Friday, July 21, 2006

(non)Sense of Belonging

Why could Buddhism not stay as the popular religion of India for long? Not because Brahmins ganged up to smother it, because it was a philosophy that was not perfectly appealing to the Indian psyche.

Buddha told, "app dipo bhava" i.e. be a lamp unto yourselves - be your own light, your own authority, your own Buddha.

Buddha was perhaps the first one who preached 'individualism', much before the French political commentators and socialists coined the word in 19th century.

But individualism is not the cup of tea for Indians, or for that matter, for most of the traditional societies of the world. We like to live in herds, in groups, in colonies, in castes. We need a sense of belonging.

That's why Khushwant Singh, who claims to be an atheist, doesn't shave off his beard and removes his turban (I'm not asking him to do that either). That's why Shabana Azmi, whose ideas would be more respected in a religion-less society, assertively calls herself a Muslim. That's why many Hindu middle classes, who don't hate Muslims, wanted Ram Mandir. Because they are bound by a sense of belonging.

And that's why the idea of reservations works in India and appeals to most of the Indians. It's not about some individuals benefiting from it, but communities benefiting from it. A yadav selling milk in Lucknow feels proud that there is an IAS officer sharing the same surname with him.

Reservations have really helped some communities feel that they can also achieve something. It has not helped the neediest of the needy, but it has helped some communities as a whole. It has given them the placebo effect, and they seem to be happy.

We don't hear any loud complaints from lower income groups among the reserved categories that their 'rights' are being usurped by well-off people in their own communities. Because they are strongly bound by that sense of belonging.

The latest decision by government is, in all probabilities, not going to help son of that yadav selling milk in Lucknow to get into IIM Ahmedabad. It will perhaps help some son of a yadav professor in Lucknow University. In fact even the milkman knows that his son is not going to get the benefits, but he would join a pro-reservation rally by SP, shout slogans, even face lathis and bullets, because he is too bound by that sense of belonging.

And this sense of belonging is going to stay till caste system exists, or unless most of us suddenly became individualistic. And if this sense of belonging is going to stay, reservation policy will continue to get its support from the bulk of the masses. And yeah, if today, you carry out a referendum, majority of Indians will support this reservation policy, even its latest avatar in IITs and IIMs.

So what is the road ahead? Can we aim to break this sense of belonging by finishing caste system or by turning most of the Indians individualistic? Both of these are colossal tasks.

But if we can't achieve these tasks in foreseeable future, let's be extra careful not to do something that is retrogressive in nature i.e. which strengthens caste as a system or makes Indians even less individualistic.

And there you are - trapped in a vicious circle. Reservations, in the way they are presently working, do exactly that - strengthens the caste as a system and keeps alive this sense of belonging.

So the real challenge is to break this vicious circle. We either hit at the caste system or at reservation policy.

Most of the times we choose to do the latter.

But while attacking the reservation policy, we make errors that strengthen the sense of belonging based on castes. We equate reservation with crutches, and in the process, knowingly or unknowingly, appear to be looking down upon the beneficiaries of reservations with a condescending attitude.

Before we speak a word, we should place ourselves on the other side, and think what the words may mean to them. If it hurts them because of them belonging to a certain caste, you are strengthening the sense of belonging, and weakening your cause.

Apart from carefully chosen words, what means do we adopt to attack the reservation policy? Parliament has unanimously passed the amendment and it is going to become a law, and government is free to enforce this law anytime, most probably it will be enforced from the next academic year.

We can't protest against a law unless we prove that it violates some basic features of the Indian constitution. Many PILs argued that reservations violates article 14 (right to equality before law) but SC has turned them down. So can we argue better in the court of law? That's one way.

And the second way, as most of us have been discussing, is to look for alternatives to reservations and suggest them to government. This is a big task, and let me come back to my motif; can we find an alternative that pleases the sense of belonging of people in the same way as the reservation policy does?

I don't know what kind of solution we might come up with, but unless caste as a system goes, I find it very difficult to see reservations going away. We must attack caste system itself.

Leading Indian sociologist M N Srinivas once argued that if India is able to develop 'mobile' middle classes, caste as a system will go.

His main emphasis was on the word mobile. He argued that if middle classes develop, but they don't move around, caste as a system will not go away. There would be ghetto colonies of middle classes based on caste.

And if you go to smaller cities, it is actually happening. Economy is bringing money, and a strong middle class is developing. But you find new colonies of cement houses, bordering on caste lines. No different from caste based tolas in villages.

Attacking the caste system is really a big challenge. So called dalit thinker Kancha Ilaiah, whose write-up was included in CAT's RC section (in CAT 2003 perhaps) believes that Hinduism has to go if caste system has to go. And I heard him arguing on NDTV that if the present reservation policy (in IITs and IIMs) is stymied by brahminical forces, there should be a civil war in India!

Of course both ideas of Mr. Ilaiah can be contested. People have left Hinduism but they could not leave caste system. And about the civil war, well one can only pity that statement. But this sense of belonging based on caste is so strong, that people actually make such kind of statements and are still rated as thinkers.

I really don't see a clear solution or direction towards which we might be heading. The continuation of reservation policy in present manner will maintain the status quo. People supporting reservations (because of it being an affirmative action) as well as those opposing reservations (because of it being a sub-optimal solution) have to rethink their stances. Their common enemy has to be the vertical division on the basis of castes with parallel running boundaries - with some castes higher in the hierarchal ladder and some lying lower down.

If the division has to go, the boundaries have to blur. Boundaries won't blur until this sense of belonging based on castes is strong and alive.

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