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Can principles of equality, justice and fraternity sprout from thin air?

Can principles of equality, justice and fraternity sprout from thin air?

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Dr. Sylvia Karpagam

Sylvia pixA series of articles have appeared recently in several media outlets about the lack of representation from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) in the Indian Institutes of Management. This is surely not an isolated occurrence and is highly likely to be the case in most national institutions. While numerous explanations are given for this, ranging from the boring ‘lack of merit’ to ‘no one is applying’, the end outcome is predictably the same.

This pattern of non-representation of SC/ST also resonates in large international NGOs such as Amnesty India, which I recently worked in and resigned from.Amnesty, as with the IIM’s, has an astonishing preponderance of people from dominant caste groups particularly at senior management levels, ranging anywhere between 97 – 99%, in spite of their stated goal being ‘equality and diversity’!

Another striking similarity between the IIMs and Amnesty India is the absolute and complete apathy of those in the senior management to very stark statistics on the lack of diversity within these institutions/organisations.The very same apathy is evident from the board members of these organisations in spite of their explicit roles being to question, challenge and hold these organisations/institutions accountable. It is important to understand where this complete apathy comes from. Can it even be addressed? If yes, how? If not, then what is one supposed to do?

To start, one needs to understand where individuals ‘learn’ values such as kindness, empathy, justice, fairness etc.? It seems to predominantly come from one’s parents/family, one’s education, or one’s lived experience.The discourse around these values seem to be absent in dominant caste households precisely because of caste.In households where caste hangs like an overcast cloud at all times, are children taught to be caring, fair, understanding, generous or is the notion of superiority and uniqueness upheld above all other values? What happens to such children when they grow up without being taught values such as justice, fairness, fraternity and equality? Does it then make them emotionally blunted? Does this lead to a lack of response on seeing the problems faced by others which they themselves feel entitled not to experience?

The second possible source of learning is the education system. Since the child spends a great deal of time at school, lessons on values, ethics and principles can play a role in directing how a child engages with the other. If the school is comprised of mainly the same caste and class group of students and faculty, there may be no opportunity to explore how one engages with difference and diversity. When children are not exposed to the idea of sharing or of being generous, kind and fair, then they carry the same weaknesses to their workplaces later on in life.

The third possibility of engaging and understanding and questioning one’s own location is through direct contact with communities that are ‘different’. In India, the possibility of a person from a dominant caste living amongst an SC community is rare and unheard of. Unless persons from dominant caste groups actively seek out, often against many social and financial odds, to genuinely engage at a deeper level, with SC communities, they are unlikely to even visualise the existence of differences, how it evolves and its structural nature.

Dominant caste groups, such as those present in overwhelming numbers in spaces like the IIMs and Amnesty, which have no exposure or awareness of issues faced by SC communities, have a gaping blind spot which they vehemently refuse to acknowledge.There is so much of resistance to affirmative action by these groups because they genuinely believe that these spaces belong only to them. Should this not be called a casteist mind-set? Would this mind-set be present if they were raised either by their families or their educational systems to look at the world as some kind of egalitarian space where things are shared?

addressing dalit issues

Artwork by Dr. Sylvia Karpagam

They are so desperate to protect these spaces that they are ready to make themselves out to be the victims. Dominant caste persons readily throw statements such as “When you take people in through affirmative action, quality suffers and we will not be as competent as we are now.” However, the incompetence of those who come from dominant caste groups is not questioned. If they lie, cheat, under-perform, mis-manage, their flaws are readily overlooked. On the contrary, when an SC person is found to fall below some rigidly established target, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that they are incompetent.If a person from an affirmative action background has gaps in knowledge or competence, the solution is not to reject him or her. Neither is the solution to lower or different standards and expectations. Within a reasonable limit of time, the person should be given additional support so that they are equipped with those competencies that they may not have had access to due to lesser privilege.

Following the series on articles about the shameful lack of diversity at the IIMs, a professor of IIM made a comment that all kinds of diversity should be encouraged and not just caste. However he couldn’t answer the question on why he hadn’t fought for all kinds of diversity earlier and now suddenly wanted to argue for it since caste was being discussed.Meanwhile a professor who spoke about the lack of caste diversity at IIMB was labelled casteist by faculty and students alike!!

Dominant caste Amnesty staff resent any conversations or dialogues around caste. The fact that at Amnesty India, crores are being spent on salaries and projects that leave out – systematically and deliberately, issues faced by the Scheduled Castes of the country, is of absolutely no concern for this group. What bigger human rights violation in India than that faced traditionally by thousands of groups categorised as SC? The Human Rights Education (HRE) project of Amnesty focuses on a narrow western notion of bullying between kids in private schools, while completely ignoring the structurally and systemically entrenched discrimination faced by Scheduled Caste children. The caste prejudice faced by children starts from access to primary education followed by higher education and subsequent high dropout and suicide rates when they do access these spaces. Amnesty pretends to talk about human rights education in schools and then goes on to leave out caste completely and totally from the equation. Similarly huge amounts of money are being invested in the project on undertrials. The research has left out damning evidence, confirmed by the National Crime Records Bureau, that majority of the undertrials and those facing the death sentences in Indian prisons belong to the Scheduled Caste and Muslim communities.

The third project of Amnesty believed to be the one donors would readily fund, is on sexual violence. The project again caters to an elite urban women’s perspective and has no connect with the everyday brutalities faced by women from the SC/ST communities. The project in fact envisages collecting ‘data’ from these marginalised communities to then use them to obtain more funding from the urban middle class elite. The project has no intervention or scope to actually support marginalised women facing sexual violence.

Dominant caste people will talk about caste as they choose to or choose not to. If they choose not to, they believe that they have the absolute freedom of non-expression and that they can smirk, roll their eyes, signal to each other and generally look bored and disdainful every time caste is discussed. They do not believe that this is casteist behaviour and that it is disrespectful of communities that are not even present in these spaces to argue for why the conversation on caste is vital and essential. While staff of Amnesty are happy to post selfies of themselves enticingly labelled as “Me with a tribal woman” they are equally ready to label anyone raising an issue about caste as a ‘bahujan bajrang dal’. They see no conflict in how they use communities from their own privileged locations while simultaneously insulting, humiliating and minimalizing their concerns.

The dominance of these caste groups in senior management positions is not an innocuous occurrence that can be overlooked. Owing to their presence, they undermine work which other more open minded communities could have done better. The IIMs and Amnesty India are ivory towers occupied by people who lack moral consciousness. If one removed the perks offered by these organisations – whether exorbitant salaries and many other fringe benefits, then only the ones who really want to use these spaces for the intended purposes, would stay on and possibly contribute. As of now, they are just providing fat pay checks to a caste group that is morally and socially bankrupt, that uses these spaces purely for personal growth, is unwilling to introspect, is unwilling to engage and even contemptuous of dialogues around equality, fraternity and justice. They are also disrespectful of Constitutional directives and principles, while calling everyone else anti-national.

Thousands of people from dominant caste groups who have made name and fame talking about marginalisation and other such stuff sitting in a cosy space like IIMB and Amnesty India, would suddenly levitate into non-existence when issues of caste within their own behaviours, organisations and institutions come up. Caste is like an apple that one will point at with lasers while making presentations at conferences that pay them an obscene amount of money, but will not engage with at any personal level to address the marginalisation of the other.

Unfortunately these individuals could never see that they are behaving like spoilt brats just the way spoilt brats themselves never realise that they ARE spoilt brats. How does one deal with spoilt brats? A couple of whacks would do the trick, says the old school, but of course we are not into abuse and aggression are we? Modern day teaching talks about carefully explaining to children and letting them understand, but who is going to explain to bratty adults that they are behaving in an unacceptably ungenerous, unempathetic and unegalitarian way?

How do you deal with bratty adults who, as children, have never been taught to share or to care even if the kids around them are starving? The more you ask them to share, the more petulant and bratty they will get. They will abuse those other kids and call them the worst possible names, while their friends and family will cheer them on. How many family members will come forward and say “You are behaving in an offensive way and I am going to punish you till you behave better and apologise.” My guess is none.

Basically there is psychosocial stunting, emotional blunting and a moral vacuum among the so called dominant caste. How are a group of individuals who have never been exposed to egalitarian principles think about some larger social good? A larger social good often has to come with individual compromises and personal ethics. Is that possible from a group of morally and socially bankrupt people who have been protected by the caste system and consistently motivated to look out only for their own interests purely on the assumption of their superior deservedness? When values such as fairness, justice, equality, kindness are woefully absent in human rights organisations such as Amnesty India, how can it become a vanguard of human rights? This is an oxymoron in itself. It is the same with the IIMs.

At most, the only examples of acts of kindness that these groups could give about themselves is that they helped a puppy/calf/goat/lamb/tiger/bird/fish. They are often unduly concerned about the environment, about dogs, cats, strays, water pollution and air pollution, while blanking out on discourses about groups that don’t fall within their own narrow caste groups.Small acts of kindness very rarely would extend to other humans.

What happens to the few from the non-dominant caste groups who do enter these spaces? Very often they are expected to imitate the very same behaviours of exaggerated distancing from imagined pollutions.The non-dominant castes therefore become impure and polluted by association with the dominant castes’ ideas of superiority and inferiority, throwing away essential values of justice and equality.

So what is to be done?

So how do you train adults who have never been exposed to ideas of equality and justice to realign their vision and take cognizance of those things that have fallen in their blind spot so early in their lives that they actually believe that the issue does not exist.

The subhuman view by the dominant caste groups of other citizens of the country cannot be countered in any major way. The dominant caste groups are unlikely to give up benefitting from their privileged spaces, or stop making way for more of their own groups to partake of the ill-gotten spoils. The gatekeeping mechanisms are well oiled and the exclusion criteria are flexible enough to keep out even the most talented ‘outsider’.While anyone who has even a nominal understanding of or notional understanding of justice and equality would be willing to at least come some of the way to engage in dialogue, the dominant caste group is unlikely to engage in any form of discourse to change this status quo because they do not possess basic humanitarian values. In the absence of even a basic understanding it would be difficult to get these caste groups to co-operate.

Do you bake a separate cake for the other kids and let these bratty ones screw themselves because they are not going to share anyways? Do you get the government to invest in SC IIM’s for SC students, run by SC faculty and SC administration? Do you get Amnesty International to set up and separately fund an Amnesty India SC run entirely by the SC community? Should there be investment in organisations purely led by and operated by non-dominant caste groups? What do you do about the lack of basic values of equality, fraternity and justice in the current generation of dominant caste groups? How do you create these values in the future generations?

Those who need to answer these questions are never made to answer and those can ask are not even present.



 Dr. Sylvia Karpagam is a public health doctor and researcher who worked for a period of six months at the Amnesty International India office and resigned because of organisational resistance to addressing caste.

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