After reading at length about the history of caste system in India and the reforms proposed by the likes Ambedkar and Phule, when a liberal arts student hears an able bodied, upper class student belonging to a discipline that is favoured by our capitalist industry, talk about how reservations should only be awarded on a purely economic basis, is the moment one truly understands the importance of liberal arts education. When a young woman fervently questions the use of “Brahminical” before “Patriarchy” in a slogan on the grounds that it furthers the caste system, one realises that intersectionality is a term lost on so many. It then becomes abundantly clear that there is a severe lack of understanding of the social fabric of our society among the masses.
If your first memory of learning about the caste system is from a 7th grade history textbook that only told us of the 4 categories within it and that the system was “no longer practiced”, then you probably belong to one of the privileged classes. Privilege does not simply mean rich, in this context it implies having a certain kind of social capital in addition to access to good education and other resources.
To know whether you come from a family that has social capital or not – here’s a simple checklist. One, were your ancestors were not made to live on the outskirts of the village and only allowed inside when everybody wanted to dispose of their garbage? Two, were they allowed to own land and have access to public drinking water? Three, did they face no discrimination or exploitation for being born in a family that did not have access to any of the aforementioned? If your answer is yes to these, then this article is especially meant for you.
Merit vs access
When a student, who not only went to a substantially expensive private school and had private tutors in addition to a commercial coaching class for his/her engineering entrance, complains about reservation for a student who, in all probability, did not have access to even a quarter of those resources due to years of systemic oppression that has constantly otherized his/her family, one truly wonders how valid the argument supporting the concept of “merit” is.
Most upper caste students say that people from reserved categories might make their way in through reservations but are simply unable to keep up with the curriculum and perform poorly. And by extension of the same, they end up “wasting seats” that could’ve been occupied by a more deserving candidate. In saying so, they do not realise that this student has not had the same exposure and access and is therefore behind for a reason. At the same time, his identity and merit are constantly questioned by being expected to work twice as hard as the students of general category because their admission is deemed more fair and meritorious. While it can be understood that a better, more well rounded system of affirmative action should be aimed at primary schooling, unless we have a system in place for that, questioning the current method seems a privileged stance to take.
Why is a student securing 98% with access to multiple resources including guidance from one’s family considered more meritorious than a student securing 75% with neither of those? Is the difference really in merit or access? The fact that I’m writing this article has little to do with the merit I was born with but a lot to do with the kind of privilege I come from and the resources I had access to while growing up.
Merit is a social construct, not to be confused with talent. Since it’s not possible that generation upon generation of a certain caste/class can be classified as talented and thus more deserving than others, society solved the problem by creating this mirage of merit. We can simply call the underserved unmeritorious because they can’t match up to upper class mediocrity and at the same time say these people just don’t work hard enough and that’s why they are not good enough. Not only does this allow us to shake off all responsibility of laying in the ground work needed to solve the problem at its roots (read: better primary education for all) but also allows us to continue to monopolise every institution. This is also a privilege endowed on us because of our social capital.
So the next time someone you know jokes about lower cut offs for the reserved categories in the University of Delhi and calls themselves disadvantaged for being a savarna, please know that it is a reflection of an extremely superficial understanding of privilege, social capital and power dynamics.
Identity and advantage
Having operationalised privilege and social capital, let’s move on to the next buzzword– intersectionality. Formally, intersectionality may be defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, caste, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage“. Through an awareness of intersectionality, we can better acknowledge and ground the differences among us.
To understand how overlapping systems of discrimination are created, it is important to keep certain hierarchies in mind. In terms of gender, men generally tend to have more advantages over women. However, it’s not just restricted to the binary, a cis gendered, heteronomative man will have significantly more social capital over a cis-homosexual man who in turn will have a better standing than a trans man. This means that your sexuality and gender play a very important role in deciding where you stand in society and by extension of the same, how much agency and free will you get to exercise.
Patriarchy is designed to put straight men above all other genders, identities and orientation. It becomes even more complex when one’s caste comes into the picture. It is well understood that women have suffered because of patriarchy for ages, but it can not be denied that upper caste women are less oppressed than Dalit women. To say the latter is doubly disadvantaged would be appropriate because her oppression is twofold– one on account of being a woman and two, for belonging to a lower caste.
What we have accepted as status quo looks like forced exclusion of communities from the mainstream. Be it education, jobs or just everyday life, our understanding of social spheres is unbelievably narrow and points to a deeper problem in our perception of the marginalised. Therefore, it’s important for us to educate ourselves on these issues instead of simply turning a blind eye to others’ struggles. And to quote the late Toni Morrison, “If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”
Picture Courtesy- pinterest