I had just finished my post graduation degree when the then Prime Minister, Mr VP Singh, implemented the Mandal Commission report. Like other people of my age and caste profile, I felt lucky to have escaped any direct implications of it. Like other people of my ilk, I would argue vehemently against reservations and believed that merit should be the only basis for selection to educational institutions and for jobs.
Today, I realise that the debate was all wrong. Today I realise that the debate is not between reservation and merit at all. Today I realise that the opposite of reservation is privilege. This article is about some of the books that I have read that has made me come to this realisation.
The big book on the subject is, of course, Annihilation of Caste by Dr B R Ambedkar. The version of the book that I have, has the original speech (he had written it as a speech but then the hosts withdrew their invitation to him, and so he published it as a book), the rebuttal to it by Mahatma Gandhi (originally published as two editorials in his magazine, Harijan) and then Dr. Ambedkar’s rebuttal to Gandhiji’s rebuttal.
In the book, Dr Ambedkar proves that caste is not some adulteration that has contaminated pure Hindu thought, but is an integral part of Hinduism. He goes on to prove that there is no possible benefit of the caste system, and it is causing harm even to the higher caste Hindus. Finally, he argues that the only way to get rid of untouchability is to get rid of the caste system , but then that endangers the fundamentals of Hinduism. He ends his speech by announcing that he saw no option but to convert to another religion (he actually did so nearly two decades after he wrote this speech).
Gandhiji’s point is that caste system itself is not bad, but untouchability is. He thinks that it is possible to get rid of untouchability, while retaining the caste system. Dr. Ambedkar does not see how that can happen, and frankly, as I read the book, I had to agree with him. Much as I adore and revere Gandhiji, I could see that, on this issue, he didn’t have a case at all.
My conviction that Dr Ambedkar was right was further confirmed when I read a book called “Caste Pride: Battles for equality in Hindu India”. This is a history of legal battles fought for equality over the last three centuries. There were so many new things that I learnt from this book.
I learnt that for two decades during British rule, Brahmins in India were exempt from the death penalty, no matter what offences they had committed. And that Dalits were given a harsher punishment than people of the higher castes for the same offence.
I learnt that in Travancore, women from lower castes were forbidden from covering their breasts. When there was an uproar (mostly from the British rulers, I might add), the laws were changed, but they still could not wear what the upper caste women were wearing.
I learnt that Brahmins argued in court that there weren’t four castes, but only two (Brahmins and Shudras). This is because, according to legend, Parshuram had destroyed all Kshatriyas. Rajputs and other castes had to fight legal battles to be called Kshatriyas. Earlier, even Shivaji could not be anointed King since he was not a Kshatriya.
It took decades for the leaders of India to pass a resolution banning untouchability. And a similar length of time to allow inter caste marriages. In particular, our leaders were horrified by marriages where the woman was from a higher caste. Gandhiji was on the wrong side of this argument too. For several years he did not allow his son to marry the daughter of one of his closest friends, C Rajagopalachari (later the last Governor General of India), because she was a Brahmin and thus of a higher caste.
In the early years of the twentieth century, when some social reformers tried to get a law passed that banned the practice of Sati, the upper castes opposed it. The British enacted the law anyway, but the upper castes managed to reduce the charge to ‘abetment of suicide’. And even then, leading lawyers of the day would argue that that women had committed sati by ‘spontaneous combustion’ of the funeral pyre. So nobody had helped her commit suicide.
These are atrocities in the last couple of centuries. But perhaps things have improved in our time?
Well, read a book called “Defying the odds: The rise of Dalit entrepreneurs”. This is a collection of stories about people from underprivileged backgrounds who have become successful entrepreneurs. These stories are about 20 men and 1 woman who overcame unbelievable handicaps to succeed in business. They had to fight poverty, of course. But more than that, they had to fight social ridicule and social humiliation. They had to fight injustice and bigotry.
As I read the book, I realised who the people with real merit were. I doubt that I would have had the strength of character, or the perseverance to succeed if I had faced such obstacles. Would I have been able to study if I was not allowed to sit inside the classroom? Would I want to go to school if I wasn’t allowed to drink water there? Would I pass my exams if I spent the time after school doing back breaking menial work with very little food? Would I dare to do business if I was beaten up for having the audacity to do so?
And yet there are people who overcame all these hurdles and today are successful entrepreneurs. These are the people with real merit. People who succeed despite the hurdles placed in their way. Not those of us who got a clean track to race on.
India needs more such people. These are the people who will provide us with the much anticipated Demographic Dividend. Do we have the guts to allow them to succeed?
Ambedkar, B. R., Anand, S., Roy, A., Santarāma, & Gandhi. (2016). Annihilation of caste: The annotated critical edition. Verso.
Mitta, M. (2023). Caste pride: Battles for equality in Hindu India. Westland Publications Limited.
Kapur, D., Babu, S. D., &; Prasad, C. B. (2014). Defying the odds: The rise of dalit entrepreneurs. Random House India.