Saturday, July 28, 2012

How far within are we willing to look?

There is a favorite quote of mine "If you look hard enough, you can even find God". The deeper meanings of most of our problems are right there where we are looking, just a little bit out of focus may be. Some call it experience and others call it wisdom. But it all boils down to adjusting the focus of your thoughts.

I happened to be born a Brahmin (the uppermost strata according to India's caste system). Growing up, somewhere along the line, I carried my mother's ambitions of becoming a doctor and in the course of time, I digested it and made it my own dream. I had written make-believe prescriptions, heavily dramatic and influenced by movies. When I had 291 on 300 for my college admissions, I was dejected! There is no way a Brahmin student can enter a medical college purely on merit with anything less than 298. Now isn't that gross injustice, especially if you belong to the highest caste? It would logically appear so. I ultimately got a very good education but the hurt was still there. That my birth decided my destiny and snatched my dream. And what more, a student who studied with me, in my class who got less than 270 was in a medical college, because he belonged to a backward caste. That individual had access to the same education and same opportunities as I did. Only that I wasn't fortunate enough to be born into that family. As years passed, I moved on because after all, I did make good.

Ever since, whenever I've had discussions about reservations for education, I've come to recalibrate my perspective. Time is not as short as you think it is. Answers for some questions are not sought within one's lifetime. Sometimes, not even a few generations. Just by virtue of my birth, I've had access to so much more than most others. I have also had forefathers who weren't well off, but none that had no access to education. Simply because I belonged to the caste of the learned. Folks who were relegated to be scholarly advisors, authors, priests. If not science and math, everyone who was a Brahmin was educated in something, anything. So sending me to school was anything but natural. And of course when the scholars are denied opportunities, they are unhappy. But the other side of the deal is easily forgotten or is deliberately hidden to keep our conscience clean. While today, I feel bad that I did not get the opportunity I deserved, over several hundred generations, other sections of the society have been systematically made to believe that their destinies are pre-made. Indians feel strongly about Western imperialization. But we hardly look into the factions that were drilled into the Indian society by its own people. It comes as no surprise, since it is always comforting to find a reason to blame that is not you. I am not sure you can even find much evidence  on the dark side of how this system came into existence. It is amazing how clinically this practice has been upheld for centuries. Logic would dictate, there would have been some sewer-cleaner's son who wouldn't have wanted to become a sewer-cleaner. Isn't it too easy to accept that every one of cobbler's children wanted to become cobblers? But that's what history textbooks imply. "India had 4 castes- Brahmins (the scholars), Kshatriyas (the warriors), Vaisyas (the merchants) and the Sudras (the labourers)." This is the simple one-line description you'll get to see. Being in Science, I am trained to look for logic and reason, to formulate hypotheses and validate them. I'll put my money on my theory that some degree of force, I am guessing brutal, would have been necessary to quash the dreams of generations on end.

Today, when I read that a Dalit student in India's premier medical institute found it easier to end his life than to face the institutionalized discrimination, I do not judge him. May be he did have a frail mind. But what I do know? If I was the first person in my family, from three or four generations that I can remember, to come out to a city and study, may be I would succumb to pressure as well. It is truly unfortunate though, for that one success story would inspire thousands of others to dream. With this sad end, may be 5 others who had the hunger in them would settle for something less.

What I could see as black and white is not the same today. The apparent injustice I faced may have been a way of restoring balance of centuries-old neglect for the other student. Is this a sustainable system? Why shouldn't everyone get equal opportunity? Does the reservation system really benefit those whom it was meant for? These are obvious questions. But the answers aren't straightforward. These questions are again raised only by those people who have been suddenly denied of the opportunities they have been conditioned to. Obviously it feels wrong. So what do they do? Look down upon students who enter institutions based on reservation, isolate them, exert social pressures. Some have the heart to fight and some others just wilt. In fact, we feel vindicated at their defeat. But, Nature has its own way of settling issues. Again, one lifetime may be too short to answer. 


PS said...

Indian caste system was started with good intentions. But as with any system, it is not the system but the people who are at fault.

And you being denied a merit seat is as wrong as denying the right to education to a person from backward caste.

Today most of the incompetent doctors playing with people's lives got ahead and secured a seat because of their dad's string-pulling powers or by virtue of belonging to a backward caste! (which is sadly most often the case)

While I agree that there is still a sizeable population out there which is crumbling under the burden of caste, I think the dynamics in present day have slightly shifted. Today people suffer more out of the economic disparity than caste differences.

Reservation based on caste is so dated. What we need now is a system which can cater to the poor. But we all know how hopeless it is to even dream of a day when the needy gets their due and merit over rides everything!

Nithya said...

I agree with you that the system could have actually been devised like a modern-day census. But that is cutting a lot of slack, assuming the best of intentions. Well, we can only base our discussion on facts and the fact is that, the system is anything but beneficial (whether by accident or by design).

I am reminded of this dialogue "Not anybody could be a good chef. But a good chef can come from anywhere" from Ratatouille. Deciding destinies of any other human being is not within our hands. Especially when you decide that the children of your servant will be the servant of your child.

Another of popular allegations is that today's disparities are more economic than casteist. But the fact is still most of India's scientists, economic advisors, IAS officials and judges are brahmins. Even if you make a economic stratification, it will still follow the caste-based system to a large extent. I know there are exceptions. But practically speaking, it is far easier to fake economic status than to fake caste. So logistically this happens to be an easier classification, however sad it might be.

As I said and you have pointed out, it is a sad fact that reservations are being misused. However, greed and corruption have coupled with incompetence for present-day evils. I don't agree that only incompetent doctors have been the reason for all the reported atrocities. Recently a hospital in Jalandhar took a 5 day old baby out of life support in a government hospital because the dad couldn't pay 200 rupees. Like many other issues, this is a multi-layered problem and there is no one right way.

The intention of this post was just to encourage people to nurture a tendency to view an issue from multiple vantage points, than to assume right vs. wrong.