On April 2, India saw a vicious and malignant display of casteism, with a million instances of confirmation that caste is a living reality of 21st-century globalising India, no hangover from the past, and not at all a quaint rural relic.
I am not referring to the protests against the dilution of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act that shook the country, but to the most venomous, militant, blatant and intransigent display of casteism by internet and tech savvy upper-castes on social media. WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook continue to erupt in a frenzy of open hatred against Dalits and the reservation policy, not only in vernacular languages, but also in English. This is proof, if ever any was needed, of how caste consciousness is very much (also) a contemporary urban mindset, firmly ensconced in the minds of the so-called modern, globalised elite, who fail to see the irony in declaring that caste does not matter any more, claim themselves to be free of caste, yet unhesitatingly perpetrate completely fact-free caste prejudices and discriminatory stereotypes as immutable truths.
I got a virtual treasure trove of these messages on various platforms, which were mind-numbing in their blindness to the actuality, and were in comprehensive disregard to any known fact about the reality of Dalit-Adivasi lives. In complete contrast to the overwhelming evidence – that overall, Dalits are disproportionately mired in poverty, battle stigma and humiliation on a routine basis, face extreme violence and discrimination, and struggle to break the silence imposed by marginality and prejudice – the material in circulation depicted them, both pictorially and through words, as wallowing in state-sponsored luxuries, living a charmed and carefree life of idleness.
Reservation in this blinkered mindset is seen not as compensatory discrimination, not as an instrument to redress caste-based inequalities and to level the playing field somewhat, but as a policy that renders unfair an otherwise fair and just social order. It would be too much to ask if this highly caste-conscious elite ever bothered to look for any evidence on the actual working of reservation. Do they know that there is no evidence that it lowers efficiency, and plenty of evidence that, in fact, the benefits of reservation are greater than its costs?
One of the messages was so over the top that it puts the claims of the achievements of Vedic science to shame. It went like this.
“Excerpts from a conversation with a SC/ST (sic) young man standing at a paan shop: why don’t you earn a living? He said, why should I? I said, get married. I am married. How? Through the Chief Minister Kanyadan Scheme. Then earn for your children, I said. I get free childbirth through the Janani Suraksha Yojana, plus Rs. 1400. Earn for your children’s education, then? Oh, they get free schooling, uniforms, books, and meals. My son is in college; he gets a scholarship because we are BPL, so we live very comfortably. I asked, but how do you actually manage your expenses? My younger daughter just got a bicycle, son got a laptop, parents get old-age pension, and we get wheat and rice for Rs. 1 per kilo. Irritated, I said, at least earn to be able to send your parents on a pilgrimage! Oh, they have already visited two (of the four) dhams through the Chief Minister Pilgrimage Scheme. But don’t you need money for their last rites? I can cremate them for Rs. 1 at the electric crematorium. Exasperated, I said, at least earn to save for your children’s marriage! He smiled, and said, they will get married the same way I did!”
This imaginary conversation, which goes on to describe this young man as a squatter on government land who takes a concessionary loan, builds a house, sells it and buys more land, is one of the more benign ones doing the WhatsApp rounds. Carried away by their enthusiasm, the creators of these messages decided to invent schemes that either don’t exist or are not caste-specific (for instance, the pilgrimage scheme initiated by the Samajwadi Party government in UP, which Adityanath recently scrapped, was meant for all senior citizens regardless of caste or religion).
These messages are frightening not only because of the complete absence of truth, but more because well-educated professionals, including doctors, lawyers, chartered accountants and army captains, have been circulating them. These individuals occupy positions that enable them to take decisions affecting the lives of countless Indians, less privileged than themselves.
I asked an army captain, who claimed that Dalits were the most privileged and Brahmins the least so in contemporary India, to choose any one area of privilege and show me evidence to prove his point. Within minutes came his reply, “They are not there because of their low IQ”. And as far as stigma is concerned, “They thrive in it”, and in his esteemed view, “STs are better because they come from a different racial stock”. He adopted the classic shifting goalpost style of argument. When asked to prove Dalit privilege, he retorted by claiming they didn’t deserve it, thereby unwittingly admitting that they were not privileged.
An overwhelming number of these messages are about the unfairness of the reservation policy as it spells the death of merit. Very conveniently, donation-based entry, management quotas, hereditary reservations in business houses and network-based job allocations are not discussed because these benefit PLUs (people like us). In this Manusmriti-driven mindset, any example of a rich Dalit is seen as an affront to a just social order – several messages bemoan the personal wealth of Mayawati, Mallikarjun Kharge and Ram Vilas Paswan.
Finally, virtually all the messages proudly claim that they support reservation on economic grounds. Really? We now have a wealth of evidence that reveals the dark and ugly underbelly of the privileged elite – the obnoxious and distasteful behaviour of rich parents towards children admitted to private schools on the economically weaker sections quota, which is not caste-based.
This sewage of open hatred shows that the opposition to reservations or to the PoA Act is a fig leaf. The real problem is that there is churning and upheaval in the centuries-old caste hierarchy. Reservations have created an educated and aware Dalit middle class that is vocal, active, articulate and demanding a just and humane society. Far too many upper-caste, “liberal” Indians feel threatened, don’t like it and feel it is time to reassert their place in the caste hierarchy. Upper-caste India is not caste-mukt, and has no desire to be.
The bandh called by the Dalit organisations against the dilution of the PoA Act was countered by another one on April 10 demanding the abolition of caste-based reservations. This shows the real intent of those who declare from rooftops that caste is dead: withdraw every policy that might possibly offer a level-playing field to Dalits.
In the meanwhile, the Haryana government can show us the true face of “casteless” India for school admission, by saying students should write if their parents are in “unclean” occupations. Groups opposed to reservations find that asking people to check boxes of SC/ST etc. solidifies caste boundaries. Did anyone hear any protest marches by “youth for equality” declaring that no occupation is unclean?
Make no mistake. The real agenda is to kick away the ladder, so that those who are at the bottom of the hierarchy stay there, and the vicious casteist social media posts are its ugly warning signs.
Ashwini Deshpande is professor of economics, Delhi School of Economics.