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Vinod Kambli was reduced to his assumed (‘lowest’) caste identity

Equal and fair representation of Dalits is the only way out of this fractured existence.

At a protest march in favour of reservation in Lucknow. File

A fracture runs through India’s soul. Most of us who can fix this choose to live in denial or have made peace to uphold the status quo.

It was in the winters of 1993 when a crack in this carefully constructed matrix of denial revealed itself to me for the first time. A three-day game between Indian Board President’s XI and the visiting England cricket team was scheduled at Lucknow’s K D Singh Babu stadium between January 8 and 10. What I witnessed here forever changed how I looked at caste and its implications in India. It opened a door to understanding the much-debated policy of constitutionally-mandated reservations in education and jobs for the scheduled castes and tribes in India — a policy of affirmative action that not only angers most of us savarna Hindus in India but is also used as an excuse for furthering caste-violence and oppression.

For a 13-year-old cricket-buff like me, attending an international cricket match in my city was a dream come true. The game was inconsequential but one person everyone was waiting to see in action was the Indian prodigy Vinod Kambli, 21 years old at that time. His magical partnerships with Sachin Tendulkar in their junior cricket years were stuff of legend and the Lucknow fixture was his practice game right before a much awaited international test debut against England. (He went on to score a match-winning double-century in the third test of the series at Mumbai.)

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India batted first & Kambli was in great flow, hitting cover drives with an elegance only left-handed players possess. Soon we noticed that Chris Lewis, the renowned fast bowler of Guyanese-origin from England, was getting abused by a section of the viewers in the stands. The abuses were racial slurs like Kaalu. Mocking dark-skinned people is an evil that has morphed into a kind of cultural trait in India — but I still found it strange that an international player of a game we all worshipped could also be at the receiving end of it.

But the real shock was yet to come. Vinod Kambli took a rising ball on his right arm and had to be retired hurt because of a suspected fracture. As he walked back to the pavilion, in pain and frustration after scoring a fluent 61, a section of the crowd erupted in a volley of abuses directed at him. They called him lazy and useless followed by caste-names (chamber) used as slurs. The most-promising player of the most-elite club of our own country was reduced to his assumed (‘lowest’) caste identity by a crowd of ordinary men who derived this power from the accident of their birth.

It didn’t matter that Kambli was an accomplished cricketer.

As a middle class, urban savarna Hindu I have witnessed far too many times how my fellow savarnas insist they don’t see or inquire about anybody’s caste (except when looking for an arranged match in newspaper matrimonials), and or dismiss caste discrimination as a thing of the past or villages. But a simple google search of ‘Dalit groom horse’ or ‘Dalit honour killing’ or ‘Dalit drinking-well poisoned’ throws results that instantly crunch the last 800 years of civilizational growth into an atomic capsule of our collective shame.

Very few, even if grudgingly, would openly admit that they oppose ending this discrimination. But the vocal disagreement is on the usage of caste-based reservations in achieving this goal.

My fellow savarnas have a lot of misconceptions about reservations and I would like to bring some facts to the fore. There are two main arguments against reservations — one, they bypass merit and two, they should be given on the basis of economic status alone because otherwise “rich Dalits are taking undue advantage of the policy”.

The broad logical observation here is that one can’t offer both these arguments together. If we are okay with poverty-based reservations then merit is not a genuine concern. That means we hate its bypassing only when a ‘lower-caste’ person gets ahead and not when a poor from our own caste does. That’s casteism 101.

Now to address these two concerns separately. Any fair evaluation of ‘merit’ requires a level playing field. A Dalit kid from an underprivileged family with no access to clean water or regular electricity or healthcare, constantly living in fear of their identity being disclosed at school, or being bullied or discriminated against by their classmates and teachers could not be expected to excel in an academic system conflating merit with cramming skills.

Merit is a flawed argument also because it shapes perceptions not by any rigorous studies but by confirmation bias. A savarna person failing an entrance exam (lakhs of them fail IIT-JEE every year) is not seen as a defining trait of their castes but a similar failure by a Dalit person reinforces the negative perception about their lack of merit.

Another simple experiment to see how confirmation bias works is if you do a google search of cases of medical negligence in India. Run a caste-study on these negligent doctors. Many, if not most, names that turn up are of private hospitals owned and populated by savarna doctors. Does that mean most of the meritorious savarna doctors are incompetent? Absolutely not. But you have been constantly fed the idea that all Dalit doctors lack merit by anecdotally citing cases of incompetence by them.

A popular myth substantiating in savarna circles is that Dalits can graduate even after scoring a zero. Absolutely false. Reservation means a lowered cut-off only in entrance exams and once inside the college, all students have the same grading system and pass-percentage, irrespective of their castes. Of course Dalit students still have to face the extra-burden of harassment, as reported regularly in various suicide cases at India’s premier medical and engineering colleges.

The second argument against reservations — that rich Dalits shouldn’t get it or it should be based only on financial status — is also flawed. India has a host of poverty-alleviation schemes and probably needs many more but thinking of reservations as one is reductive. Reservations aim to bring something much more valuable than financial status — they bring dignity and representation.

Vinod Kambli in 1993 and the scores of Dalits are not discriminated against because of their financial status but because we live in a society that allows a caste-based power-dynamic to exist. All fields — from media, cinema to governance to judiciary to even our leftist parties — are studded with savarna Hindus holding powerful positions. To dissolve this skewed power-dynamics by bringing representation to Dalits — even if that means a third-generation rich Dalit using reservations — is the unstated but definitive aim of quota policy.

And one last-ditch argument many people put forward is that seven decades of reservations have not done anything to uplift Dalits out of plight hence the policy should be abolished. Ironically, they fail to see hundreds of years of privilege, access to education, travels, and so-called evolved thought have not stopped savarnas from discriminating. One in every four Indians still practice untouchability according to a study by NCAER and University of Maryland, USA.

Equal and fair representation of Dalits is the only way out of this fractured existence.

Every Pa. Ranjith, Ram Nath Kovind, Ginni Mahi, Miss Pooja, Neeraj Ghaywan, Namdeo Dhasal, and Sujatha Gidla bring many more young Dalits into the mainstream. Every additional Dalit faculty member in a college reduces the possibility of caste-based bullying directed at a young student. Reservations enable this journey to earning dignity. The journey which may just be a small walk from the pitch to the pavilion but has taken centuries.

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