Whenever clouds melt
A few droplets get entangled in its leaves
And as the sun brightens
Tiny globules turn into glorious rainbows.
— Amita Prajapati in Ek Dal Hai Ped Ki
One sixth of the human population has no place in the greatest show on earth. As in earlier FIFA World Cups, Southasians are once again mere spectators as the show proceeds in Germany. Selection for national football teams is not hamstrung with reservations, positive discrimination or affirmative action. And yet, none of the ‘meritorious’ youths of the privileged classes of Southasia excel in a game that requires complete coordination between agility of the body and alertness of the mind. Maybe once the quota for Other Backward Castes (OBCs) creates redundancy among the ‘talented’ progenies of upper castes, some of them will finally find their way to the sport stadiums.
It has been argued that Southasians prefer cricket to football for three reasons. Unlike in the competitive sport of the plebeians, there is very little chance of bodily contact in the gentlemen’s game, hence almost no risk of caste pollution. Cricket is a relaxed game, more suited to the temperament of the leisure class. Compared to the dullest match on the football field, even a one-day contest on the cricket pitch is a long-drawn affair. The third distinction is the most pronounced. Cricket is played in starched-white, a mark of nobility in hot and humid Southasia, where a premium is placed on the persona of those who wear clothes dipped in Tinopal, the whitener predecessor of heavily-advertised Ujala.
The anti-reservation lobbyists like to tell the story of Indian cricket teams that they think they have done their country proud. Their argument is that if positive discrimination is so good, why not also have reserved quotas for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/STs) and OBCs in the national sports teams. This criticism should be considered as a valid suggestion by the Cricket Control Board of India, for it proves the point that reservation, or the lack of it, has very little impact on the quality of the game. There are other factors – social prestige, pecuniary returns and cultural proclivities, for example – that determine the performance of players, be it in football or cricket.
Ruckus over reservations
The animosity towards reservations is as old as its provision in the Indian Constitution. Initially, quotas were fixed in administration to give a sense of worth to the outcastes of the Hindu Varnashram. The elite interpreted it as a gesture of magnanimity towards the oppressed. Reformers explained the move as a compensation for the wrongs of the past. Both these versions sought to assert the generosity of the upper castes. In reality, reservations saved the twice-born from the rage of the oppressed as the aspiring members of SC/ST discovered that they finally had a stake in maintaining the status quo. If discrimination of the past has to be truly compensated for, Southasia will have to be ruled solely by untouchables and tribals for at least the next thousand years. All that the reservations have done is to pacify the vanguard of the subjugated, a section of SC/STs derided by the privileged castes as a ‘creamy layer’. They should be thanking this section of emerging elite for the stability they have given to the strife-prone and congenitally wobbly Indian polity.
Howsoever reluctantly, reservations for SC/STs were tolerated by the middle class. Bereft of human and material resources, these groups struggled to benefit from affirmative-action programmes, and those of the higher rank never considered them as challengers. Quotas for OBCs was an altogether different matter. When the ‘Mandal Messiah’ V P Singh expanded the list of beneficiaries of positive discrimination a decade ago, all hell broke loose. Privileged classes denigrated him as the person who will stand guilty of destroying the calibre of Indian education and administration. Developments since then have demonstrated that ensuring social justice is good even for those who stand to lose in the short run. Were it not for OBC quotas, cyber-coolies of Whitefields and NOIDA would be toiling at the call-centres for a pittance. Reservations released them from the false safety of lowly job guarantees, and forced them to compete and innovate in demanding disciplines. Freed from the bondage of clerkship, the twice-born youths were forced to concentrate on education, and have since flourished in the New Economy.
But the Raja of Manda was persuaded, perhaps by his compatriots of the upper castes, to exempt so-called ‘institutions of excellence’ from the purview of additional reservations. Now that Arjun Singh, another Thakur, has decided to right the wrong, the entire sacred-thread-wearing BRB (Brahman, Rajput and Baishya) brigade is up in arms with a deceptive battle cry: Merit is in danger. That their contention is patently false needs no elaboration: the Upanayan ceremony does not confer ‘brilliance’; it is a set of socio-economic privileges enjoyed by the upper castes that allow their progeny a head-start in the career race. This point has been minutely examined from every angle by eminent Indian thinkers. However, the mainstream media is still besotted with the merit-versus-mediocrity debate, defending the idea that half of all opportunities are too little for one fifth of the Indian population. An anecdotal bit of data reveals the reason behind the obsession: 85 percent of senior journalists at leading media houses are BRBs. Caste is thus not an issue for them; the ‘merit’ that ensures their monopoly over IITs, IIMs and other premier institutions of higher learning is much more important for these free-market fundamentalists than even job quotas in government service.
During the formative decades of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, high-caste politicos defended their communal interests by co-opting dummy spokespersons from minority communities, marginalised sections of society and ostracised groups. By fielding a Jagjivan Ram here or a Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed there, Indira Gandhi remained unassailable until the Emergency. The Janata Party tried the same trick but not with similar successes, because the political movement of Jaiprakash Narayan had awakened the consciousness of the oppressed. His campaign exposed the disadvantaged to the possibilities inherent in their numbers.
The 1980s and 1990s saw the rise of assertive representatives of the downtrodden who made a virtue of their deficiencies. Laloo Prasad, Rabri Devi, Mulayam Singh and Mayawati did not care what the world thought of them, so long as they won elections by being what they were – coarse, crude and impolite. The mandarins of Indian administration kept them in check by their monopoly over modern voodoo – technocratic jargon, administrative procedures, and the maze of rules and precedence more complex than the riddles of Bikram-Betaal stories. With the media also protecting their turf, the stranglehold of BRBs on Indian society is likely to continue unless the majority rises up against the monopoly of the minority on the dubious basis of ‘merit’. Eminent sociologist M N Srinivas had once warned that the curse of caste will not go away from Indian society without a violent and vengeful civil war. Opponents of affirmative action programmes are bent upon proving him right by vilifying steps meant to mainstream the traditionally disadvantaged.
Lenin is supposed to have said that the class of birth determined the worldview of a person for life. Ram Manohar Lohia’s correction to that controversial statement was uniquely Southasian; he opined that caste was the key determinant of Hindu society. These two observations are complementary rather than dichotomous. Caste and class often coalesce in the region. True, there are poor Brahman rickshaw-pullers in Calcutta, but they are not as common as lower-caste Bihari farm labours in Haryana and Punjab. Similarly, Yadav or Kurmi merchants are few and far between. Perhaps there will be more of them in 20 years time, if the media forsakes its fixation against reservation and honestly considers the reverse reservation traditionally enjoyed by BRBs at top-rated educational institutions.
The record of media bias in other countries of Southasia is no better than that of India, and the reason behind the partiality is also somewhat similar. Voices of Hindu Bangladeshis remain muted because none of them man the gates of Dhaka media. The Oxbridge connection of influential journalists in Pakistan was once legendary. That seems to have changed – Ivy Leaguers have established a parallel hierarchy of their own. But the character of the close-knit inner circle remains the same. When was the last you heard, saw or read in Pakistani media that Hindus, Sikhs and Christians of their country deserved better representation in politics, administration, diplomacy and the military?
The chauvinism of Sinhalese media can perhaps be partially attributed to the state of civil war, but that does not explain why almost no journalist of repute ever speaks up against the violent rhetoric of Buddhist monks. The BCN (Bahun, Chhetri and Newar) caste-coalition of Kathmandu media ensures that terms referring to ‘Madhesi’ and Musalman plains people are always pronounced with a pejorative inflection. In the name of merit, the media in Southasia has fallen hook, line and sinker for the elite consensus designed to protect inherited privileges, come what may.
For the media, perception is often the reality. Despite their inherent caste biases, journalists will not be able to ignore the star performers from SC/STs and OBCs once they see them shine. Reservations at higher institutions are thus as important as promotional measures to popularise primary and secondary education. The Khans of Bollywood give a sense of fulfilment to the most humble Musalman in Assam. Admission into the Pune Film Institute is no guarantee of stardom, but a doctorate from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore is a sure-fire passport to success. It cannot be denied to those who hold mountains in their minds and oceans in their hearts. Without being based in social justice, the superstructure of meritocracy hangs uselessly in the air, flying wildly between one and another section of privileged population. The time to challenge and change the status quo has arrived. The rainbow is a harbinger of hope.