The Race of Life
A short while ago I went to a law college in Panjiim to run a question and answer session with a group of 75 young undergraduates. The students had watched my film, India Untouched – their pioneering teacher was keen to sensitize them to issues surrounding caste. The students started off quiet – no one seemed to have any questions. By the end, the room was a cacophony of sound. Discussion was heated, opinions strong. The reason? One word – reservations.
When I try and explain the purpose of reservations I like to use a four lane race track as a metaphor. Brahmins have been running this race in the inner most lane for hundreds of years – they have a significant head start. Over the centuries, the Kshtriyas and Vaishyas have been allowed to participate (after long periods of struggle) and so they have been running in the two other inner lanes. A couple of hundred years back the Shudras were allowed to run in the outermost lane. Clearly by now, the Brahmins and other ‘forward’ castes have leads worth centuries. The Dalits, formerly known as ‘untouchables’ or ‘atishudra’, were mere spectators to this race until the time of national independence. If we say no to reservations then we say no to Dalits entering the race.
The students remained indignant. ‘I got 120 out of 200 in my exams and I lost out to an OBC (Other Backward Caste) who got 30!’ exclaimed one young girl. I decided to use a different metaphor. This time I chose gender. I used various hand raising exercises to establish the level of education among the students mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers. It became clear that many of these young female law students were the first in their family to have a college education. Some of their mothers had studied; hardly any of their grandmothers. ‘What has this got to do with caste?’ asked one boy. They weren’t making the connection. ‘Don’t you see? You girls are only here because someone struggled’ I tried to explain.
But, the students remained resolute; ‘No one is stopping Dalits competing on merit!’ They were missing the point. Yes, no one person is holding them back – only hundreds of years of oppression and poverty. How can the daughter of a destitute migrant laborer be expected to compete on a level playing field with the daughter of a wealthy city lawyer? It is a simple fact that poverty compromises access to education. Returning to the race track metaphor – the advantage of the ‘upper castes’ in this race of life is huge. Without reservations, they will continue to lap OBCs and Dalits. The past is affecting our present and will continue to affect our future. We need more than government legislation; we need a seismic shift in the perspectives and understandings of the ‘upper castes’.
The bell rang to signal the end of class, the last lesson of the day. The students started to get up. A few left the room, but most clustered around the table I was leaning on. Shouting, debating, arguing. After twenty or so minutes we were asked to leave the classroom as it was being locked up. We continued down the stairs and out into the college car park. The students were still fired up; still clamouring to make me agree with them. I am strong believer in argumentation. And I am hopeful that, on that college forecourt in a wealthy corner of Panjim, we moved from silence and hesitation to uninhibited debate – a vital first step if we are ever to shift paradigms.