See update below.
So… I get a phone call yesterday. It’s a reporter from the Financial Times who wants to know what I feel about the recent ban on the movie Aarakshan in certain states, and also what do I feel about caste-based reservations in general, whether caste is still relevant in the India of today, the theory that quotas just increase inequality etc.. I tell her I haven’t seen the movie, and if she still wants to know what I feel about caste-based reservations we could talk for a bit. She says she absolutely wants to know. So I say fine, and we have a 45-minute conversation. Allow me to reproduce a very simplified version of that conversation (in Q&A forrmat):
1. Q: Do you believe movies like Aarakshan can be provocative or controversial; as in, are certain groups justified in taking offence and asking for a ban?
A: I think there is no straightforward relationship between a cultural product (a film or play or book) and its capacity to offend public sensibility or a particular community. There are instances where very ‘provocative’ or ‘bold’ topics have been dealt with in a cultural product and passed silently into the night; and on the other hand there have been instances where a seemingly ‘mild’ or heavily academic (as opposed to racy, provocative bestseller or box-office hit) product has been protested vociferously. I think groups certainly have a right to protest but in India we tend to have a political culture in which such protests either suddenly erupt on the streets or end up in litigation. Neither route helps us as a society to publicly debate the issue, which is critical if we are to get anywhere with it. Having said that, I’m opposed to censorship in general, whether self-imposed, state-imposed or group-imposed.
2. BUT, do caste-based groups have a right to ask for a ban?
A: Well, let’s remember not only caste-based groups, but all kinds of groups, interests and individuals have asked for a ban or punitive action, from religious communities to individual entrepreneurs like Arindam Chaudhuri who has filed a defamation suit against Caravan magazine for an article (apparently it’s offence was that it was truthful). And of course, let’s not forget the curious case of coca-cola and mercedes asking for their brand logos to be removed from visibility in the movie Slumdog Millionaire since they were associated with the villain. Oh, and if all else fails, an individual or business house can simply make the product vanish from the shelves overnight – the curiouser case of the biography of Dhirubhai Ambani – Polyester Prince. Blinked and missed it!
3. What do you feel about quotas and reservations? Are they justified? I mean, is caste still relevant today?
A: Caste and rampant casteism is utterly and absolutely prevalent in the India of today. Let’s not even go into rural areas or pick up crime statistics against dalits and untouchables, shocking and conclusive as they are (I think the phrase ‘atrocity against Dalits has become so common that it ceases to even shock). Let’s look for something closer to home: for instance, comments on hundreds of blogs and websites where upper-caste commentators make absolutely no effort to hide their caste, and use the most offensive language when referring to dalits and untouchable castes. Or for instance a fact that should disturb all of us: over 95% of all sweepers, cleaners, sewage workers and sanitation workers are from the formerly scheduled or untouchable castes. On the other hand, one survey showed that around the same number – 96% – is the proportion of upper-castes in the media. Something in that ball park goes for all the lucrative and/or prestigious professions in this country. In the private sector, if an untouchable caste member finds employment in a non-menial capacity, she or he faces severe problems in upward mobility because HR managers look for traits that are a product of public school education – again, a preserve of the upper-castes. In fact, almost everything we recognise as ‘merit’ is nurtured by a positive family environment and good schooling – often a luxury or impossibility for those from the ‘reserved’ castes.
So what is this if not the resilience of caste? Access to all the facilities for a good life, for a decent human existence is overwhelmingly skewed in favour of the upper castes in India. So unless we are serious about actually universalising life-chances (would require at the very least a budget similar to our nuclear programme just to universalise primary education) let’s not talk about removing quotas.
4. So you’re saying it’s really like a cycle of disadvantage that needs to be broken (here I say, absolutely, we need to intervene in the situation, as many societies have). What about the suggestion that it should be class and not caste-based?
A: A long time ago, I too thought this was the perfect solution. Until I saw documentaries and testimonies of dalits and untouchable castes, until I met enough members of historically disadvantaged castes to understand that caste is not just a simple lack of money and access. It is a lifelong feeling of being thought as ‘lesser’ in some way – less pure (by blood or habit), less qualified, less competent, less moral, less Hindu/Muslim/Sikh/Christian, less entitled, less hygienic, less attractive, less intelligent, less enterprising, less trustworthy. In a word, less HUMAN. For a dalit person , who stands at the end of a long chain of ancestral humiliation, to be told caste is simply an economic disadvantage is a slap in the face.
5. But will quotas solve that?
A: Of course not. But they will provide a foot in the door. Without quotas, the marginalised of this country lose even that.
6. What about the creamy layer argument?
A: Hmm, the creamy layer argument!! The way I see it, which resource in this country isn’t grabbed by the creamy layer? Every single avenue or mobility in our intensely, desperately competitive society is in the hands of the creamy layer, and here I mean those within the upper castes. We just feel offended if that creamy layer is within a reserved category. Actually, even a creamy layer individual grabbing a reserved seat is better than not having reservation. We should be confronted with the discomfort that our prejudice generates when we see real diversity in the educational institute or workplace. And a person from even the creamy layer of quotas will serve that purpose well (because as I said, caste simply isn’t economic, it’s social and historic humiliation). If there can be a better system that really distributes access across different strata within the marginalised castes, let’s find it. But let’s not use the creamy layer argument as an alibi to cover our horror of reservation.
7. Outlook recently had a story which profiled dalit entrepreneurs…
A: A handful of dalit entrepreneurs (or even a thousand) doth not an equal society make. There are 165 million dalits in this country, and if outlook can cover the success stories in one issue, it should give us pause to think. In any case, quotas are for a very small proportion of jobs, only those in the public sector. Plus, our clever authorities keep finding ways to subvert those seats too. (If you have space, I want this to be in your article) for example, Delhi University’s recent move to convert to the semester system (in the face of overwhelming resistance from teachers and many students) has a lesser-known side-effect. It will actually make it harder for any student with an educational disadvantage (Hindi medium students, those with a rural background or government school) to pass, because the annual mode of examination allows teachers to pay a little extra attention to those students who need it. No wonder almost all Hindi medium students at the masters level which follows semester-mode have failed in recent years. Sorry, no foot in door.
At this point, the reporter says, thanks ma’am for your time. What is your designation etc.? I say can you please send me the exact quotes that will be in the article, because I’ve had a not-great experience with newspapers. She says sure, can you check your mail in half an hour and reply immediately? So I put aside my tasks and do so. I correct or clarify what she sends me and tell her great, look forward to reading the article. I now give you the link to the article, where not only are there charming factual errors regarding my gender and job, but disturbingly, my arguments have been used to make it seem like I am opposed to reservations!! Before you click on the link I just want to say that I am doing this exercise not just because of how important this issue is, but because it’s really a simple, telling instance of how the big media works. I truly don’t believe it’s the reporter’s fault personally, because she is probably working under impossible deadlines and demands. But what in the machine of big media must allow the churning and spitting out of such utter mis-representation? Mine is by no means a unique or even serious instance. I know several Kafila colleagues have stopped talking to newspapers or television channels because of countless such instances. Why should we believe anything in the big media then?
Is FT trying to be cute? Or clever? Oh, both.
Update: Both correspondents have recently assured me they take the matter very seriously, and that they have further changed the online version. I would like to put on record I appreciate this very much, but that I remain dissatisfied with the final version. I guess this tells us more about the machinery of news and a generalised climate of anti-reservation sentiment among the media than it does about individual intentions. Their version now: