[DEBATE] : Pity the Brahmins - ‘Reverse Discrimination’ in India, P Sainath, Counterpunch
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Sat Jan 19 06:05:22 GMT 2008
Pity the Brahmins - 'Reverse Discrimination' in India
P. Sainath, Counterpunch, 18 January 2008
A signal achievement of the Indian elite in recent years has been to
take caste, give it a fresh coat of paint, and repackage it as a
struggle for equality.
The agitations in the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences and
other such institutions were fine examples of this. Casteism is no
longer in defensive denial the way it once was. ("Oh, caste? That was
50 years ago, now it barely exists.") Today, it asserts that caste is
killing the nation--but its victims are the upper castes. And the
villains are the lower orders who crowd them out of the seats and jobs
long held by those with merit in their genes.
This allows for a happy situation. You can practise casteism of a
visceral kind--and feel noble about it. You are, after all, standing
up for equal rights, calling for a caste-free society. Truth and
justice are on your side. More importantly, so are the media.
Remember how the AIIMS agitation was covered?
The idea of "reverse discrimination" (read: the upper castes are
suffering) is catching on. In a curious report on India, The Wall
Street Journal, for instance, buys into this big time. It profiles one
such upper caste victim of "reverse discrimination" with sympathy.
("Reversal of Fortunes Isolates India's Brahmins," Dec. 29, 2007.) "In
today's India," it says, "high caste privileges are dwindling." The
father of the story's protagonist is "more liberal" than his
grandfather. After all, "he doesn't expect lower-caste neighbors to
take off their sandals in his presence." Gee, that's nice. They can
keep their Guccis on.
A lot of this hinges, of course, on what we like to perceive as
privilege and what we choose to see as discrimination. Like many
others, the WSJ report reduces both to just one thing: quotas in
education and jobs. No other form of it exists in this view. But it
does in the real world. Dalit students are routinely humiliated and
harassed at school. Many drop out because of this. They are seated
separately in the classroom and at mid-day meals in countless schools
across the country. This does not happen to those of "dwindling
Students from the upper castes do not get slapped by the teacher for
drinking water from the common pitcher. Nor is there much chance of
acid being thrown on their faces in the village if they do well in
studies. Nor are they segregated in hostels and in the dining rooms of
the colleges they go to.
Discrimination dogs Dalit students at every turn, every level. As it
does Dalits at workplace.
Yet, as Subodh Varma observes (The Times of India, December 12, 2006),
their achievements in the face of such odds are impressive. Between
1961 and 2001, when literacy in the population as a whole doubled, it
quadrupled among Dalits. Sure, that must be seen in the context of
their starting from a very low base.
But it happened in the face of everyday adversity for millions. Yet,
the impact of this feat in terms of their prosperity is very limited.
The WSJ story says "close to half of Brahmin households earn less than
$100 (or Rs. 4,000) a month." Fair enough. (The table the story runs
itself shows that with Dalits that is over 90 per cent of households.)
But the journalist seems unaware, for example, of the report of the
National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector, which
says that 836 million Indians live on less than Rs.20, or 50 cents, a
day. That is, about $15 a month. As many as 88 per cent of Scheduled
Castes and Scheduled Tribes (and many from the Other Backward Classes
and Muslims) fall into that group. Of course, there are poor Brahmins
and other upper caste people who suffer real poverty. But twisting
that to argue "reverse discrimination," as this WSJ story does, won't
More so when the story admits that, on average, "[Brahmins] are better
educated and better paid than the rest of Indian people."
Oddly enough, just two days before this piece, the WSJ ran a very good
summary of the Khairlanji atrocity a year after it occurred. That
story, from a different reporter, rightly suggests that the economic
betterment and success of the Bhotmange family had stoked the jealousy
of dominant caste neighbors in that Vidharbha village. But it ascribes
that success to India's "prolonged economic boom which has improved
the lot of millions of the nation's poorest, including Dalits." This
raises the question: were other, dominant caste groups not gaining
from the "boom?" How come? Were Dalits the only "gainers?"
As Varma points out, 36 per cent of rural and 38 per cent of urban
Dalits are below the poverty line. That's against 23 per cent of rural
and 27 per cent of urban India as a whole. (Official poverty stats are
a fraud, but that's another story.) More than a quarter of Dalits,
mostly landless, get work for less than six months a year. If half
their households earned even $50 a month, that would be a revolution.
Let us face it, though. Most of the Indian media share the WSJ's
"reverse discrimination" views. Take the recent Brahmin
super-convention in Pune. Within this explicitly caste-based meeting
were further surname-based conclaves that seated people by clan or
sub-group. You don't get more caste-focussed than that. None of this,
though, was seen as odd by the media. Almost at the same time, there
was another high-profile meeting on within the Marathas. That is, the
dominant community of Maharashtra. The meeting flatly demanded
caste-based quotas for themselves.
Again, not seen as unusual.
But Dalit meetings are always measured in caste, even racist, terms.
This, although Dalits are not a caste but include people from hundreds
of social groups that have suffered untouchability. The annual
gathering in memory of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar on December 6 in Mumbai has
been written of with fear. The damage and risks the city has to
stoically bear when the noisy mass gathers. The disruption of traffic.
The threat to law and order. How a possible exodus looms of the gentle
elite of Shivaji Park, in fear of the hordes about to disturb their
sedate terrain. And of course, there's the sanitation problem (never
left unstated for it serves to reinforce the worst of caste prejudice
and allows "us" to view "them" as unclean).
But back to the real world. How many upper caste men have had their
eyes gouged out for marrying outside their caste? Ask young
Chandrakant in Sategaon village of Nanded in Maharashtra why he thinks
it happened to him last week. How many higher caste bastis have been
torched and razed in land or other disputes? How many upper caste folk
lose a limb or even their lives for daring to enter a temple?
How many Brahmins or Thakurs get beaten up, even burnt alive, for
drawing water from the village well? How many from those whose
"privileges are dwindling" have to walk four kilometres to fetch
water? How many upper caste groups are forced to live on the outskirts
of the village, locked into an eternal form of indigenous apartheid?
Now that's discrimination. But it is a kind that the WSJ reporter does
not see, can never fathom.
In 2006, National Crime Records Bureau data tell us, atrocities
against Dalits increased across a range of offences. Cases under the
Protection of Civil Rights Act shot up by almost 40 per cent. Dalits
were also hit by more murders, rapes and kidnapping than in 2005.
Arson, robbery and dacoity directed against them --those went up too.
It's good that the molestation or rape of foreign tourists
(particularly in Rajasthan) is causing concern and sparking action.
Not so good that Dalit and tribal women suffer the same and much worse
on a colossal scale without getting a fraction of the importance the
tourists do. The same Rajasthan saw an infamous rape case tossed out
because in the judge's view, an upper caste man was most unlikely to
have raped a lower caste woman.
In the Kumher massacre which claimed 17 Dalit lives in that State,
charges could not be framed for seven years. In a case involving a
foreign tourist, a court handed down a guilty verdict in 14 days. For
Dalits, 14 years would be lucky. Take contemporary Maharashtra, home
to India's richest. The attention given to the Mumbai molestation
case--where 14 arrested men remained in jail for five days after being
granted bail--stands out in sharp contrast to what has happened in
Latur or Nanded. In the Latur rape case, the victim was a poor Muslim,
in Nanded the young man who was ghoulishly blinded, a Dalit. The Latur
case was close to being covered up but for the determination of the
The discrimination that pervades Dalit lives follows them after death
too. They are denied the use of village graveyards. Dalits burying
their dead in any place the upper castes object to could find the
bodies of their loved ones torn out of the ground. Every year, more
and more instances of all these and other atrocities enter official
records. This never happens to the upper castes of "dwindling
privileges." The theorists of "reverse discrimination" are really
upholders of perverse practice.
P. Sainath is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece
appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. He can
be reached at: psainath at vsnl.com .
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