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Caste away the stigma

Real goal of affirmative action is to integrate the lower-caste individual into mainstream society

Written by Ravinder Kaur |
May 16, 2006 12:06:14 am

The issue of reservations raises questions of inclusion and equality. We ask whether those earlier excluded from participation in society are being included in meaningful ways.

Much has changed in recent history, especially in the last 20 years. With the help of the reservations policy and other socio-economic changes, the picture of India looks less dismal than it did even two decades ago. The right to vote brought a silent revolution, as the sociologist M.N. Srinivas has remarked; modern industry and urbanisation helped break down, to some extent, the link between caste and occupation, and the 73rd and 74th amendments have brought many SCs/STs and women into local level bodies of governance. This is not to claim that all is well and that Dalits and tribals are no longer badly treated. Privileged groups — landlords, people competing for power at the local and regional level, those competing for other scarce goods in society such as seats in higher education and upper echelon jobs — will naturally protest when threatened with competition from below. At times this jostling for advantage happens within democratic norms; at other times, as in the case of groups like the Ranvir Sena, through violent repression. The effort of the polity has to be to create a system that allows for easier mobility — and one which punishes those who unlawfully prevent others from surging ahead.

A Swedish sociologist, Staffan Lindberg, is mapping changes in Tamil Nadu over a 25-year period. He sees progress, steady if slow. During the first stint of his study (1979-1980), the untouchables and lower castes were not allowed to sit in the presence of upper castes nor could they share water or sit in the same tea shops. Noting changes, he and his colleagues conclude that both lower castes and women are substantially better off: the reasons vary from land reform, irrigated agriculture, new occupations, house plots for the landless and Dalits, reservation in panchayats, etc. Other research tells us that if an SC/ST student passes high school, his chances of getting into professional education are better than those of a non-reserved category student. IITs are coming close to fulfilling SC quotas as more students from this category are able to compete. Yet, it does not need rocket science to understand that people cannot go to college unless they first finish school and the progress of SC/STs is slow on this front.

While the change in inclusion can be assessed by evaluating quantitative indicators of educational enrolment and performance, what does one do to assess whether inclusion at the social and psychological level has taken place? The real goal of affirmative action policies is to integrate the lower-caste individual into the “general category”; it is not to empower him/her as a Dalit or a lower caste person. There is a stigma attached to being lower caste in Indian society; the goal of policies of inclusion, therefore, has to be to get rid of this stigma and of differentiation and discrimination based on caste. The American Civil Rights Act of 1964 had a similar goal: citizens should not be discriminated on the basis of colour, race, religion, gender and other primordial identities. It was an anti-discriminatory law. In the early phases of the Dalit movement, the effort was similar — to get integrated into mainstream society.

In recent times, certain Dalits may wish to valorise Dalit culture and identity, yet the majority would be happy if the stigma associated with low caste status and polluting occupations disappears. They do not wish to be known as a Dalit engineer or a Dalit doctor or professor or IAS officer. If the tag continues to persist, Ambedkar’s struggle would have been in vain and would justify the strategy of a change in religion with the hope that it would shake off the stigma of being low-caste. For, ultimately, the recognition by the other as being a human on par, and of the equal dignity of all, whether a person is a Dalit or Muslim, tribal or a handicapped person, is what should be the goal of a modern, liberal society. The use of reservations as a tool to achieve equality often forgets this larger objective of obliterating stigmatised identity.

The structural changes ushered in by reservation policies need to dwell on how this can be achieved. Three possible routes are: first, the empowering effects of education which makes people capable of competing with others on their own merit. Second, the rapid introduction of technologies that do away with degrading occupations such as scavenging. Third, and maybe most important, the demolishing of the prejudice of the upper castes.

The writer is associate professor, IIT, Delhi
ravinder_iitd@yahoo.com

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