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Not caste in stone

Indians seem to react to Mayawati in only two kinds of ways: either with odious prejudice or with irrational reverence, writes Barkha Dutt.

columns Updated: Apr 23, 2008 11:32 IST

Remember a young man called Rajeev Goswami? In 1990, the 20-year-old Delhi University graduate was the poster-boy for student rebellion when he doused himself with kerosene and set himself on fire to protest Other Backward Classes (OBC) quotas in government jobs. In 2004, he died unmourned, unnoticed and entirely irrelevant. In a sense, his journey — from being almost famous to entirely anonymous — maps India’s own up-and-down ride on the reservations rollercoaster.

So, this week when the final word was spoken on the quota debate, you didn’t see any streetside immolations or frenzied protestors fighting water cannons and teargas to mark their anger. Other than some mild whimpering and whining, there seems to be a placid, almost-fatigued acceptance of the Supreme Court verdict.

Does this mean India can now forget all about the affirmative action debate and get on with life? Well, yes and no. Partly because the SC has imposed entirely reasonable riders (children of affluent and influential OBC parents cannot use the quota card; review OBC caste list every five years and increase the number of general seats in the IITs and IIMs), and partly because the Indian State has simply failed to offer any equity in primary and secondary education, with all our misgivings, we accept that this verdict was probably the best middle-ground possible.

But simmering under the surface of an apparent calm is a bubbling caste cauldron that will boil over and burn India sooner rather than later. And what’s keeping the flames ablaze is centuries of prejudice cooking in the same curry as overweening political correctness. Much is said (and rightly so) about the former. But we completely underestimate how damaging mealy-mouthed proclamations of egalitarianism can be, especially when they end up determining government policy and public discourse. Frankly, the caste debate has become so trapped in textbook clichés that it’s all become just a lot of humbug.

Ironically, nothing illustrated that better than Mayawati’s appallingly casteist attack on Rahul Gandhi this week. There’s no question that the Dalit politician herself is regularly at the receiving end of crass asides from India’s social elite. Drawing-room chatter will invariably focus on her looks, her diamond and pearls, her birthday celebrations, her obsession with pink — all expressed in the manner of old maharajas yet to come to terms with the death of royalty. The silent subtext is that she is not ‘like us’, and how dare she think she is. In many ways, the political ascent of Mayawati represents all that is best about Indian democracy: a single woman, who has lived on her own terms and has given a political voice to a people suppressed for centuries.

But Indians seem to react to Mayawati in only two kinds of ways: either with odious prejudice or with irrational reverence. So, when the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister turned the caste pyramid on its head by accusing Rahul Gandhi of “purifying” himself with a “special soap” every time he meets someone of her caste, she got away with a statement that would have been unequivocally condemned had it come from anyone else. Quite apart from the curious question of how she has such intimate information on the elusive Gandhi, she was playing into ancient anxieties that her own community has long left behind. In other words, she was ensuring that the ordinary Dalit continues to see every other caste as the ‘enemy’; she was keeping alive insecurity in the same community that she has so radically empowered. If that isn’t casteist, and even worse, manipulative, I don’t know what is.

And yet, we assume that our society’s entrenched social prejudice somehow liberates certain caste groups from the normal decencies that others are expected to deliver on. But each time we evaluate such political behaviour through the prism of political correctness, we only deepen the faultlines that will split us wide open one day.

The unwritten writ of liberal tyranny has made elitism such an ugly word that we don’t even preserve it where we need to save it — arenas of intellectual excellence for example.

I have only contempt for the Louis Vuitton-bag ladies, with their oversized dark glasses and oxidised brown hair who come to pick up their kids from school in cars larger than a football field and then complain about the ‘kind of people’ their little ones are being forced to mix with. Social elitism, especially when it’s underlined by a caste bias, is nothing short of loathsome.

But sometimes ‘exclusivity’ is and should be determined — not by class or caste — but by skill, talent and native intelligence. Take our homegrown equivalents of Harvard and Oxford, for example, our IITs and IIMs. We lap up hysterical headlines on how the globe is wooing these graduates with unspeakably high salaries. We believe this is our way of showing the world we can do it as well as, if not better than everyone else. Yet, have we every paused to consider why the IITs and IIMs have continued to draw India’s brightest minds? It’s because it’s impossibly difficult to get in. When 300, 000 students compete for 4,000-odd seats, only the best of the best make it through. And isn’t that the way it should be?

Yet, dictated to by political correctness, conventional wisdom has it that the State must multiply the number of IITs and IIMs, so that the ratio of aspirants to those admitted comes down. Can you ever imagine America arguing about expanding the Ivy League pool numerically? Or England committing to a second Oxford and Cambridge because the number of applicants is far greater than the seats available? Keeping aside a set number of seats for Dalits and OBC students, while contentious, is now a decision done and over. Must we make it worse by converting the IITs and IIMs into something like a Barista coffee chain — one for every neighbourhood? Every time a new IIT is inaugurated — in Guwahati or Kozhikode or wherever Destination Next is — we are only diluting a brand that has remained excellent, because it isn’t ours for the asking. It’s also easier for the State to abdicate the responsibility of creating new centres of excellence by just hitting a calculator that doubles and trebles, but cant’ measure intangibles like quality.

So, as we welcome the Supreme Court verdict as a long overdue course correction in a society that was unpardonably snotty, we must also remember that the rehearsed mantras of political correctness do not make for a soulful song. Or a spirited country.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7.