In the age of Facebook activism, your wall may be adorned with posts where you scream your lungs out about why we need feminism; you may be shouting from behind your computer screen about how transphobia and homophobia are thwarting the progress of India. Our social media profiles are often a way of consciously constructing our identities and proclaiming our support to certain convictions.
In posing as liberals, we, the middle class English-speaking urban millennials of India, are sensitized to many an expression of social discrimination but there is one particular form of discrimination that seems to resurface only when we need to get admitted to an institution or course, more often a coveted one. In case you forgot about the existence of this kind of discrimination, let me remind you that I am about to address the elephant in the room, viz. caste.
It’s that time of the year again. Students who have just got or are awaiting their board exam results, are spending sleepless nights wondering if they will get through their dream college. When they come to know the intake rates of some of the best colleges in the country, they usually notice to their disappointment the percentage of seats reserved for the so-called “lower” castes such as Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes.
You must have understood by now that I am conflating the category, student with a particular breed of students here – urban middle class students who are usually not first generation learners.
In this regard, it is not surprising to note that 75% of more than six million children currently out of school in India are either Dalits (32.4%), Muslims (25.7%) or Adivasis (16.6%).
Given that these statistics are from the India Exclusion Report (2014) by Centre for Equity Studies, I can vouch for another corollary fact that is almost self-evident from this finding; most of the Indian middle class and upper class is also “upper” caste. In such a scenario, it is but obvious that caste and class coincide to a great extent in the country and it conveniently goes unnoticed or is intentionally overlooked.
Why otherwise will jokes such as the one in the following image do the rounds on your news feed in and around the time of CBSE, CISCE and state board results? (Just look up Google Images with the keywords of caste or reservation system and you will know what I am talking about.)
It is not just upper class but also upper caste privilege which makes board examinees lament the reservation system in modern Indian education system. The system has definitely got its own set of loopholes. Instead of pivoting reservations around only caste, if the focus was on a combination of caste and class determinants, then the angst of the current youth during admissions would have considerably decreased.
Caste-based politics in India is a murky terrain. With many a dominant caste in several states of India fighting for the status of reserved castes simply to avail the benefits of reservation rightly deserved by the underprivileged, the AIDMK totally losing its basis of identity politics related to caste issues and so in, caste seems to just be a ladder for economic gains to many. To the rest, however, it is a Rohith Vemula or the rape of a Dalit working class woman you will never quite know of.
It is undeniable that caste exists even in “educated” India. How else would you account for the ephemeral benign neglect of teachers towards students from marginalized castes? Which other kind of discrimination would you classify asking Dalit villagers to clean themselves before meeting Yogi Adityanath as?
It is my conviction that it is more the fact of being accustomed to caste privilege that leads to insensitivity towards marginalized castes than the reservation system. I am tempted to mention one of my favourite quotations here.
When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.
This pretty much explains the anxiety of so many general category students who, not as a mere coincidence but by the historic oppression of marginalized castes, have enjoyed middle class privileges in India, stand staunchly against reservations. The hypocrisy starts here when “those people” in class sit in separate groups even in what are called some of the most elite educational institutions in the country and ends with a momentary crocodile tear or two on social media about Dalit suicides and that too only when the said Dalit is articulate and academically accomplished.