Caste, Reservations And Our Privilege

by | Feb 28, 2020

Caste comes out in many ways, invisible to some, on the face for others

Caste-ism like a few other topics that I’ve written on, fascism and Kashmir, is somewhat controversial, is a vast and deep subject and this blog wouldn’t be able to cover many of the nuances of this topic, but it’s a start.

I’ve taken a room a few kilometers away from my field placement in Uttarakhand, where I work for Chirag. There are two people near my house, one a dalit (let us call him Suresh) and the other one a brahmin (let us call him Ramesh), both are in their late 30s. The three of us have discussions on politics and religion and usually, in these discussions Ramesh and I agree on most things such as failed government policies, economy and communalism. But I’ve noticed that Ramesh doesn’t have a great view about Suresh’s community, he says his community is like this and they are lazy and inefficient. These people want everything for free”. On some other days Ramesh tells me that “Rajat, I like to implement work in areas where SC communities live because they are the ones that need our help the most”. One day during our usual political discussions Ramesh told me that most problems in the country are because of communalism and caste based reservations, and told me that the latter should be abolished completely and reservations should be on the basis of income. Suresh also agreed to this point, despite being a dalit. 

I don’t blame them actually because this is what I also believed till many years back. I was also not in favour of caste based reservations. There is a reason for which we think like this. It is because we have often been conditioned to think through the media, films and opinions around a binary narrative that disparity occurs only on the basis of income and the other forms of privileges such as caste, gender, race, religion etc. do not matter.

For me an eye opener to caste based disparity was a survey we did in the slums of Mumbai during my masters. I found out that out of the data we collected more than 85% of the house we surveyed were either dalit or Muslim. I found the same during our rural field work in Maharashtra where we found that most lands in the village were owned by marathas and brahmins, and most dalit families in the village don’t even have lands to farm or have no land at all. I am sure many of you can find similar stories in the villages away from the cities you live in. But when we think of caste based discrimination it is only something that’s out there in rural India in the villages or is something that is a thing of the past, but it thrives in both the rural and urban spaces.

A classic example for this how many housing societies have different lifts and toilets for maids and blue collar staff and how students coming from backward communities are harassed by professors, administration and their fellow students on the basis of their caste, driving them often to the point of suicide like the stories of Rohit Vemula and Payal Tadvi.

Why Are Reservations Important And What Is It’s Purpose?

There is a famous photo from a woman’s conference in Saudi Arabia, the reason behind the photo being famous is because there were no woman in it. Remember this alibi as you read further.

This is a famous photo from a woman’s conference in Saudi Arabia, the reason behind the photo being famous is because there were no woman in it. Remember this alibi as you read further.

The caste system in India is thousands of years old and was implemented in different parts of the country in different periods of time. When this happened it created two communities – one of haves and the other of ‘have-nots’. The ‘haves’ had the ownership of land, access to education, trade, resources and access to public amenities such as roads and water sources and more importantly prestige and important privileged occupations such as those of a priests, soldiers, merchants etc. The ‘have-nots’ on the other had none of the above and they were stripped of their ownership of land, their access to public amenities and their access to resources restricted or cut off and finally they were also restricted to do menial jobs.

More importantly, the effect of the caste system was psychological as it convinced the haves that they were ‘superior’ and ‘pure’ owing to their birth and it convinced the ‘have-nots’ that they were sub-humans who were impure and inferior owing to birth. The below chart shows that even the well-being levels in India have a caste hierarchy as well with more than half of the SC & ST population belongs to the poorest two quin-tiles (based on consumption expenditure data). Roughly 40% of OBCs and 20% of upper caste Hindus also fall in the poorest two quin-tiles.

By the time the British came it created many positions in the administration, army and educational institutes were created, since the upper castes especially the men who were not bound by the shackles of oppression like the lower-castes, they were able to access these services better than their lower caste citizens. If we take a look at the caste-based demographics of the country the general category accounts for 22.8%, the SCs 16.6%, STs 8.6% and OBCs the largest block constitute about 52%. Many lower castes remain outside the economic and political system because they are socially excluded because they were cut off from access to privileges that the others enjoy. This historical injustice has caused disproportionate representation of lower castes who account for 77% of the population in many fields including the media, administration, bureaucracy, and higher education just to name a few. Let me just illustrate this disproportionate representation from an excerpt from an article by Kushwant Singh using the example of one particular community, the Brahmins.

“Brahmins form no more than 3.5% of the population of the country but hold as as 70% of the government jobs. I presume that these figures only refer to gazetted posts. In the senior echelons of the civil service from the rank of deputy secretaries upwards, out of 500 there are 310 brahmins; of the 26 state chief secretaries, 19 are brahmins; of the 27 governors and Lt. governors 13 are brahmins; of the 16 supreme court judges, 9 are brahmins; of the 330 judges of the high courts, 166 are brahmins; of 140 ambassadors, 58 are brahmins; of 98 vice-chancellors 50 are brahmins; of 438 district magistrates, 250 are brahmins; of the total of 3,300 IAS officers, 2,376 are brahmins.

They do equally well in electoral posts; of the 530 Lok Sabha members, 190 are brahmins, of 244 in the Rajya Sabha, 89 are brahmins. These statistics clearly prove that this 3.5% of brahmin community of India holds between 36 to 63% of all the plum jobs available in the country. How this has come about I don’t know. But I can scarcely believe that it is entirely due to the brahmin’s higher I.Q”.

excerpt from an article by Khushwant Singh

The answer is not high IQ or superiority but having access to privilege for generations like the white in USA or South Africa, who have not been discriminated historically. The purpose of reservations or affirmative action policies is to provide ‘representation’ to communities who have been disenfranchised historically. The important word here is representation, not income generation, not poverty nor jobs. Reservations is not a poverty alleviation program nor an employee guarantee scheme but a policy to ensure that historically disenfranchised communities have representation through which they have an equal and balanced share of power just like general category in proportion to their population in all spheres. It ensures diversity of communities in different fields such executive, legislature, judiciary, education etc. Just like how women needed representation and participation in the conference that is meant for them in the earlier image.

Many critics may argue that reservations especially in education generates sub-par performers who may be under-qualified. But what’s important to note here is that reservation only gives a person entry to a particular college/university, but he/she would have to have to pass and obtain a degree, he or she would have to score the same marks as their peers. This policy is not something that is unique to India, many countries do follow affirmative action policies including the Brazil, USA, Columbia, France, Finland, South Africa just to name a few. Several top universities have quotas for people from Asian and African countries to have diversity and many Indians use these quotas to get into top universities can often be found to blame reservations in India for their troubles.

Understanding Our Privileges

This is something that I read on twitter once – “caste doesn’t exist for the upper caste. Class doesn’t exist for the upper class. Patriarchy doesn’t exist for men. Race doesn’t exist for the white. In a nutshell, what you don’t experience doesn’t exist”. This is my last blog here and the reason I choose this topic is for some of us to understand our privilege and know that many of our achievements that we call as merit is partly due to the accident of birth and the privileges that came with it. As Anupama Pain once told in the fellowship’s mid-point training class “privilege is something that is often invisible to those who have it”.

This blog is dedicated to the memory of Rohit Vemula. If you are more interested to know about the nuances of caste, I suggest that you start by watching the documentary India Untouched and reading the book Annihilation of Caste by Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar plus these 11 books.

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