By Gail Omvedt
29 August, 2003
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.