May 15th, 2006
One of the main issues occupying the news here in India in the last couple of months is a new law under consideration that would require India’s private educational establishments, including the elite management and technology institutes (IIMs and IITs respectively) to reserve places for members of lower castes. Such rules already apply to public institutions such as colleges and many other areas such as the Indian Administrative Service (civil service), the Lok Sabha (lower house) and public sector jobs.
Many commentators, including one of my colleagues, Vivek Singh, thinks that such reservations should be solely based on financial need (subscription required). After all, there are many poor brahmins and rich members of lower castes – although they are still the exception rather than the rule – and a high proportion of reserved places in government remain vacant for lack of applicants.
The reason I think that neither reservations based on caste nor financial need will result in equality of opportunity is that caste-based discrimination is still alive and well in India. A close friend of mine attended a well-known art college in Mumbai, where almost all the professors were brahmins. Interestingly, most of the brahmin students, even those whom were acknowledged by their peers to be poor students, obtained the highest grades. Their work was forwarded on to design companies, along with that of the rich students who were able to pay bribes.
My friend, who won a national award for her typography work while at college, was given a tiny, unobtrusive space at the degree show. When representatives of design companies asked the professors for her portfolio, the requests were not passed on to her. She only found out afterwards when she went for an interview at one of these companies of her own accord and was asked by a confused interviewer why she hadn’t provided her portfolio earlier.
My friend is from a caste classified as “Other Backward Class” (OBC). Stories such as this are by no means rare.
There main reason for this state of affairs is that when you are a Hindu, everybody knows your caste. It is written on your birth certificate. If you take up a reserved place at school based on caste, your caste is written on your education certificates. Your education certificates are required when you apply for a job, so your potential employers know your caste. If caste discrimination is to be abolished in India this all needs to stop, from birth onwards.
Even more problematic is the fact that that most Hindus have surnames which reflect their caste. Another prerequisite for abolishing caste discrimination would be to force everybody to adopt surnames from which it is impossible to deduce their caste or community, or drop them altogether. For example, my colleague Deepthi has no other name. Her parents decided not to give her one exactly to prevent anyone from deducing anything about her background from her name.
Such a change is not without precedent. In Turkey in 1933, the same year that Turkish women were given the right to vote and hold office, the great military leader and reformist Ataturk enacted a law requiring everybody to adopt surnames. Many people took their trade as their surname, which had the unfortunate side effect that social mobility became more limited. As in India, people could tell your background from your surname, so for example people with the surname Kapici (doorman) or Kasapci (butcher) were unlikely to obtain management positions. If a law can be passed requiring people to adopt surnames, surely one can be passed requiring people to drop them?
There were some notable exceptions to newly liberated Turks adopting trade or community based names. My friend Cem emailed me some notable ones include Demirel (ironfist) and Akbulut (whitecloud). His favourite is a man named Alrahman Uzunkavaklarialtindayataruyumazoglu. His surname means “the son of the man that lay down below tall silver birch trees but couldn’t get to sleep”.