Diary 2016 (Jan 24th)- Caste in middle class India

An article about a journalist ‘coming out’ as a Dalit was shared on one of my Whatssap groups. Her action looks a bit like virtue signalling. But it did get me thinking about the place of caste in middle class India. While browsing for this piece, I also learnt a few things.

In the India, I grew up in, caste hardly played any role in our day to day lives. I didn’t know or care about the caste of my friends and classmates. It would have been the same the other way round for most of them. I never refused to drink water from a low caste person’s house and I never saw it happening in front of me. The medieval horror stories of Dalits being burned alive, murdered, women being beaten, stripped naked, raped continue to surface from time to time in the national news. Sometimes, they capture the attention of international media too, which irks some Indians. They see it as regressive coverage of a shining India, intentionally presenting a poor image of the country abroad. The world of these horrific atrocities is as alien to me as middle earth.

Caste figures at two landmarks in life for most of us. One is marriage. Matrimonial advertisements usually mention caste or say ‘caste no bar’. The latter also indicates that caste is a factor in marriage considerations. On the match-making websites, you can filter your prospective mate through a long list of castes and sub-castes.

The other place where caste appears is higher education. The Indian government mandates 15% seats for Scheduled Castes (SC), 7.5% for Scheduled Tribes (ST) and 27% for OBC (Other backward classes) in the public sector and government aided educational institutions. Their respective proportions in the population are 16.6%, 8.6% and 41% (as per 2011 census). Public sector jobs were coveted in pre-liberalization India, till the 1980s. These days, they don’t come up in discussions among people I know. But in India most of the top educational institutes would fall within the ambit of the reservation. So, reservations are a matter of concern for much of the middle-class.

When the constitution was framed, reservations were not supposed to be a permanent measure. They were considered essential to rectify the effects of thousands of years of discrimination. Once, the previously oppressed classes had been lifted into the economic and social mainstream, then they could be phased out. But national and state governments have found it convenient to use it as a populist tool to attract votes. It was much more convenient to extend reservation in higher education and jobs, than the fix the crumbling school education system in rural areas, to really work to level the playing field. Any mention of limiting reservations would be political suicide. So, they kept on adding. OBCs were added only in 1990. Some states, such as Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu have taken their total reservation to nearly 70%.

This leads to farcical situations when relatively well-to-do castes agitate to be considered as SC or OBC. And it has resulted in deep resentment against ‘quota’ candidates among the ‘General Category’. They feel they have to work much harder, score much higher to get into the same educational institutions. It is unfair. They see people with similar economic background as them benefiting from these reservations, leading to the problem of the so-called ‘creamy layer’.

Since when I remember, there has been talk within my family, relatives and friends of undeserving quota candidates going through, while good general category students languish. I supported my sister’s participation in the 2006 anti-reservation protests. At workplaces, questions are whispered about under-performers, “Is he SC/ST?” There are guessing games about surnames.

Some of the SC/ST students getting into the elite educational institutes do lag the general category students. Remedial classes and courses are arranged for them. This is viewed as validation of the general category’s position on reservation.

From what I remember in IIT, the students going to the remedial classes, were more often than not the ones who are supposed to benefit from the reservations, the ones from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds. The standard of school education they received would be far inferior to what most of us got. They usually didn’t go to English-medium schools and the English is the medium of instruction in all the elite educational institutes. They didn’t go to special coaching classes which charge sky-high fees.

Meanwhile, the ‘creamy layer’ candidates against whom the anger is (at times justifiably) directed in the first place, fit in much better with the ‘general’ students. They don’t have the carry the stigma or face social exclusion to a similar level.

In spite of reservations, and provision for a one-year preparatory course, seats are routinely left unfilled in the SC and ST categories. Last year, media outlets published headlines like, “This year, IITs will admit students with even 6% in entrance exam.” These were the cut-offs for the preparatory course intake, students who would do one extra year before joining the actual engineering course. Buried in the body of the article, are the percentages for general, OBCs and SC/ST straight admission were 24, 22 and 12.5 respectively. The cut-off marks for general category students moved down to 24% from 35% the previous year. Looking at the absolute cut-offs, makes the 6% look even less shocking. Still, ‘quota’ students are automatically considered ‘weak’.

The seats going unfilled, compared to the proportion of SCs/ STs in the population, show that we have a long way to go before they have equal opportunity. It also shows, how disastrously governments have failed at developing a healthy school education system. Reservations still have an important role to play, but only when school education is improved in conjunction.

While writing this, I learnt that creamy layer concept is applied in reservations for OBCs. It was introduced at Rs 1 lakh in 1993, revised to Rs 2.5 lakh in 2004, Rs 4.5 lakh in 2008 and Rs 6 lakh in 2013. Proposals to raise it have met with political resistance. It is not implemented yet for SCs and STs, because of their social backwardness. I find the argument somewhat specious, as the logic behind reservations is that education, jobs and the implicit higher income will equate improved social status and discrimination will wither away. But I cannot claim to know what Dalits might be facing in rural and semi-urban India. In the absence of political will to calibrate the use of reservations also, reservations might be worth it, as long as the benefit reaches a few candidates who need it.

I always assumed that nothing had been done to exclude people with higher incomes, based on the passion with which people ask for creamy layer to be excluded. Similarly, I assumed a much greater disparity in the cut-off marks than what it really is.

Caste plays a minimal role in most aspects of the lives of middle class, urban Indians. But in some areas it continues to loom large. To say that it has completely disappeared would be disingenuous.