The legacy of Dr B R Ambedkar becomes a mainstream topic of discussion every April. On Ambedkar Jayanti (April 14), hoardings and posters appeared all over our cities and were shared on social media capturing our headspace for the whole of Dalit History Month. Beyond this month, sadly, his ideas, identity and images are relegated to “sarkari” offices. As I was writing this, I wondered how many of us truly keep Ambedkar alive in our consciousness. He not only transformed caste from a tool of oppression to a symbol of strength for us Dalits, but also left a mark on all aspects of our lives, from economics to gender rights.
I sometimes wonder whether Babasaheb’s journey to becoming “Dr Ambedkar”, having come from the Mahar community, was a fruit of his own labour or just plain luck. Individual merit and excellence are the result of several factors, a complex interplay of societal structures, cultural biases, and historical advantages. The idea of meritocracy has become a kind of “civic religion” (Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit) in modern societies, with the assumption that success and failure are solely the results of individual effort and ability. However, this ignores the ways in which social and economic structures shape opportunities and outcomes and can lead to a sense of moral superiority among the winners of the meritocracy game.
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I still remember, back in 2010, when I got through to St Stephen’s College in Delhi University. I got a call from my teacher who asked me how I had managed to through, before immediately answering herself: “Oh! I forgot you have a quota!”. For the majority of people in our country, caste is only understood through the prism of “reservation” — in admissions and other junctures of our lives. All the liberal and modern notions of being an egalitarian society just go for a toss.
Your friend becomes your foe and your teachers begin to question your merit. You are subjected to caustic remarks like, “reservation has compromised the quality of this country,” or “we don’t go to a doctor who got admission to medical college through quota”. With mere words, all our hard work is dismissed.
Many, especially in urban India, harbour the unrealistic idea that reservation has made up for centuries of marginalisation. They don’t realise that the reflection of one’s caste lightens or darkens every aspect of one’s life. The shadow of caste isn’t just felt in slurs or obvious discrimination. It can exist even in seemingly harmless statements like “If I could have your caste certificate for one day, I could crack the UPSC”.
Being a “quota kid”, my life has been a constant struggle to prove my merit and excellence. But by engaging in similar quests, young people often succumb to the pressure and lose their lives. The loss of a bright star is a loss for the whole community, not just for a family. There are countless Ambedkars who couldn’t survive the mental and emotional pressure of having to constantly prove themselves. Connected to this is the pressing issue of suicides by students in our premiere educational institutions. This problem of structural inequality in society is one that I’m still trying to make sense of: On the one hand, the government is doing its best for greater inclusion and representation, while we, as a community, are also working hard. And yet, there is a lack of sensitivity when it comes to caste debates. Is it because of the “quota system”? What is quota? Is it a crime, a deviation, or an unjust move? As sociologist Earl Quinney states, deviation or crime is whatever goes against the convenience of those who are in power in society. Naturally then, reservation, although it is deemed to be affirmative action, is perceived as social deviance. For us, on the other hand, quota is about recognition, representation and redistribution of opportunities and resources.
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When I was growing up, there were posters on the walls of my house stating, “Garv se kaho hum Dusadh hain.” I couldn’t understand why caste identity was being reinforced in a child who is in her formative years. Now I wonder whether it was this reinforcement that kept me going through my academic career so far. My parents knew what lies ahead, so maybe they felt the need for sensitisation at a younger age.
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We are all reflections of our own parents, family, and close-knit communities, which shape us long before the State can have any impact on us. What this means is that we need to instil in our children the confidence to bear their caste identities, because if we are not telling kids about their caste identities, we are eroding the very dignity of our caste. Our identities end up getting entangled in shame and when we step into the world, we suffer from social anxiety. Sensitisation to caste identity at a younger age will help kids become more emotionally stable. We must accept caste as an everyday social phenomenon as it influences and shapes our everyday interactions. Our life experiences are woven around caste and we all have our own stories of resilience and resistance. Now, we must own our caste identity with conviction and pride.
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The writer is assistant professor, Maitreyi College and founder of DAPSA (Dalit Adivasi Professors and Scholars Association)