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”.

  • http://www.avishek.net Avishek Sen Gupta

    I strongly disagree…*not* with the point of abolition of caste-based discriminant; but with the suggestion of a law requiring dropping surnames.

    I do know that several surnames in the West reflect profession (possibly) practised by one of the earliest holders of that surname. Obviously, there is no discrimination on that basis, correct?

    Why should a *law* need to be passed in India to force dropping surnames? If there is a problem (and I believe there is), I’d rather see a more deep-rooted change happening. Unfortunately, I do not know what that is.

    Surnames are a mere symptom; no one will get anywhere curing *that*!

    Besides, I like my surname :-)

    -Avishek

  • Abhay Singhal

    An absolutely freash, noble and new perspective.

  • Pradeep Gatram

    Jez,

    Interesting idea, but in my view kaam nahin karega. Let me give an example.

    Nitish Kumar, the CM of Bihar, does not use his caste as part of his name. I know lot of friends from Bihar who do not use their caste in their names. But, as we all, know casteism is widely prevalent in Bihar.

    Basically, the problem is very deep rooted. Its not only a upper caste/backward caste issue. I too have heard of situations where educated people of X upper caste discriminate against people of Y upper caste :(.

    College is just one example. How many of our generation have had to suffer because of parents who r hell bent on their kids marrying within their caste. I call that also a certain kind of discrimination.

    You do rightly point out that all this shit that is going on can only be curtailed by making caste irrelevant or getting rid of caste system.

    Let me throw another extreme way of getting there. How about supporting ur siblings, friends, kids, … when they want to marry out of the caste. I am sure it will be small % of people in who will find someone suitable for themselves out of their community, but within a few generations this should build up. Are we willing to take up the fight into our homes today for a less casteist future tomorrow?

    Pradeep

    PS: Like Mojo, I too like my surname. There will be too many Pradeep Kumar’s in this world but vv few Pradeep Gatram’s ;).

  • http://abhaga.blogspot.com Abhaya

    Hi Jez,

    Exactly the kind of conclusion I reached on while trying to understand how reservations may possibly work. They are no help in trying to remove the enigma attached to lower castes. In fact they may end up fueling them up.

    Unfortunately, the sheer scarcity of opportunities as compared to eligible population makes it difficult for people to see reason.

    abhaya

  • http://sriyansa.wordpress.com sriyansa

    I must commend you, Jez, for a fresh perspective on this burning issue. That every hindu child born in India is made cognizant of his caste, and the position it commands in the society, is a fact; however unsavoury it might seem to most of us.

    However as commented earlier, the surname problem is merely a side issue to the entire thing. Without changing the underlying rubric and only implementing the external details can lead to numerous problems; the rise of fundamentalism in Turkey, the overthrow of Shah in Iran and the current acrimony between Hindus and Muslims in India being live examples of such coverup attempts. It won’t in the end solve anything and would probably make a grave problem graver.

    While caste based inequities do exist in India, I think you have missed the whole point behind the recent uproar. IITs and IIMs – the brand and the institute – have been built by the entire nation over the period of the last 50 plus years. Today the new law is seen by many as an attempt by a desperate politician to cement his place and the party to gain brownie points before the elections. Questions are being raised on how these steps act as a leveller of any sort, when primary education remains inaccessible to so many. As far as finances are concerned, I have not known anyone getting admission into one of these colleges and not studying there because of unaffordability. As they exist today reservations do not do anything to promote equality. These actions are not affirmative in any sense; nor are they discriminations that are positive. As they exist today they continue to promote the interests of a miniscule section of the ex-underpriviliged who have now taken over the voice of the entire section of the society.

    -sriyansa

  • Puneet

    Well, Its only partially true. Mere dropping surnames will not help. Besides one surnames reflect many castes already (upper and Lower) for example ‘Sharma’ or ‘Verma’.

    The question is purely economic and should be based on Financial need only. A poor is a poor irrespetive of caste, race and religion.

  • Yogi

    We need to be careful to provide an objective analysis of the situation. The fact remains that lower casts have been suppressed in India for centuries. The fact also remains that there was a genuine desire and attempt to provide them better opportunities during independence. I do not recall if there was any uproar at that point of time when 22.5% reservation was done for SC and ST categories. Also if I recall correctly, there was a provision in Indian Constitution to abolish reservations after some time. However, the execution was done in a skewed manner. A certain section of under-privileged people made the most of these opportunities and got rich. These provisions stopped making any impact to actual sufferers while some others made mints of money out of it.
    Unfortunately, these provisions always remained driven by politicians who had the selfish motive of controlling everything. Why is no politician or political party saying that primary education is a birth right and world class facilities would be provided to all in the society irrespective of their class and status? This would the only intervention point from state and subsequent career development is driven purely on merit. However it is unlikely to happen in present context because that would need at least couple of generations to start seeing the impact and hence, does not serve their narrow political agendas of cornering votes in elections. Since, they want to increase their shelf-life, they would not let that happen. Problem is that the issue needs broader participation from different players – private sector, premier education institutes and most critically the citizens themselves, and it is not happening. Why don’t private sector, IITs and IIMs publish success stories from lower caste candidates who made it big despite the so-called lack of these initiatives?
    As a minor point, how many seats per year do these institutes have? May be 25000 on a higher side. What proportion of population would get benefited from reservation – 0.05% annually? It probably is even worse time horizon we are looking at than making primary education a fundamental right.

  • Rajeev Kumar

    I’m sick of IIT,IIM brands (Why? ‘coz I did not get admission). So lets screw these brands. But wait, when you screw you should have 50% reservation for sudras.
    Jai hind.

  • jez

    Thanks for all your comments. Firstly I should say that I deliberately ignored the politics motivating this move by the government, since I think it is quite clear to everyone that we’re simply witnessing old fashioned vote-bank politics. As many others have mentioned, the UPA’s common minimum programme contained a clear promise to implement a law such as this.

    Sriyansa and Yogi both mentioned primary education as a more pressing factor in equalising opportunity. I think this is absolutely correct. There are still far too many poor parents failing to send their children to school because they cannot afford to, either because of the costs of books or uniform, or the opportunity cost of not having them around to support the family either financially or by doing housework.

    It seems to me that in metropolitan areas caste is gradually losing its importance – but in the villages, the system still remains as rigid as it has for the last few thousand years. Even the mass conversion of members of scheduled castes to Buddhism (at Ambedkar’s urging) and other religions, entailing changing their names, has not alleviated their oppression. I really can’t see any other way out than through education, particularly of women.

  • Rohini

    We always crib about the west countries esp the developed ones being racist. Much has been written and spoken about this issue. But isn’t castism on among it. Ain’t we one among the group. In my opinion there is more racism in the subcontinent than anywhere else in the world. Even if we look our neighbours, all followers of Islam. There are regular cases of fights among the different communities( shia and sunni)of the same religion.

    I agree with pradeep, that do we as individuals condemn castism.

  • Sicilian

    Most of the oppression to Dalits are done by OBC. Remeber that! Why should OBC get rewarded for their oppressions?

  • Randall

    what caste does sirju belong in? and what part of India did sirju originate in?

  • roy james

    The problem of caste is not at all being confronted rationally. Those lower in castes, today, are in that state, ie a state of lower intellectual ability, due to them being prevented from competing with the high caste. We are perpetuating this state, ie of still preventing any sort of competition, by reserving for them what they would have got by competing, without exposing them to competition.
    To put briefly, no caste is cent percent forward or backward. Forward caste can be considered as the one with more than 99 percent of population possessing above average abilities and backward as the one with more than 99 percent having below average abilities. Reservation, by affording greater competition, elevates those below average, among upper caste, to above average level, while, relegating even those few who does not happen to be below average to below average status by removing all needs of competition, as far as the lower caste is concerned.

  • Randall

    can someone tell me information on the surname “sirju” ?and the meaning of sirju? Please! ive looked everywhere to find the answers and didnt find anything.

  • http://blog.urbanguru.net haridas mandal

    take the bull by the horns.we respect our caste by birth if we happened to satisfied with the statue we are in. A son of an erstwhile maharaja ( a successor of a big brute)with inherent lands and property is comfortably placed. it is nothing but a reservation for the goons of the yester years.and anybody who is not comfortable by birth is bitter about the arrangement which deprieve him his equal right to enjoy.either society allows him to loot and enjoy or create some situation where he feels he has been given equal opprtunity to enjoy.one way would be to take a stock of land and wealth and divide equally to one and all with no consideration for the high or low csta by birth.

  • http://jezHumble sindy

    to the person looking on info about the surname sirju,
    i believe it’s a river in india……. that where the name came from

  • Rith

    Caste is inhuman. All persons are created equal.Only uncivilized country still has caste

  • http://yahoo susanna

    like randall, i have also been looking for the surname sirju, sometimes spelt sirjoo. in my quest , i have found very little. based on what my great uncle told me, it came from utta pradesh north india and they were agriculturist for the purpose of trade. if anyone else knows where it originated and what caste it belongs to , i will be happy to know