support quotas/affirmative actions when you are not on loosing side. I hope they bring 30 % reservation for blacks and 20 % for latinos with requirement only c grades and low sat score. and then we will see your brown ass views!!

  8. Strongly disagree there. As an example my family is Brahmin too and I feel like some of them do lord it, even if it is in subtle ways.

    So do all kinds of other people lord it. If you make a claim such as this, you need to show that your family lords it because they are Brahmin, and not because they have money, or privilege, or for any other reason. Many non-Brahmins throw their weight around, so your argument that your family lords it therefore Brahmins lord it is weak, if not entirely invalid. My family is also Brahmin and they are very humble and poor.

    Secondly, it is the upper classes that talk about abolishment of caste, mixed marriages, etc. The lower castes tend cling to their caste. We need look for the reasons behind this before inflicting the supposedly enlightened views of the upper classes on the lower ones.

    Someone posted all kinds of statistics about the indignities inflicted on dalits. This is true. If you delve a little further you will find that most of the atrocious indignities inflicted on Dalits are done by the OBC’s. For some reason people automatically assume that it is the Brahmins who are responsible. This is not the case.

  9. Being Brahmin has meant nothing since the 1960s when university quota systems were established and many Brahmins fled India for the west.

    This claim that Brahmins “fled” to the west is bogus. Those who have apparently “fled” to the west are the priviledged people amongst Indian society. This is classic excuse of “victim-hood”. Access to immigrate remains todate a privilege. These arent some people fighting tyrannical govt. Gimme a break !!!

  10. FYI, for what it’s worth I didn’t see anand’s comment on “tattistan” before I posted my original comment. I’m not defending that kind of sentiment and it’s unfortunate that he chose to make his point in that way. Didn’t read through the whole 100 comment thread and was primarily responding to the claim re: genetics of caste in my posts here. Anyway, I may be evil/etc. in some respects, but I don’t endorse gratuitous denigration.

  11. Many non-Brahmins throw their weight around, so your argument that your family lords it therefore Brahmins lord it is weak, if not entirely invalid. My family is also Brahmin and they are very humble and poor.

    Yeah, like that was the argument I was making. Please. I am so sorry for persecuting Brahmins. I should be punished somehow. Maybe in a public square or something.

  12. This comment is in relation to the thread regarding caste and its biological foundations. I think the most problematic jump in logic is when one connects phenotypic characterstics, such as skin color, hair texture and facial features, to intelligence. I believe Anand commits this flaw. What does the color of ur skin or the texture of ur hair have to do with intelligence? How do they correlate exactly? Biologically speaking.

    It is true that you could create vague categories such as ‘caste’ and ‘race’ based on these phenotypic characteristics but these are no longer considered useful categories by most geneticists. Genetically speaking, we are more similar than we are distinct. Human are 99% identical genetically. Not suprising given that humans share the same ancestry dating back thousands of years to Mother Africa. The small bits of DNA strands that have resulted in different phenotypic characterstics can hardly be correlated to intelligence or ‘IQ’ (which itself is a nonsensical concept).

    Also, someone mentioned that the term ‘racism’ was amorphous and poorly defined? If you are an essentialist about ‘race’, that is you believe not only that they exist, based on various physical characteristics, but also that these physical groupings determinine individual or cultural achievement/worth….then you are a RACIST. Although the argument in this discussion was about caste, the central thesis is identical to one which a racist will defend. In the defintion above, simply replace ‘race’ with ‘caste’ and you will see the remarkable parity.

    I suggest the racists be mature and face the fact that they are defending a doctrine that has been thoroughly debunked and tarnished(for good reason).

  13. Anand has a nice theory on genetics/intelligence/reservations. Maybe he can volunteer his kids to be taken to a tribal area / slum and left there for twenty years (or maybe more say a couple of generations) and see if by natural intelligence they can come out of there with flying colours..

    :-)

    On a related note, I read recently that Akbar the Mughal ruler tried to find the natural religion of a new born baby by isoalting it into a room without any external influence.. And after a few years the babies turned out dumb..

  14. Anuja,

    Re: post #162

    Superbly written argument, and exactly the point I have been trying to make. Thank you for stating your case more eloquently than I was able to.

    If people want to subdivide themselves (and others) into pseudo-racial groups such as “caste”, and want to use genetics as a way of somehow validating this kind of mindset, then they are welcome to do so. As for me, I think the whole premise is false from a religious perspective, outdated from a civilisational perspective, and one which should be consigned to the garbage can of history, rather than continuing to be used either to perpetuate notions of superiority or to provide yet another excuse to segregate oneself from one’s fellow human beings.

  15. Yeah, like that was the argument I was making. Please. I am so sorry for persecuting Brahmins. I should be punished somehow. Maybe in a public square or something.

    Wrong apology. The charge was that you were being illogical and not that you were persecuting Brahmins.

  16. Wrong apology. The charge was that you were being illogical and not that you were persecuting Brahmins.

    You calling someone else illogical is rich.

  17. Abhi writes: >>you canÂ’t just set aside injustices of the past as if they stopped having any effect on the present. …Sometimes two wrongs is the only way to do right,

    Now now, Abhi. When Hindutvadis make these deductions about Muslims, they are flayed left and right. But somehow this argument is thrown about wantonly when it comes to reservations. By the same people who do the flaying!!

    M. Nam

  18. Now now, Abhi. When Hindutvadis make these deductions about Muslims…

    Sorry, I have better things to do on my Tuesday morning than verbally joust with bitter Hindutvadis.

  19. Anuja, Excellent post. I second Jai’s comments. I didn’t want to feed that troll Anand, so kept quiet. There was NO LOGIC whatsoever in his comments. He had no place to go after saying people were genetically different or have different physical traits. Then what? How do you relate that to IQ? There is no logical connection. It’s really amazing how hysterical and desperate some people are about genetic differences, biological theories of race etc. It would be more productive for them to try and understand their own investment in biological difference. To me, it’s the most nonsensical and retrograde way of trying to understand culture and society. Actually we do need to have more ‘tattis’ in India, and I am with Gandhiji–everyone should clean after themselves. And Anand should be made in-charge of them. After a year we should measure his IQ.

  20. When Hindutvadis make these deductions about Muslims they are flayed left and right

    HA HA HA HA!

    Well done brother! Truly your logic is uncontestable!

    We have flayed them with our saffron balls which are pumping in full effect now!

    Let’s see the PseudoSecular Mutiny wriggle out of this one!

    I predict the response though, that the comparison is wrong because Hindutavadis allegedly kill Muslims in state orchestrated genocides and tear down mosques to satisfy their blood lusts and persection complexes, amongst other totality of bigotry, which is all fabrication of Arundhati Roy who was awarded prize by Muslim owned Halal Booker Prize.

    If only they knew how we suffered! For 63 trillion years! Because the brahmin suffering under the Mlechha Muslim is directly equivalent, to the alleged oppression of chooras dalits (which is all fabricated)

    Oh how we have suffered from their crimes! My ass is still sore from the Abrahamic raping.

    MoorNam my brother, is your ass still sore? It must be why you are so reich about everything!

    Hail Mogambo!

  21. Sorry, I have better things to do on my Tuesday morning than verbally joust with bitter Hindutvadis.

    Well, I for one am praying (but not to the Monotheists god) that Spoor Lam doesn’t have better things to do. S. Lam, we await your take.

    Hail, etc.

  22. All hail!

    You beat me to it. Wow, Spoor Lam, your timing is impeccable.

    Another victory for Hindu civilization.

  23. i am happy i did not participate in this thread this long. they go nowhere.

    see, it took till comment #55 (which has since been largely ignored) for people to even discuss something sane. first the reservation in question is not for dalits and sc/sts, they get nothing out of it, and no one wants to roll it back. the only questions in my mind are (i) whether you should add 25% more, or a different number (ii) whether there will be a loss of seats for merit based admissions now, (iii) is the current obc list really completely valid or should it be pruned? second, apart from a few posts after that, every post is either “brahmins are evil” or “no they are not”. and not to mention the ridiculous racist comments thrown all around.

    and of course, abhi the mess of course started with your blog itself. rss and narendra modi would be proud of you—your revenge principle is sort of what they have against muslims.

  24. and of course, abhi the mess of course started with your blog itself. rss and narendra modi would be proud of you—your revenge principle is sort of what they have against muslims.

    Yes, it was all about a revenge principle. Everyone knows how I support Modi and the RSS sarcasm. If you don’t like my blog posts then don’t read them. That’s why this is a group blog.

  25. what. bytewords. said.

    Even among the zillions of unproductive, induce-anger-till-veins-on-your-forehead-throb threads on the internet, this one ranks pretty high.

  26. Another victory for Hindu civilization

    Victory is guaranteed! London bows before us and pride has been restored to England!

    Soon the school children of Bakersfield and Santa Cruz-Watsonville will be trembling at the textbooks after we shame them into recognising the pinnacle of our glory. I am personally tracking the movements of elements of the Left Wing Cabal to their secret meeting place where they plot the destruction of Hindu civilisation. Doniger, Chaterjee, PseudoSecular Mutiny, Roy, Pankaj Mishra, all of them meet there in between offering dua to Jesus and Allah and machinate for the destruction of Hindus everywhere. Room rented by Pakistan ISI.

    I am making a band of braves, led by MoorNam, myself, and the other great true Indian Americans of like mind to burst into their cabal meeting and threaten them with our saffron balls. So it shall be spoken:

    “Don’t twist our scrotum anymore, evil cabal! We have Infosys and 8% growth rate and nuclear weapons! We’re the best minority in America and win Spelling Bees! The game’s over for you Leftist Cabal! Stop hypnotising the American Indian youth to marry Abrahamics and negroes! Don’t tickle our balls anymore, we have Hindu Pride!”

    So it shall be. Hindu Pride will be restored. The Muslim’s crimes against our collective persecuted ass will be avenged. Until we decide to avenge it again.

    And we are also the most tolerant.

    Hail Mogambo! etc etc etc

  27. and of course, abhi the mess of course started with your blog itself. rss and narendra modi would be proud of you—your revenge principle is sort of what they have against muslims.

    Why do you think “revenge principle” is wrong??.. Not volunteering for Abhi, he was mentioning the casual remarks he hears about Dalits by his family members and wants revenge.. Sounds logical to me.. In the same vein, Modi’s revenge if he hears the constant taunts by Muslims on Ghazni’s sack of Somnath sounds logical too..

  28. Even among the zillions of unproductive, induce-anger-till-veins-on-your-forehead-throb threads on the internet, this one ranks pretty high.

    have you read spoorlam’s comments????

  29. Why do you think “revenge principle” is wrong??.. Not volunteering for Abhi, he was mentioning the casual remarks he hears about Dalits by his family members and wants revenge..

    How about this. The next person that leaves a quote misrepresenting me gets banned. Once again. If you don’t like this post go elsewhere.

  30. How about this. The next person that leaves a quote misrepresenting me gets banned. Once again. If you don’t like this post go elsewhere.

    chill out. what do you think, that you run this weblog? :) vox populi, vox dei!

  31. If you don’t like my blog posts then don’t read them.

    Oh come on—this is the kind of comment not even worth responding too! Still, I didn’t ask you to not write blogs. And if you can write blogs, I can very well comment on them.

  32. Oh come on—this is the kind of comment not even worth responding too!

    And yet you did.

    And if you can write blogs, I can very well comment on them.

    Yes, and if you compare me to Modi and the RSS I can very well ban your ass.

  33. How about this. The next person that leaves a quote misrepresenting me gets banned.

    Evil Abhi,

    LOL.. are you the real “abhi”?..

    Dude this is what I read from the blog..

    As I kept talking on the phone with my mom I realized what was driving my opposition to her support, albeit lukewarm, of the protesting doctors and students. I wanted revenge. I wanted revenge for all the ignorant comments I had heard about “Untouchables” on my trips to India. I wanted revenge against all the people that think being part of the Brahmin-caste actually means something, or is worth mentioning in casual conversation.

    Now figure out what it means and tell me if my comment was wrong..

  34. have you read spoorlam’s comments????

    Razib, it was funny when not overdone. Now its like a permutation of his previous posts.

    But I agree that this entire argument has been derailed. First, by the unnecessary rants about race and genetics being determinants of caste, and later by this us-versus-them Brahmin/Dalit oppression dialogue. No one wants to address the issue of reservations any longer. Or of the merits of demerits of the system as opposed to affirmative action in education at all levels.

  35. Now figure out what it means and tell me if my comment was wrong..

    The impulse for revenge/justice one sometimes feels and acting upon it are two different things. I was admiting the base impulses within me that wanted to see justice for dalits even at the expense of another wrong. Comparing me to people who have actully committed genocide just because I admitted my passing thoughts to provide insight is unfair at best.