What caste do you think the Financial Times is?
August 13, 2011
by Sunalini Kumar
See update below.
So… I get a phone call yesterday. It's a reporter from the Financial
Times who wants to know what I feel about the recent ban on the movie
Aarakshan in certain states, and also what do I feel about caste-based
reservations in general, whether caste is still relevant in the India
of today, the theory that quotas just increase inequality etc.. I tell
her I haven't seen the movie, and if she still wants to know what I
feel about caste-based reservations we could talk for a bit. She says
she absolutely wants to know. So I say fine, and we have a 45-minute
conversation. Allow me to reproduce a very simplified version of that
conversation (in Q&A forrmat):
1. Q: Do you believe movies like Aarakshan can be provocative or
controversial; as in, are certain groups justified in taking offence
and asking for a ban?
A: I think there is no straightforward relationship between a cultural
product (a film or play or book) and its capacity to offend public
sensibility or a particular community. There are instances where very
'provocative' or 'bold' topics have been dealt with in a cultural
product and passed silently into the night; and on the other hand
there have been instances where a seemingly 'mild' or heavily academic
(as opposed to racy, provocative bestseller or box-office hit) product
has been protested vociferously. I think groups certainly have a right
to protest but in India we tend to have a political culture in which
such protests either suddenly erupt on the streets or end up in
litigation. Neither route helps us as a society to publicly debate the
issue, which is critical if we are to get anywhere with it. Having
said that, I'm opposed to censorship in general, whether self-imposed,
state-imposed or group-imposed.
2. BUT, do caste-based groups have a right to ask for a ban?
A: Well, let's remember not only caste-based groups, but all kinds of
groups, interests and individuals have asked for a ban or punitive
action, from religious communities to individual entrepreneurs like
Arindam Chaudhuri who has filed a defamation suit against Caravan
magazine for an article (apparently it's offence was that it was
truthful). And of course, let's not forget the curious case of
coca-cola and mercedes asking for their brand logos to be removed from
visibility in the movie Slumdog Millionaire since they were associated
with the villain. Oh, and if all else fails, an individual or business
house can simply make the product vanish from the shelves overnight –
the curiouser case of the biography of Dhirubhai Ambani – Polyester
Prince. Blinked and missed it!
3. What do you feel about quotas and reservations? Are they justified?
I mean, is caste still relevant today?
A: Caste and rampant casteism is utterly and absolutely prevalent in
the India of today. Let's not even go into rural areas or pick up
crime statistics against dalits and untouchables, shocking and
conclusive as they are (I think the phrase 'atrocity against Dalits
has become so common that it ceases to even shock). Let's look for
something closer to home: for instance, comments on hundreds of blogs
and websites where upper-caste commentators make absolutely no effort
to hide their caste, and use the most offensive language when
referring to dalits and untouchable castes. Or for instance a fact
that should disturb all of us: over 95% of all sweepers, cleaners,
sewage workers and sanitation workers are from the formerly scheduled
or untouchable castes. On the other hand, one survey showed that
around the same number – 96% – is the proportion of upper-castes in
the media. Something in that ball park goes for all the lucrative
and/or prestigious professions in this country. In the private sector,
if an untouchable caste member finds employment in a non-menial
capacity, she or he faces severe problems in upward mobility because
HR managers look for traits that are a product of public school
education – again, a preserve of the upper-castes. In fact, almost
everything we recognise as 'merit' is nurtured by a positive family
environment and good schooling – often a luxury or impossibility for
those from the 'reserved' castes.
So what is this if not the resilience of caste? Access to all the
facilities for a good life, for a decent human existence is
overwhelmingly skewed in favour of the upper castes in India. So
unless we are serious about actually universalising life-chances
(would require at the very least a budget similar to our nuclear
programme just to universalise primary education) let's not talk about
4. So you're saying it's really like a cycle of disadvantage that
needs to be broken (here I say, absolutely, we need to intervene in
the situation, as many societies have). What about the suggestion that
it should be class and not caste-based?
A: A long time ago, I too thought this was the perfect solution. Until
I saw documentaries and testimonies of dalits and untouchable castes,
until I met enough members of historically disadvantaged castes to
understand that caste is not just a simple lack of money and access.
It is a lifelong feeling of being thought as 'lesser' in some way –
less pure (by blood or habit), less qualified, less competent, less
moral, less Hindu/Muslim/Sikh/Christian, less entitled, less hygienic,
less attractive, less intelligent, less enterprising, less
trustworthy. In a word, less HUMAN. For a dalit person , who stands at
the end of a long chain of ancestral humiliation, to be told caste is
simply an economic disadvantage is a slap in the face.
5. But will quotas solve that?
A: Of course not. But they will provide a foot in the door. Without
quotas, the marginalised of this country lose even that.
6. What about the creamy layer argument?
A: Hmm, the creamy layer argument!! The way I see it, which resource
in this country isn't grabbed by the creamy layer? Every single avenue
or mobility in our intensely, desperately competitive society is in
the hands of the creamy layer, and here I mean those within the upper
castes. We just feel offended if that creamy layer is within a
reserved category. Actually, even a creamy layer individual grabbing a
reserved seat is better than not having reservation. We should be
confronted with the discomfort that our prejudice generates when we
see real diversity in the educational institute or workplace. And a
person from even the creamy layer of quotas will serve that purpose
well (because as I said, caste simply isn't economic, it's social and
historic humiliation). If there can be a better system that really
distributes access across different strata within the marginalised
castes, let's find it. But let's not use the creamy layer argument as
an alibi to cover our horror of reservation.
7. Outlook recently had a story which profiled dalit entrepreneurs…
A: A handful of dalit entrepreneurs (or even a thousand) doth not an
equal society make. There are 165 million dalits in this country, and
if outlook can cover the success stories in one issue, it should give
us pause to think. In any case, quotas are for a very small proportion
of jobs, only those in the public sector. Plus, our clever authorities
keep finding ways to subvert those seats too. (If you have space, I
want this to be in your article) for example, Delhi University's
recent move to convert to the semester system (in the face of
overwhelming resistance from teachers and many students) has a
lesser-known side-effect. It will actually make it harder for any
student with an educational disadvantage (Hindi medium students, those
with a rural background or government school) to pass, because the
annual mode of examination allows teachers to pay a little extra
attention to those students who need it. No wonder almost all Hindi
medium students at the masters level which follows semester-mode have
failed in recent years. Sorry, no foot in door.
At this point, the reporter says, thanks ma'am for your time. What is
your designation etc.? I say can you please send me the exact quotes
that will be in the article, because I've had a not-great experience
with newspapers. She says sure, can you check your mail in half an
hour and reply immediately? So I put aside my tasks and do so. I
correct or clarify what she sends me and tell her great, look forward
to reading the article. I now give you the link to the article, where
not only are there charming factual errors regarding my gender and
job, but disturbingly, my arguments have been used to make it seem
like I am opposed to reservations!! Before you click on the link I
just want to say that I am doing this exercise not just because of how
important this issue is, but because it's really a simple, telling
instance of how the big media works. I truly don't believe it's the
reporter's fault personally, because she is probably working under
impossible deadlines and demands. But what in the machine of big media
must allow the churning and spitting out of such utter
mis-representation? Mine is by no means a unique or even serious
instance. I know several Kafila colleagues have stopped talking to
newspapers or television channels because of countless such instances.
Why should we believe anything in the big media then?
Screenshot of FT piece:
Please don't miss the offensive title of the piece.
Screenshot of FT piece:
Is FT trying to be cute? Or clever? Oh, both.
Update: Both correspondents have recently assured me they take the
matter very seriously, and that they have further changed the online
version. I would like to put on record I appreciate this very much,
but that I remain dissatisfied with the final version. I guess this
tells us more about the machinery of news and a generalised climate of
anti-reservation sentiment among the media than it does about
individual intentions. Their version now:
Screenshot of FT piece:
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