The undue stress Modi laid on ‘merit’ at the event’s launch is conspicuous in a negative sense. Explicit as well as implicit messages arguing against reservations and advocating ‘merit’ as the basis of admissions, jobs, and promotions are flooding the social media.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the ‘Stand Up India’ scheme last week, an initiative to encourage entrepreneurship among Dalits, tribals, and women by providing them bank loans of up to one crore rupees to start a business.
The scheme was hailed by the media and everyone alike, and rightly so, for it is aimed at strengthening the rural economy as well as the social fabric of the nation through job creation and improved opportunities. What was striking, though, and remained mostly unnoticed, was the way the programme was designed and the manner in which the prime minister delivered his address.
The day chosen for the launch, the birthday of Babu Jagjivan Ram, is symbolic. A Dalit himself, he not only fought for the rights of the backward classes but led by example and reached high posts, which included that of Defence Minister during the Indo-Pak war of 1971 and Deputy Prime Minister in the Janata Party government . He also spearheaded the green revolution in India as an agriculture minister. He is known to have had differences with Ambedkar on matters of conversion to Buddhism. The extension of reservation policy to Neo-Buddhists was also extensively opposed by him.
The Prime Minister mentioned in his speech that due credit has not been given to the leader previously, hence the government chose the day to launch the ‘Stand Up India’ program. He said that the distinguishing characteristic of Babu Jagjivan Ram was that he always insisted on ‘merit’ and refused anything that was not based on ‘merit’:
“बाबू जगजीवन राम जी की एक विशेषता रही कि वे हमेशा merit के आग्रही रहे।
Scholarship भी वो merit पर लेने के आग्रही रहते थे।
Merit पर जो न मिले, उसको लेने से इंकार करते थे”
Babu Jagjivan Ram’s official profile says, “He was advised by many to avail the scholarship offered to Harijan students. Confident of his ability to compete with the students in the general category, the young Jagjivan refused the scholarship offered to Harijan students. Instead, he competed with the other students and earned the scholarship based on his meritorious academic performance.”
If observed closely, one can see a pattern here. A pattern that is visible in the forwarded Whatsapp messages, Facebook posts, Twitter rants by trolls and the trickle down effect this is having in everyday conversations with peers.
— प्रशान्त (@Prashantmonu14) February 23, 2016
The undue stress Modi layid on ‘merit’ is conspicuous in a negative sense. Explicit as well as implicit messages arguing against reservations and advocating ‘merit’ as the basis of admissions, jobs, and promotions are flooding social media. There can be a separate debate on this issue. However, the patronising tone of these messages has been consistent on the point that a deserving candidate opting for reservation should feel guilty and ashamed. This is an example of veiled caste discrimination.
Recently, an advertisement was in the news for its misleading representation of reservation:
— Kavita Krishnan (@kavita_krishnan) March 24, 2016
Narendra Modi’s statements appear to be a continuation of this discourse. Though merit is important, the way in which it is being promoted creates apprehension. His statements need to be questioned in the context of what seems to be a concerted attack on the idea of positive discrimination. Is the prime minister catering to a certain category of voters who are against reservations, reassuring them that he hasn’t forgotten them?
The BJP’s stand during the anti-reservation protests of 2006 was that it supported reservations for the socially backward sections but held that any “benefit of reservation” must also go the “economically weaker sections of the upper castes.” The leadership of the BJP and its parent organisation RSS is largely constituted of the upper castes and they have not shied away from speaking their mind on more than one occasion.
RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat called for a review of the reservation policy in an interview to the Sangh mouthpieces Organiser and Panchjanya in the wake of the Patel agitation in Gujarat. RSS general secretary Suresh Bhaiyyaji Joshi too said during the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha meet in Nagaur, Rajasthan, that reservation should not be available to “affluent sections.”
The BJP has all the while maintained that it has no plans to alter the reservation policy. Speaking after laying the foundation stone for B.R. Ambedkar memorial in New Delhi recently, Modi said, “Nothing has happened to reservation for Dalits, tribals, when we are in power, but still lies are being spread to mislead people.”
However, the current atmosphere points in another direction. What is being said and what is being meant may not necessarily be the same thing.
The phrase ‘Stand Up India’ itself sounds condescending. Asking people who have traditionally been oppressed to “stand up” implies slothfulness and lassitude on their part. It has an imperious rather than an inspiring tone to it, which shouldn’t come as a surprise.
The identity of India’s minorities is being called into question by the demand that they demonstrate their patriotism in a prescribed manner. Without explicitly talking about religion, a message is sent out that Muslims somehow do not belong. Similarly, matters relating to caste too are being cleverly manipulated by belittling reservations under the garb of ‘merit’.
Manasi Gandhi is a freelance writer