After a lifetime of sorts in Madras, I moved to Kathmandu at the age of 42. More than anything else, this was an opportunity to understand, in practice, as the head of a regional organisation, the concept of being Southasian. Going beyond the geographical contiguity, is there a common thread that extends from the Himalaya to the Indian Ocean, and from Kandahar to Mandalay? In an attempt to find an answer to this rather vexatious issue, I discovered my own position: South-Southasian. Bertrand Russell uses the idea of a ‘no-man’s land’ to help us understand the idea of philosophy. He says: “Between theology and science there is a No Man’s land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man’s land is philosophy. Almost all the questions of most interest to speculative minds are such as science cannot answer, and the confident answers of theologians no longer seem as convincing as they did in former centuries.” Being Southasian means occupying this no-man’s land, and being subject to attack from the political-science construct called the nation state as well as the new theology of our times called the global market.
There is a reciprocal causation here. By becoming a Southasian, one is able to fight the repressive nationalism that feeds on generating the hostile ‘other’, while at the same time debunking the idea of a global marketplace that reduces human beings, with all their colours and crankiness, to mere consumers. Being a South-Southasian from Madras, the first thing binding thread I discovered with the other Southasians, be it from Colombo or Karachi, Cox’s Bazaar or Kathmandu, was an adversarial relationship with Delhi. Though there are many scholarly works that locate this antagonism within the logic of the nation state, the key underlying resentment stems from the power equation of dominance and dependency. If the WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) remains the symbol of power in the ideology of the post-Westphalian nation states, the upper-caste male – Southasia is a wonderland in which we have managed to introduce caste into all religions, be it Christianity, Buddhism, Jainsim or Islam – is the symbol of power in Southasia.
Though there have been innumerable struggles against the concentration of power, anti-caste agitations represent the quintessential Southasia. It is in this domain that my South-Southasian identity has something to offer to the entire region. We have managed to address this issue much better than anyone else in the region, and there is a century-old history to this.
With Nepal embarking on the writing of its new constitution, and Bhutan’s recent makeover as a democracy, the Madras experience needs to be understood in order to effect a larger participation of all sections of the society in the decision-making process. The notion of affirmative action gained currency during the early decades of the last century in the erstwhile Madras Presidency. The empirical data at that time showed that Brahmins were occupying high posts quite disproportionate to their population. Though they accounted for just over three percent of the Presidency’s total population, they held more than 90 percent of official posts in both the judiciary and administration.
The non-Brahmin movement, which later became the Dravidian movement, took the lead to redress the situation, and got the British to pass the first-ever government order establishing reservation in India, in 1924. This first step, called the Communal Government Order, reserved about 25 percent of all posts for non-Brahmins. The premise of the non-Brahmin movement, denouncing societal discrimination on the basis of birth, was that the state must intervene and provide relief based on the same principles that are used to discriminate. The movement, widely recognised for its egalitarian views, gained political ascendancy over the next three decades.
Some well-known Brahmin figures also supported it, the best example being the finest storyteller of our times – R K Narayan, who wrote extensively for the official organ of the Justice Party, the political party that represented the movement till E V R Periyar renamed it Dravidar Kazhagam. The movement had a profound impact on the founders of independent India; and the Constituent Assembly, recognising the voices from the Madras Presidency, adopted Article 10 (4), providing for job reservation. When the first general elections were held, in 1952, Madras state already had 25 percent reservation in place. What happened thereafter was of major interest for the rest of the country.
Along with reservation, the government started working to create more public education institutions across Madras state. During the decade between 1954 and 1964, when K Kamaraj was the chief minister and N D Sundravadivelu was the director of school education, primary education was given top priority, and the duo set up a school in almost every village in Madras. They also conceived and implemented the noon-meal scheme, which brought down the high level of dropouts. The advantage of this regime was that it had the wide political support of E V R Periyar’s Dravidar Kazhagam, the C N Annadurai- and M Karunanidhi-led Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), as well prominent left leaders such as P Jeevanandam. Another significant aspect of this experiment was that leaders from the so-called ‘forward communities’ were at the forefront, demanding reservation for the underprivileged.
Apart from the educationist N D Sundaravadivelu, the vocal supporters were also from the upper castes. V R Neducheziayan, a close associate of two chief ministers, M G Ramachandran and Jayalalitha; K Anbaazhagan, the seniormost member of the DMK; C Subramaniam, the father of India’s green revolution – these represent some of the prominent upper-caste leaders to take the lead on this push for affirmative action.
And on to college
If the Kamaraj era paved the way for increased participation in primary-school education, the DMK regime from 1967 to 1977 extended this to college education. In 1969, Karunanidhi’s government constituted India’s first ever Backward Classes Commission. In its report, the Commission argued that there was a need to compartmentalise backwardness into two broader segments – Backward Castes (BCs) and Most Backward Castes (MBCs) – and a separate reservation for education and employment, with 17 percent for BCs and 16 percent for MBCs.
In 1971, the DMK government hiked the reservation for the Backward Classes to 31 percent (from the existing 25 percent), and the quota for Scheduled Castes and Tribes was increased to 18 percent from 16. At the same time, the government was equally frantic to open up new colleges, to absorb the students passing out of the schools created by Kamaraj and Sundaravadivelu. College education was made free and, for the privately run education institutions, the state government provided subsidies to make education accessible. If the Kamaraj regime succeeded in creating a school in every village, the DMK government managed to open at least one college in every district during the first phase, and in every taluk during the second phase. The ongoing rapid industrialisation, which was hungry for skilled workmanship, as well as the grassroots-level empowerment, was helping to feed this hungry market. Thus, what happened in Tamil Nadu (as Madras state was renamed in 1968) was school education was first widened, followed by college education, coupled with rapid industrialisation to absorb the new graduates and skilled labour force that affirmative action was producing.
In 1980, the AIADMK government, led by M G Ramachandran, took the next decisive step. It increased reservation to 69 percent, and decided to expand the professional education institutions. Every four-district cluster in Tamil Nadu received a university. The number of engineering and medical colleges kept increasing. Today, Tamil Nadu has as many as 16 universities, double that number of ‘deemed universities’ for technical education, as well as exclusive universities for agriculture, engineering and technology, medicine and veterinary sciences. If South-Southasia is prospering and doing better than the rest of the region, if South-Southasia is relatively free from communal violence, if the social indicators of South-Southasia are comparable to that of middle-income countries, it is because it tried to tackle the biggest inequality in the region: caste. This is why I like to call myself a South-Southasian.
~ A S Panneerselvan is Executive Director of Panos South Asia.