Dr. Sylvia Karpagam and Sridhar Gowda
In an unequal society, the fittest will always be on top and their survival is almost certainly guaranteed. How is fitness determined and survival ensured? At the level of schools, colleges and workplaces, are some groups invariably ‘fitter’ than others? If yes, can fitness automatically be attributed to ‘merit’? What is merit? Who defines and sets standards for merit? If merit is the credit card that allows access to a race, who decides credit-worthiness? In reality, fitness is determined by a multitude of factors. There are many privileges that many of us ride on, to reach places and positions. These privileges come with our birth and with who our parents are – their financial, social and psychological locations. It comes with our caste status and where we are forcibly made to locate ourselves. As children, are we made to participate as leaders at the forefront or are we constantly abused and insulted? Are we made to feel inferior or superior? Are we allowed to study and given a supportive environment? Do we have access to tuition facilities to compete in exams that have well entrenched gate-keeping mechanisms to allow access to only a narrow caste group?
Systemic casteism is when power structures function on caste prerogatives and offer unfair and unjust obstructions to the growth and well-being of individuals of a perceived inferior caste group. Expecting individuals to fight these systems on their own, as a proof of ‘merit’ shows some intrinsic lack of understanding, amounting even to callousness. In the case of many children from marginalised communities, while their families struggle with their day to day existence, unable (not unwilling) to provide their children’s needs, schools become places of psychological violence. Children are not treated as equals. For those of us who have faced sibling rivalry or professional rivalry from people who often do it unknowingly, it shouldn’t be hard to understand the magnitude of psychological and social violence that is inflicted on children when this inequality is deliberately propagated. Children being made to sit separately, children’s heads’ being shaved or other markers being placed on the child to separate them as ‘them’, children not being allowed to eat with others, children who eat non-vegetarian, particularly beef, being told that they are therefore polluted and inferior. Can an educated, logical, rational, thinking savarna not understand how demoralising and damaging these practices are? These same practices are carried on to colleges and universities.
Two persons who have been figuring prominently in different media over the last few months, could be quoted as ideal examples of people in powerful positions who facilitate, nurture and feed off this process of systemic casteism. Although they are hardly the only ones contributing to this structural malaise, they are, in recent times, being offered powerful positions in policy and decision making by the Congress government in Karnataka. It is important that one critically assesses their ideological positioning and also understand the underlying basis for the enormous support that their ‘way of life’ garners.
Groups such as the Knowledge Commission, Karnataka Tourism Vision Group (KTVG) and Bangalore Blue Print Action Group (BBPAG) have been created by the Karnataka Government on the pretext of policy making and implementation but in reality, to subvert democratic processes and representation. The Knowledge Commission was constituted with “a mandate on institution building,policy innovation and excellence in the field of education, health, science and technology, industry, entrepreneurship, research and innovation, traditional knowledge, agriculture, e-governance, rural development and other relevant areas”. The Tourism Vision Group, consisting of ’eminent’ citizens and ‘domain specialists’ was positioned to ‘advise’ the government on the way ahead for the Tourism sector.The BBPAG apparently has been constituted with a mandate to bring transparency to governance. Ironically, Mr Ravichander, a member of BBPAG and co-chairman of KTVG and a member of earlier Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF) had said that “The BATF is not accountable to anyone, only to Infosys” (Ghosh A, 2005)!! So much for bringing transparency to governance!!
These groups have come under severe criticism for being para-statal, un-constitutional, pro-corporate and without any people’s participation.(Bangalore Mirror, 2016), (Ghosh D, 2016),
(Munikempanna and Gowda, 2016)
The predominant ‘upper’ caste profile of these bodies cannot be set aside as just another inevitable co-incidence. For far too long, decision making, policy making and power structures in the country have been dominated by a narrow caste group which has time and again demonstrated its unethical and unjust bias towards its own ilk while reducing the rest of the population to mere service providers without even basic rights. Even ‘Ahinda’ Siddaramaiah for all his pre-election promises has failed to bring any diversity to these groups.
Narendra Pani discusses the period of tenure of Chief Minister SM Krishna in Karnataka and the emergence of businessmen and women as icons of reform, with particular mention of Narayana Murthy, the chairman of Infosys Technologies Ltd. His reputation was used to support ideas and projects not only in areas where he possesses some expertise, but also in areas ‘beyond his established competency'(Pani, 2006).While Narayana Murthy currently occupies a place in the BBPAG, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and Mohandas Pai occupy places on the BBPAG, the KTVG and the Knowledge Commission only confirming that the trends are active and continuing. Narendra Pani further goes on to say that in creating a task force the emphasis was not on expertise. In fact, the Bangalore Action Task Force was ‘dominated by members directly or indirectly related to Infosys. This is also evident in Nandan Nilekani’s selection of people from his own closely knit group for the BATF. “To head the BATF, Mr S M Krishna turned to a personal friend, Mr Nandan Nilekani, who was then in a senior position at Infosys The rest of the taskforce was built through Mr Nilekani’s social network and consisted of people whom Mr Nilekani was friendly with or knew socially. Personal social networks therefore played an important role in the formation of this core group and in the subsequent framing of the taskforce’s aims.”(Ghosh A, 2005). What a cute and cosy little caste clique that must have turned out to be – democracy be damned!
This is, in fact crony capitalism where success in business depends on close relationships between business people and government. The cumulative reputation of this group was expected to be ‘so overwhelming’ that it would not be challenged. These spaces have no room for any form of representation either by civil society with expertise in those domains or communities that are directly or indirectly affected by these policy decisions.
At that point, Murthy had stated in a television interview that he identified himself with the First World while the conditions around him in Karnataka was that of the Third World. Any criticism of specific programs, could then be dismissed as being the result of a Third World mind-set.(Pani, 2006)
Icons thus ensure that reforms only serve the purpose of modifying and innovating crony capitalism rather than removing them. While the pre-reform period saw crony capitalism in the form of governments offering licenses to their cronies, the post –reform period sees the cronies being offered direct stakes in policy making and access to dominant policy makers.(Pani, 2006)
It is a fact that when governments are accountable and people centric, unscrupulous markets are kept in check. When the government is non transparent and corrupt, they become pawns at the hands of powerful corporates whose reach engulfs state heads in multiple ways.
In Karnataka, these policy and implementation groups are adequate evidence of larger than life ‘icons’ being presented as a front for crony capitalism that has installed itself into policy making by arm twisting a corruptible, ineffective and inefficient government.
Most middle class feel justifiably enraged and outraged with any kind of opposition to what seems to be an innocuous dream of a ‘smart’ city. The corporate and middle class dream of a slum free, beggar free, aesthetic, uncrowded ”smart city’ with large malls, slick buildings, fancy cars, smooth roads and ‘top-end’ facilities would necessarily and naturally require ‘some’ sacrifice and collateral damage. It is no surprise at all that the fallout of this dream is damningly and inevitably ‘reserved’ for the poor and marginalised communities in the city. Ideas about Bangalore’s economy being based predominantly on the IT sector and the imagery of a “world class city” are disengaged from the reality of the city’s economic structure and physical form (Ghosh A,2005). Forced evictions, evictions of street vendors, violation of worker’s rights, labour law violations, etc. are invisibilised by the corporates and invisible to the middle class – a new and rapidly evolving avatar of urban casteism..
Mohandas Pai, one of the stalwarts of these groups, previous head of HR at Infosys and current chairman of Aarin Capital Partners recently wrote an article for NDTV addressing the protesting students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)(Pai, 2016). He has also proudly declared his opposition to any form of inclusive action in the private sector (Rakesh, 2014)(Raghu, 2006), therefore garnering even more love and support (if that were possible) for his emulation worthy ‘leadership skills’ and readily dispensed words of wisdom.
Admirers of his way of thinking have jumped into all kinds of bandwagons, arguing on his behalf and vehemently validating his point of view. Mohandas Pai, in reality, represents an entire philosophy (or the lack of it) of thinking or living. Those who criticise Mohandas Pai as being problematic for India’s progress are faced with an onslaught of insults from his defenders and the defenders of his model of being a ‘good’ Indian.
Mohandas Pai states in his letter to the protesting students, that “we need universities where faculty are hired on merit and not ideology and where there is a healthy interaction of ideas and views”. He says ‘there should be no single ideology or view which will dominate very much the principle on which our civilisation is based.” How do his statements sit with the suicide note of the research scholar Rohith Vemula in the University of Hyderabad stating that his birth is his fatal accident? Why does a dying man talk about his birth being a fatal accident? What about Rohith’s birth has been instrumental for his death? Isn’t it because his birth into a certain caste has led him to head lock with the kind of system that Mohandas Pai is defending?
Most universities in India are places where there is no healthy interaction of ideas and views. There is only one dominant discourse in most universities in India and that is premised on the privileged existence of the savarna classes and closure of these doors to diversity of any kind. What is healthy about it? Can a group of students who share similar caste and class backgrounds sitting in an university that has closed its doors to other communities have a ‘healthy interaction of ideas and views’? Students who give alternate points of view other than the mainstream savarna narrative, will always be punished, humiliated, rejected, taunted and kept out by savarna nurtured and nurturing structures.
Savarnas have to either say that they support these unequal system and do not believe in equality or say that they believe in equality and therefore do not support these unequal systems. In reality, it is a very straightforward position. The problem comes with savarna deviousness, where they say they believe in equality but will continue to support unequal systems using some roundabout logic such as merit. There is enough evidence, which even an amateur researcher would have access to, to show that, given suitable opportunities and support, all children have the phenomenal ability to do well – irrespective of their colour,race, religion, language, or caste. When these so called support systems are itself such that they exclude certain types of children and break their sense of self-worth, how does the argument of merit come in?
In his article, Mohandas Pai sits on the moral high chair pontificating to the protesting students about abuse of taxpayers money (Pai, 2016).If he could spend a few moments in quiet introspection, the truth would instantly strike him that he and his companies have benefited a very great deal from taxpayers’ money. If he would spend even more time thinking, he would realise that it is not just for him, but a significant amount of taxpayers money has gone into providing an excellent cushion to his good friends who are part of these task forces including Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Swati Ramanathan, Devi Shetty, Abhishek Poddar, Ramesh Ramanathan etc.,
In some countries, private agencies that are financially supported by the government would automatically follow the same principles that guide government actions and programs. In India, corporates like Infosys, Janaagraha (of the infamous Tendersure roads), Narayana Hrudayala and Biocon, demand and acquire grants, aid, subsidies, loans, land and many other benefits from the government by claiming to provide one or the other ‘service’ that benefits the community. In India, all of this money from the government comes from tax-payers with exemptions neither for the poor nor for the marginalised. Indian business tycoons who own and run these corporates, blustering and chest thumping about how favourably their performance compares with their Western counterparts, are astonishingly reticent about bringing in diversity into their private firms. The business agraharam is well and truly in place and would fail all international standards of equal employment opportunities. On diversity, corporates score zero and continue to remain ‘old boys clubs’ based on caste affiliation rather than merit or experience. (Ajit et al,2012) Rigid immobile structures built on caste bias have been documented in several sectors (Upadhya, 2007), (Kumar A, 2016), (ed.Thorat S and Newman SK, 2010) with the crucial key for entry to the portals of ‘merit’ belonging only to certain caste groups, no matter how tax paying the other citizens may be.
Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, when she is not on all the Vision committees and Knowledge Commissions in the State, is also the Chairperson for the Indian Institute of Management and has, with a sardonic expression, tweeted her agreement with IIMs opposing the government over reservation quotas in faculty, as it would affect quality.
In an interview with Hindustan times (Kumar B, 2016) she said ” You cannot be giving non-deserving candidates preference just because they are SC or ST”.
Her posturing is a real time expression of systemic casteism. Does she really believe that an all savarna upper caste panel will be a fair and just body to decide who is deserving and who is non-deserving? It is a panel of this same configuration that has, over the last several years, by some strange and inexplicable co-incidence, identified ‘deserving’ candidates from the very same caste composition as the panel itself. This would be a joke if it not for its perennial and vicious impact – singling out as of ‘lesser merit’ thousands of smart, talented and hard-working young men and women, deprecating their worth, undermining their self esteem, breaking their confidence and pushing them towards jobs that they neither choose nor deserve. It is an unwritten rule in most of our institutions, that only so called upper caste candidates are “deserving” enough and ‘meritorious’ enough to occupy hallowed spaces within these publicly funded institutions.
Why would this mutually protective and self-serving group want to shake status quo? Why would they want to give up even one inch of the space that they think they are entitled to, not just on the basis of the elusive merit they claim to possess (and which they frequently prove not to possess) but because they think it’s a hereditary birthright. That really is the crux of the matter. “Dalits shouldn’t be in places like IIM because that is not their position on the karmic cycle. Of course if dalits want to work as cleaners and sweepers and supervisors, then they are welcome, but they cannot occupy the places of knowledge”. This is a pre-determined, innate and deep-rooted caste prejudice that exists in the mind of every so called upper caste who conducts interviews to recruit students or faculty. When they realise that these candidates are dalit, their mind will immediately equate them with inferiority and incapability. This is the mindset of the elite savarna club – and they want to be trusted to judge someone’s deservedness or non-deservedness?
It is indeed surprising that the so called intelligentsia or cream of knowledge that claims to reside within the hallowed doors of institutions such as IIM cannot see the innate flaw in the segregation of the ‘non-deserving’ from the ‘deserving’. The sad truth of the matter is that the ‘deserving’ will always be from one narrow caste group, and the ‘non deserving’ from another caste group that has traditionally and historically been ascribed this label, irrespective and in spite of anything other than the ‘fatal accident’ of their birth.
Unless people from marginalised communities are pro-actively brought into and genuinely supported in these spaces, the spaces will automatically be ‘reserved’ ONLY for the so called upper caste elite.
So the fact of the matter is – the burden of proof of ‘merit’ doesn’t rest on the shoulder of students and young people from marginalised communities. The onus is on the schools, institutions and organisations to prove, with evidence, that they are not dens of savarna monopoly over taxpayers’ money.The onus also squarely rests on the shoulders of the savarnas to prove that their credibility and locus standi rests on moral tools of fairness, justice and equality and not on the well ingrained laws of caste privilege as ordained by Manu.
Kiran Mazumdar Shaw is a business tycoon, who, on the one hand, complains about the government regulating her clinical trials (Sridhar, 2014), (Mahalingam, 2014); while on the other hand, her company gets booked for dumping toxic wastes.(DHNS, 2015).She figures in the news every other day. On one day she is felicitated for her rags to riches story, while on another day the state government clears a 1060 crores investment proposal for her company Biocon to start a pharmaceutical plant(Prabhu, 2016). The Congress has begged her (under duress no doubt) to be on a Vision group or task force that is expected to magically convert Bangalore to a city that dreams are made of. When her proposal to the Kannada and Culture department for a public private partnership for the Venkatappa art gallery was rejected, the gallery was brought under the Tourism Departments ‘adoption’ scheme by the Karnataka tourism vision group, of which she is co-incidentally a member. Her Biocon foundation distributes spirulina granules to severely and moderately malnourished children in the state in collaboration with industrial giants such as Jindal Steel works and Scania (Baburaj, 2016). while holding no responsibility for negative outcomes. Have these ‘supplements’ that are being distributed to poor, sick children from marginalised communities been tested for side effects? How do they hope to manage undue effects ranging from liver toxicity, renal toxicity and brain damage that have been documented to arise with this product?
Swati Ramanathan, of the notorious Tender SURE projects in Bangalore, trustee of Janaagraha, has bypassed all government tendering processes, bypassed government bodies and bagged a contract worth crores for four roads in Bangalore (Bangalore Mirror, 2015). These four roads cater to the ‘smart city’ fantasy of the whimsical elite of Bangalore, who have the least interest in understanding the simple fact that such disproportionate investment would have to take away from some other budget which is more vital for the well-being of most citizens. The BBMP, when asked to upgrade basic facilities for health, education and social security, throw up their hands and claim to have no budget!!The Karnataka Tourism department has refused to answer RTI’s related to KTVG, of which Mohandas Pai is the co-chair, from the very same taxpayers on whose behalf Mohandas Pai speaks so valiantly. (Munikempanna and Gowda, 2016). Whilst at Infosys did he not benefit from tax payers money by creating land banks for Infosys? In his own words “For this, creating land banks was a big challenge to the company. We persuaded state governments to allot us land” (Benjamin, 2010). Why the double standards?? Isn’t this savarna double speak where you will bring in some nationalistic logic of tax payers money against students who criticise a discriminatory and casteist system while vociferously supporting and benefiting from a corporate group that maliciously destroys democratic processes and criminally profits from taxpayers money?
Mohandas Pai and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw are symbolic of the larger malaise in India. ‘Icons’ are easy to come by especially when they feed the very same aspirations and reaffirm the prejudices and intrinsic class and caste biases that people anyway have. Those who support people like them should engage logic to understand issues. To question these icons, their positions, to understand one’s own locations, to look at larger structures, to question inequality, not from one’s own comfort zones but from one’s sense of fairness and justice. It is also necessary to understand that words like merit/deserving/non deserving are not just innocuous measures of performance but deliberate and wilful manipulations to perpetuate structural casteism. These require breaking away from stereotypical corporate icons such as Mohandas Pai and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and understanding that these vision groups and knowledge commissions are not just para-statal bodies, which is bad enough, but in fact, attempts at creating supra-statal bodies, intent on bypassing regulatory mechanisms of the state to acquire disproportionate gain from taxpayer resources. Understanding this requires change. It requires giving up some of one’s own comfortable spaces. It requires standing the risk of losing a job, or being denied a PhD or being denied hostel rooms. Those who question these systems are the real heroes and heroines – the ones who fight for equality and justice, in spite of untold hardships to themselves and their dependents.
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Dr Sylvia Karpagam is a public health doctor and researcher. Her own experiences of pervasive and insidious brahmanical discrimination informs her critique and she would like to use all the skills she possesses to fight caste and its manifestations as part of the larger movement of dalit bahujan friends and family. She is born from an inter-caste marriage between an adi – dravida father and naidu mother.
Sridhar Gowda promotes bibliodiversity and translated Nagaraj Hettur’s Kannada article ‘In search of a house to rent: Untouchability and humiliation I experienced today’ for Round Table India.
Banner courtesy: Karnataka Jnana Aayoga website.
Illustration courtesy: Nidhin Shobhana.