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]
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]
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]
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.
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