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Mythologies of Merit

By Gail Omvedt

29 August, 2003

The U.S. is a racist country, with much of today's racism directed against Indians and similar "brown" people, as some recent brutal assaults have shown. However, there are a few indications of at least some movement in the direction of its promise of an equalitarian society. One such was the recent decision of the Supreme Court upholding affirmative action in the universities. This was unexpected from what has been primarily a Republican-appointed court considered to be conservative; but perhaps the fact that 65 major corporations of the U.S. - including Microsoft and GM - supported the petition for continuing affirmative action had some effect. The court indeed cited this support in its decision: "Major American businesses have made it clear that the skills needed in today's increasingly global market place can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas and viewpoints."

The Supreme Court's decision affects not only "race." Caste is also being raised as a factor of discrimination in the U.S. A Bengali professor in engineering at the University of Michigan has gone to court on the issue, claiming that he was discriminated against by the former head of his department, a Brahman. And, following the international Dalit conference at Vancouver, a team of U.S.-based Dalits led by Dr. K.P. Singh joined Jesse Jackson's "Rainbow Push Coalition" in Chicago June 21-25 to discuss hiring practices with American corporations. Thus the issue of caste discrimination has been brought to the head offices of some of the important multinationals. Some of them- for instance, MacDonald's - have promised to look into the issue of their employment in India.

It is a sad comment on the state of Indian industrialists' social consciousness that such discussions have begun in an organised way in the U.S. before they have been thought of in India itself. Dalits themselves have been raising the issue for several years now, most recently with "Diversity Marches" being organised in Delhi to present petitions to the FICCI. There are also political signs that Indian business also cannot ignore - warnings by Chief Ministers such as Karnataka's S.M. Krishna that some form of private sector reservation is "inevitable," the Bhopal declaration, an announcement by U.P. Chief Minster Mayawati that her legal section is working on the issue, and so forth. But, Indian business as a whole has maintained a deafening silence on the issue of combating caste discrimination.

The different histories of compensatory discrimination in the different countries are clear. They have affected everything, including the whole discourse of the issue. The U.S. focus on "diversity" implies not only that there is social value in having all the major groups of the society reflected in its structures of wealth and power. "Diversity" justifies affirmative action in terms of the needs of the society as a whole, not simply of specific groups among it. Racism is contrary to overall societal interests; and in order to overcome racism, it is necessary to take account of this social (not biological!) reality called "race," as the Supreme Court has recognised. Many commentators have remarked that the need to show diversity reflects some of the global concerns of multinational companies: they lose if their power structure appears to be entirely white. If so, this shows a greater understanding among the companies than in the reactionary political forces now holding power in the
U.S., which have been opposing affirmative action. In contrast, Indian industry sees competitiveness as crucial in a global era - and sees "reservations" as contrary to competitiveness.

What is important, here, though, are the different underlying assumptions in the two countries. In the U.S. it is now assumed by most that that there is an equal distribution of capacity among all social groups, that apparent differences are social and not biological - and that the very existence of diverse social groups means that the businesses which seek to provide commodities for their markets have to have representation. Thus U.S. companies supported the affirmative action case not out of altruism, not out of some perceived recompense for past oppression, but out of their own perceived self-interest. Diversity makes companies more competitive, not less.

In India, in contrast to the framework of diversity used to justify affirmative action in the U.S., the operative concepts have been "merit" and "social justice." Dalits and OBCs have generally argued for reservations in terms of their own needs, largely in terms of the requirement of social justice which India has committed itself to from the time of independence. This is of course quite justified, but that has left a vacuum regarding the social consequences of reservations, which has been filled by the reactionary assumptions that have always underlain caste hierarchy: it has allowed opponents to talk of "merit." Within the framework of categorizing posts and examination results, "merit candidates" get contrasted to "reservation candidates." The whole question thus takes on the appearance of a pseudo-opposition, in which social justice is to be achieved at the cost of merit. It is as if inferior, incapable candidates from low castes are to be promoted at the cost of the overall efficiency and effectiveness of an enterprise or organisation. Whereas the U.S. debate assumes an overall equal distribution of capacity among social groups, in India the assumption seems to be that the unequal showing of different caste groups on examinations, in education, etc. is a result of actual different capacities. In addition, reservations have been tied in with the general inefficiency of public sector enterprises and bureaucracies.

The idea of "economic reservation" or "reservation designed to relieve poverty" is another way of ignoring the social realities of caste. Here the idea of "social justice" is extended to take in the poor among the upper castes. In fact, the Supreme Court of India itself began this when it imposed the idea of "creamy layer" on OBC reservations. Leftist groups have been particularly vulnerable to this error, with the tendency to see all social issues in terms of poverty and class discrimination. Thus today's farce of promising reservations to the "poor among the upper castes" is only the latest in a long tendency of avoiding the real issue - the unique social roots of discrimination, in this case caste.

Terms like "merit" are insulting - and erroneous. They allow the reality of ongoing processes of exclusion and discrimination in the society based on social identity to be shoved aside, ignored. In fact, the processes of caste discrimination begin from birth, both from poverty and lack of opportunity and from the real prejudice faced by Dalit and (to a lesser degree) OBC students in schools. In hiring for jobs, and in making judgements about "merit" and "qualification," caste and kinship links and identities are rampant, a fact everyone knows. That they continue even when Indians move abroad is shown by the current University of Michigan case. The discourse on "merit" itself is highly questionable. It is only when this is recognized and all-around remedial steps began to be taken - at the level of providing for all the poor and discriminated against by measures such as truly universalizing education, and at the level of affirmative action designed speed the attainment of diversity -
that Indian society will truly universalize itself, and Indian industry will achieve goals of true competitiveness and efficiency.