Sunday, June 04, 2006

Reservations XI: Is there caste-based-discrimination in India?

Whom do you ask this question?

Yesterday, some of us were having a discussion on sexual harassment and I wanted to know how it is in the Indian industry? The question that I put across was to five other engineers, all male. Nobody had a clue whether it happens or not. All we could come up with were some noted examples which everyone knew. Unanimously we agreed that being male, how would we know? We should be asking a woman if we wanted to know the real answer.

Even if we did ask them, how many Indian women would actually come out and say they have been sexually discriminated? In a society which targets women since their birth, they grow up protecting themselves from various assaults of men, and in the process learn to ignore certain subtle and small attempts and thereby accept it to various degrees.

Moreover, coming out in the open to disclose such details is a taboo in itself. There could be thousands of such cases and we would never know anything about them. (If one were to go by the number of reported cases, it is easy to conclude, by miracle, that India is sexual-harassment-free country, an unique achievement.) I think very few cases are actually reported; even those are handled in a hush-hush environment limiting to very few involved people. Only when it concerns really top officials like Phaneesh Murthy of Infosys or KPS Gill, would everyone know about it.

This brings me to the current topic- If I wanted to know whether there is a caste-based-discrimination in India, whom do I ask? Supposing all the upper caste people vouch that there is no such discrimination and that they have never resorted to such discrimination (which they do vouch for pretty strongly), should I satisfy myself and conclude that there is no caste-based-discrimination in India? It’s akin to asking only males whether there is any sexual harassment. To get the right answers to such questions, I need to ask those who are possible victims of discrimination, not the possible perpetrators. Asking educated and rich SC/ST/OBC does not give good results either. They are a minority and tend to grow up with other upper caste kids in elite schools and colleges and may never have faced outright discrimination. So, how about asking those in the rural areas where the bulk of the population resides? This poses even bigger problems because most of them do not even know what ‘discrimination’ is. They grow up accepting it as a way-of-life. That’s how they accepted it and endured it for thousands of years and they continue to do so. (The cases that are reported are usually the ones from educated SC/ST/OBC who seem to have grown out of accepting such things or the ones that have gone so brazen, like, stripping a woman naked and parading her through the streets. Million others go unreported).

In my region of Telangana, there’s a phrase Nee Baanchenu which is often used by rural or lower caste person when addressing a rich or upper caste person. Nee Baanchenu is Telangana Telugu equivalent of Nee Banisanu of Andhra Telugu, which literally translates to ‘I am your slave’. They include this in each of their sentences. Though there would be many out there who would caution me not to take such things literally, I do not think they can be brushed off so easily. To understand discrimination, one has to understand and acknowledge the importance of such literal usage and their history, because they are a consequence of something more innate to our society and has come into existence reflecting the ground realities of our times. We need to understand why and how terms like Nigger have become a denigrating aspersion in US or how Chamar has now become an insult in Northern India. These words and phrases give clear indications of attitudes of that society.

Most of the rural low caste people accept all kinds of discrimination explaining it away as their fate. When people do not know what is discrimination, and have no clue what is self-respect, a question posed to them is of no use. It does not produce any results. Then how do you know if such a caste-based-discrimination exists?

One could spend time with them in rural India and get to know their daily life and report it. That alone will have thousands of instances of discrimination. One could go to various government offices and institutions of India where they have SC/ST/OBC employees and ask them various questions (and please don’t give this task to CNN-IBN. They can frame the question such a way that the result of the poll, based on SMS, would actually conclude that it is upper caste who is discriminated). One could ask rich and middle class SC/ST/OBC or those who have recently come to good positions. When prodded they may tell you few stories of discrimination, meted out to their relatives in villages or their forefathers. Or go to small town universities and check how rampant casteism is. They are all educated people with PhDs but their vocabulary consists of many expletives and insults based on caste. The caste-based discrimination is a part of their everyday decision process.

If the media was little more inclusive and was comfortable airing the views of some of these lower caste people, they will hear more such stories. I have one sample here. It is from NDTV, reported by Harsha Kumari Singh, dated Thursday, June 1, 2006 (from Amarpura Village).

Dalits continue facing social bias

“…In a break from tradition Bansi Lal Meghwal, a Dalit bridegroom in Amarpura village dared to ride a horse to his wedding but was forced to dismount. But what the Dalits hoped would be a step towards social equality turned out to be an incident that exposed how deep caste prejudices run in society. His wedding procession was pelted with stones and the guests attacked by the upper caste in the village… Their water supply has been stopped and the village shops refuse to sell them rations…”

Siddharth Varadarajan writes (in THE HINDU, June 3, 2006, titled ‘Caste matters in the Indian media’):

“In 1999… from University College of Medical Sciences (UCMS)… the Scheduled Caste students were confined to two floors and not assigned rooms elsewhere…In the dining hall, they were forced by the forward caste majority to sit together at one end… would be abused ‘Bloody shaddu’…”

I could go on adding many such examples but I don’t think it will serve the purpose. Those who want to deny discrimination will continue to do so in spite of the overwhelming evidence; or they come up with excuses to explain it away (saying that it was just division of labor and nothing to do discrimination). Watching Nuremberg trials (post-WWII), one can judge the extent of this human stubbornness. The Nazi war criminals refused to believe that any of the crimes against Jews, Poles, gays, gypsies, Russians, ever took place. In spite of huge pile of evidence that was brought before them through audio, video and witness accounts, they maintained that it was all a conspiracy; and even if some of them did concede, they refused to believe that it was done at such massive scale.

This blog is only directed to those genuine upper caste Hindus who seriously ask themselves- ‘Does caste-based-discrimination exist in India?’ They might be reasoning to themselves- ‘I never discriminate. Neither any of my friends who are SC/ST/OBC seem to have experienced this’ and quickly conclude that no such discrimination exists.

What I want to say to them is this: Stop asking those people who have not experienced it. The India that you know is different from the rest of India (which is more than 75% of India). Even if you did visit a village, you went there as a tourist. It’s like a European who comes to India for a short trip and finds everything amusing and quirky but never understands the deep undercurrents. Just because you did not know it existed till yesterday doesn’t make it unreal or a figment of imagination of some writers and some speakers. It is not something the politicians have conjured up out of an empty hat. It is not something the media and the politicians have thrust on you all of a sudden. It is just that you are waking up to the real India which you never knew existed. It’s something similar to many ordinary Germans waking up to the horrors of Holocaust after the end of the war. They couldn’t believe that such things ever happened in their midst and were in denial for a long time. [I can easily foresee some ‘smart’ comments which forbid me from comparing our discrimination to heinous crimes of Holocaust]

Why do I think diversity is important to all of us even if it means paying a small price?

I get these nasty jokes in my e-mail inbox ridiculing SC/ST/OBC reservations. When I look at the chain of addresses to see where it has been circulated before, I realize that they have been through companies like Infosys, Wipro and other top IT companies. The senders assume that all their co-workers are upper caste. This assumption is either out sheer arrogance or sheer ignorance, and in this case both are dangerous.

Being oblivious to sensitivities of other communities and their travails is as bad as committing discrimination itself. Why do I think so? Because by being ignorant of the sensitivities we continue to perpetuate certain notions that indirectly condones caste-based-discrimination. Continued ignorance and apathy desensitizes us and we tend to devolve ourselves of our basic duties when it is warranted. This desensitization is one of the main reasons why so many ordinary Germans tolerated and allowed oppression, subjugation and extermination of so many Jews during 1933-45.

Would that guy who sent that e-mail at that top IT company would have been so callous (or careless) if he knew that there were at least 30% lower caste employees in his campus? I believe he would have been more cautious (I am hoping that he sent it out of ignorance rather than arrogance). Would media (like CNN-IBN) be reporting highly biased reports supporting anti-reservations protests completely sidelining and deliberately ignoring pro-reservation protests if they knew that their own staff had at least 30% of SC/ST/OBC?

Siddharth Varadarajan continues:

“The insensitive and casteist forms of protest some of them adopted – the ‘symbolic’ sweeping of the streets, the shining of shoes, the singing of songs warning OBCs and others to ‘remember their place’ (‘apni aukat mein rahio’) – were put on air without comment by the channels.”

“When B.N. Uniyal surveyed the scene in 1996, he found not a single Dalit accredited journalist in Delhi… an informal survey had found that the number of accredited North Indian OBC journalists in Delhi was under 10…”

He adds:

“… journalism that has little or no space for the majority of citizens is bound to end up missing out on the complexity of the society it seeks to cover…”

Diversity, by including SC/ST/OBC/Muslim in the media, would bring in certain degree of tolerance towards ‘other kind’ of people and teach them to respect the sensitivities of these groups. Next time, when they want to air a completely biased report, they may be a bit cautious and make sure they are covering all sides. Diversity, by promoting a good % of SC/ST/OBC in IT companies, would make that guy who sent out that mail think whether it was the right thing to do. That little caution is worth paying a small price.


CNN-IBN : Indian media caught in a caste warp.


  1. What a question? Possibly a better question is :"How do you measure it?". Just as you saw in the numbers of the staff in Chennai IIT, there must be statistics of numbers of various castes represented in various services for several years. If I remember right, the percentage of muslims in central services has gone down. I guess from these numbers, some measure of progress can be calculated.
    I also think that some of the statistics like people in rural areas v/ people in urban areas are changing differently in different parts of India. I remember reading somewhere that in Tamilnadu, urban population is around 54 percent. since one of your interests is in 'development', perhaps one can try to figure out why Tamilnadu is considered best in South asia for FDI:
    I think that caste and such wo'nt go away so easily; I see it abroad too at least with the first generation immigrants. Pl. see:
    People like Robert Putnam have developed measurements for what they call 'social capital' and strategies for improving and sustaining it despite various imperfections. Pl. see the recent book "Better Together" by Putnam and Feldenstein. Personally, I think that this sort of strategy is the only hope but even here we can be blown away by a Bush. regards and good luck.

  2. You are absolutely right. One could come up with a comprehensive study based on various statistics which can be used to measure discrimination at different periods in time.

    There is a tendency in India to dismiss every statistics or at least explain it away. For example, one guy explained the lop-sidedness in IIT Chennai faculty saying that this caste was practising 'education' for centuries while other castes were practising other 'skills' and hence it is natural that they should be the guys occupying those elite positions in 'education'. He did not think it was a measure of discrimination.

    We get lot of such statistics here in Indian newspapers and magazines (like THE HINDU, Frontline, etc) but people dismiss them as a conspiracy or explain it with some reasons like- 'yes, when nobody was available to take up those positions , these guys stepped up'.

    There are some sites where you can get these statistics. I shall definitely look into the books and sites you suggested and see what I can learn. As you suggested, coming up with a measure would be a good idea. Currently, I am looking at a measure for social index using my own methods.

    These sites have statistics in some of their articles:

    Thank you,

  3. Friend, you have been unconsciously descriminating women in your blog too. I hope you dont mind a woman standing up and raising a concern. I would like you to go back and read a blog about NBA where you write "bored wives" and "women" "venting out their frustration" as reasons for some human beings support for NBA. I am not much of a NBA supporter, but I get concerned when a very well educated man, who really cares about sexual harassment and discrimination, does something unconsciously in his own blog. I hope I am not being rude in saying it. I can understand you didnt mean it. You have fantastic fantastic quotes in your blog. Given that noway I can imagine you as insensitive! So I hope you would look into my concern.

  4. Here is a vague idea that I have been wondering about for some time. I must add that I did pure mathematics most of my life and do not have too much confidence in my practical ideas. Anyway, this is based on the following lines of thought.
    1) I think that approximately 25 percent of the GDP (in India) comes from the agriculural sector wheras approximately 75 percent of the people work in related activities. The result is migration, permanent and periodic migration to urban areas. Can one try to take some of the industries to rural areas. An instance of this is in "Better together" about the development of furniture industry in an impoerished Mississipi area. Perhaps there aqre some small scale IT elated industries which can be developed in rural areas near big centres. For example, in Austalia I see some people in villages making ciruit boards for various purposes and these procedures are taught in many schools, urban as well as rural.
    2) There are many NGOs (about 1.2 million organizations in which approximately 19 million work) in India and some of them work in the shorter term faster than the government in empowering underpriviliged classes. From the newspapers, I see that DDS (Deccan Development Society) has been doing much good work but I do not have any first hand contacts with them. I made some enquiries in Hyderabad and there were no negative reports. From the names of the people benefiting from their work (I can recognize to some extent caste names in A.P.) I think they are from underprivileged classes. Why not piggyback on such organizations and take some work , industry and knowledge to the rural as well as underprivileged people. There must be similar organizations around Bangalore too.
    Just a stray thought.

  5. Madura:
    I apologize for making such remarks against "women".

    It is not intended that way, but if it came out that way I take the responsibility. Sometimes I do make sweeping statements putting all of them into one class- which I shouldn't.

    But I did carry a negative opinion of "those" women protestors. And I felt they were doing so because they are bored. That does not mean all women are bored house wives.

    But again, I apologize.

  6. Hi Swarup:
    You ideas are very valid for India. We have been thinking about this for some time. In my view, it is vital for India to have industries in the rural India, otherwise we will choke ourselves to death due to migration to the cities.

    One of the key ingredients required to achieve this is connectivity- both road/rail and broadband. Unless these two are achieved it will be tough to encourage someone to set up industries in rural areas (more so with IT).

    US could see such a trend (of moving industry to rural areas) primarily because of good communications (telephone and wide roads).

    I cannot imagine setting up our office in the suburbs (though I would love to) because the accessibility is really bad.

    I am hoping the new roads that are coming up in India accompanied by ambitious plans to bring telephony and broadband to rural India will open up rural areas to industries. There are also some incentives from government to set up industries in those areas (like land allotment, tax rebates, etc).


  7. Thanks for the links; alternativeperspective looks particularly interesting. I will try to catch up on some of the information there. It may take some time since my main interest is learning science and hopefully writing popular science articles in Telugu.

  8. I somehow stumbled on this blog today and read the blogs on reservation. It is really refreshing to know the other half of the story which many of us living in cities of India don't get to know. I would like you to continue writing blogs of such depth.

  9. An afterthought. I did not mean that you should start a branch in the rural areas; I do not really know what you do. I meant that some IT industries which can support some small scale ancillary industies that can function in rural areas can perhaps use existing organizations like DDS. Sort of two birds with one stone. Saves on infrastructure and the organization is working for the upliftment of underprivileged. Some of these organizations work with other organizations in India and I think that DDS has some colloboration projects with ASHA. May be there are similar organizations in the Bangalore area.

  10. Hi Sujai,

    Very nice post.

    I agree that there is a lot of caste-based discrimination in India. So maybe, reservation is the way ahead. Surely, our (so-called upper castes') actions and views will be more balanced if 30% of our colleagues were dalits.

    The Dalits have suffered for centuries. The sooner the oppression ends, the better.

  11. Hi,

    Good post and bingo, up to the point. One among the comprehensive and clear posts I have came accross in the blogosphere.

    I conducted a sample survey among a group of 250 people from elite educational institutions giving a questionaire. Most interesting aspect of the response was the huge disparity among the background of people. Especially the rural urban divide was particularly striking. And it was the people belonging to rural India who were more sympathetic and positive to the reservation and social upliftment issue. The perspective maintained by most elite urban people happened to be at least "covertly casteist".

    Well I do not think this reflects the real picture in totality but surely a general trend.

  12. Great Post Indeed! People dont know what the reality is and they call oppression "the thing of past". I have always wondered; are they in India?

    Once again; Great post :)-

  13. Hi,

    Good post. I need to write thst such clear presentation of views is indeed rare in blogosphere.

    I conducted a sample survey among the "elite" educationsl institution products. A questionaire about the reservation debate was given to be answered by 250 people altogether. Some interesting results came up. First was the huge disparity among the perspective of people (without considering caste/religion/sex) from rural India were more sympathetic to the cause and sure they gave valuable comments on why they think so. But urban "upper middle class" was a far cry. I was shocked to find that a "covert" form of casteism is predominant in urban population. Also the people from south states (especially Kerala and Tamilnadu), those who even belong to "unreserved category" was positive to the cause. More interestingly, it was Keralites who were more sympathetic while it is in this state that "casteism" was taken away from the social life.

    I can not possibly generalise it. Also the nature of sample etc are factors. But surely the above mentioned trend was quite visible.

  14. You make your point well Sujai. Very well written article.

  15. I have been following up through some of the links you gave. Here are a couple of articles which you may have seen. The first came from the otherindia site. It is a thoughtful and quantitative article by Thomas Weisskof in 2004:
    The second is a CASI study:
    from Spring 2006 "Social Justice and Stalled Development: Caste Empowerment and the Breakdown of Governance in Bihar". See also about some recent responses from Telugus to this question.
    Thanks again for the links ; I feel that I am getting better 'appreciation' of the problem.

  16. I have been trying to follow up the links you gave and some others. Here are some artcles that I found that may be of interest. First is CASI Spring 2006 report: "Social Justice and Stalled Development: Caste Empowerment and the breakdown of Governance in Bihar" available at:
    It may be interesting to read this in conjunction with Dipen Chakraborthy's article"In the name of Politics" :
    where he is worried about similar scenarios. Another is an article from the otherindia group (which you kindly pointed out) which is very thoughtful and based on statistics available up to 2004. I particpate in Telugu site called Telugudanam which is generally mild and was surprised at this post from the moderator:
    A couple of things that seem surprising. In most of the discussions, women's empowerment or the problems of Muslims are not discussed. I find very few of both in discussion sites. Many thanks for the links.

  17. Hi Sujai,

    Read your series of articles. About the dalit incident that you mentioned, plz try to find out if the upper caste involved in the fight were not OBCs? I come from UP and in a large part of rural UP, the actual tension exists between powerful OBCs (read Yadavs and Jats) and the dalits. That is the reason why BSP and SP are such blood enemies while BSP and BJP (upper caste party) are able to come together sometimes.

    All through your articles, all your nicely crafted arguments just make one basic mistake, they don't correctly identify the oppressor and oppressed. Out of the pyramid that you made in your first article, I hope you are aware that many of those whom you call upper caste are now classified as OBCs and continue in their role of oppresors, now with government support.

    11 states of India are today ruled by OBCs. I hope you won't call them marginalized?

  18. Sujai,

    I have been reading your posts with great interest. After going through all of your 11 articles on reservations I can see that you are very convinced that reservations are the right way to approach the problem. What I would like to ask you and the politicians is that why limit the reservations only to educational institutions and government jobs? Why not extend it in the political arena?

    Are the politicians and you willing to provide 50% reservations in the Parliament? In the legislative assemblies? In the Panchayats and Municipal Corporations?

    I think providing reservations in these areas might benefit the backward caste much better. They will have the power and the government resources to probably also a motivation to see that the government programmes get implemented properly. No one can even complained about the "Merit" as there is no required "Merit" to hold these positions. The constitution has not put forth any educational or other meritorious criteria for holding these posts.

    What are your thoughts on these?

  19. Why not fight for just abolishing the caste system and work towards upliftment of the economically weaker sections of the society without discrimination.

    I think the more we identify people with their caste the deeper the problem of caste is going to get. I think we should work towards a society without caste recognition.

    After all what is this all about
    1. Social Justice
    2. Economic Justice.

    Abolish the caste system and social justice will prevail. Get rid of the caste from every document , certificate, application forms and everything else where caste is depicted.
    Make it illegal to talk about caste and ask anyone's caste. Break the caste system's backbone by eliminating the need to know anyone's caste. You will see that social justice will be achieved.

    While fighting for economic justice include everyone who is economically deprived. Provide resources, facilities and programmes to uplift them as a whole without discrimination. Uphold the true value of the constitution where nobody gets discriminated based on caste.

    And once you abolish the caste system,which might take a couple of generations, people would even forget what their caste is.

    I have blogged this on my blog. Let me know what you think.

  20. Anonymous made a comment about a year back and I am surprised no one has noticed it so far. Not only in North but in South too, most heinous crimes against dalits are committed not by so called upper-castes but OBCs. There is a deliberate attempt by some people to downplay it.

  21. Leftists are known to suffer from attention deficit when facts do not suit their fiction. Acknowledgement of OBC's role will take the wind out of their oppressor-oppressed analysis. I noticed that all arguments here about resevations are based on disdvatages dalits had to suffer for centuries. Little realizing that the current resevation debate had nothing to do with dalits. I bet Sujai & Inc. do not even know the difference between an OBC and dalit.

    I remember sometime back reading in BBC review of film "Bawander" about how 'high castes' Meena-s tormented the 'low-caste' Bhanwari Devi. I weep for their understanding of caste phenomenon in Indian society. For them a 'chamaar' in UP has the same social status as a 'patel' in Gujarat as both are from 'shudra' varna!

    Spending five minutes in a real indian village can enlighten them about the status of a jat or a yadav or a gujjar in village hierarchy. Sadly, it is too much ask of arm chair activists!

  22. On OBC Issue:
    I thought it would make sense to write one article to address this.

    It is at Reservations XV: OBC Issue

    Thank you.

  23. Caste system of India is but one of the peculiar systems which pervaded ancient Indian society whereas other societies could boast of even darker ones like burning at stake. If seen in that light caste can be seen as a rather harmless appellation and the form it happen to acquire in later centuries can be attributed to the 'influence of foreign invasions on Indian society'. I have dwelled at length on this, available at

  24. Sujai,
    Great one.
    But Iwould like to see some discourse on the same issue but on a different question.
    "Have we changed any?"
    "Do we still continue to change?"
    This is because that as for I don't deny that there isn't any cast discrimination, but still aren't we at a better situation now compared to few years ago?
    How much is left to be done I think is more important but still we couls correctly provide for this only if we answer the question I posed here.

  25. Sravan:

    "Have we changed any?"


    "Do we still continue to change?"


    But if the question is ‘have we changed fast enough’, then the answer is NO. And if the question is ‘do we welcome this change’, the answer is NO.

  26. You are absolutely correct Sujai, but what else can be done to speed up the process.
    It is not just changing a law, you should understand it is something which is to break belief and changing tenacious ideas nurtured through generations. This can be done only through educating people by repitition. Being a democratic country strong enforcement actually is hardly possible with out disrupting the fundamental rights of people.
    Most importantly India is the only country that enforces affirmitive action for minority and marginallized groups in all fields.
    I think we are goin on a right pace but only being hindered by local and state politics.


Dear Commenters:
Please identify yourself. At least use a pseudonym. Otherwise there will be too many *Anonymous*; making it confusing.

Do NOT write personal information or whereabouts about the author or other commenters. You are free to write about yourself. Please do not use abusive language. Do not indulge in personal attacks and insults.

Write comments which are relevant and make sense so that the debate remains healthy.