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Serious Debate on Caste Discrimination in India

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 4/02/2016 Varun Gupta

A lot has been said and written about caste discrimination in the aftermath of tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula. However, as always, the debate has had little substance and largely stuck in high pitch rhetoric to score in and settle political battles.
Rohith's suicide is rooted in widespread corruption that prevails in our institutions of higher learning and politicization of student politics across the country. Student politics in India is no longer about the welfare and rights of the students - it is the training ground for political parties to groom and nurture talent. No wonder all major student parties have a political party as an ideologue and benefactor and student elections often involve violence, large amounts of illicit campaign monies and revolve around identity.
It is easy and convenient to romanticize the issue of caste as a class struggle and history of injustice. The reality however is very different. Caste issues are now rooted in a fight to keep the entitlements and claim victimhood to continuously expand those entitlements. There have been huge protests across India, from Haryana to Andhra Pradesh, often violent by members of various communities seeking backward class status. Those protests tell us the grim reality of the current caste situation - caste and backward status is all about keeping and expanding entitlements and everyone wants in.

I don't mean to imply caste based discrimination does not exist. It exists on a wide scale and we as a nation must be ashamed of it. It is one of the many social evils that exist in our country - dowry, female infanticide, preference for fair skin which has created a billion dollar fairness products industry, gender discrimination, under age marriages, child labor, bonded labor and the list can go on. However, caste discrimination is one social evil that has no real grassroots movements to reform and no serious government effort to root out the problem.
Caste discrimination struggle has leaders like Mayawati and Nitish Kumar whose very survival depends on keeping the Dalits oppressed, poor and uneducated so they can avoid accountability and win elections on identity politics. We have eliminated Polio, made a huge dent in underage marriages, outlawed female infanticide and take steps to enforce the law. We have been able to reform Hinduism to eliminate 'Sati Pratha' and many other incompatible practices. Caste discrimination continues to dominate because no one wants to eliminate it. It's a shame our intelligentsia often falls in politicians trap either out of seeking favors or political affiliations or for the thrill of romanticism that comes with being part of a struggle, even if misdirected.
If one wants to have a serious conversation on caste, we need to focus on moving away from 'an entitlement based approach rooted in claims of victimhood' to creating the foundations of 'equality of opportunity for all'. This would involve:
1.Invest in primary education and infrastructure - Caste discrimination is a shameful thousands of year old legacy that we need to fight collectively as a society. The one and only way to fight discrimination is through education. We have done a terrible job in promoting consistent and quality primary education across the country. Education is the solution to not just caste based discrimination but most of our social ills. We cannot trust the government to build and operate quality schools as evidenced by the current shocking state of our primary schools. Solution lies in private sector involvement through charter schools and voucher system.
2.Abolish reservation system - It is no secret that a vast majority of reservation benefits are appropriated by the so called 'creamy layer' within SC/ST categories. Reservation provisions were meant to be temporary for 10 years when our Constitution was adopted - however, the definition of who constitutes backward class has been vastly expanded and a temporary entitlement has become a permanently expanding political largesse. We have provisions for exclusion of creamy layer within the OBC reservations even though that definition is way too liberal, why do we exclude the SC/ST reservations from same restrictions. In addition, at the very least as a start, the reservation benefits must be confined to one generation
3.Establish need based scholarships - Children in a destitute upper caste family deserve government support more than the children of a SC/ST government employee. Our system however does the opposite - it not only favors the child of a backward class millionaire but it penalizes the child of a destitute upper caste family by imposing higher standards of entry into colleges and government jobs. This system is not only unfair, it is inhuman. We need to create a needs based scholarship and assistance program where poor families regardless of their caste or creed get government support to send their children for supplementary classes and tuitions, get mentorship and other so they can realize their potential. In short, criteria for admission to an institute of higher learning must be same for everyone regardless of their identity and government efforts must be directed to preparing those in need to meet those standards.
4.Abolish defamation laws - We don't need defamation laws and censor board and any other institution of moral policing. If we are serious about freedom of speech and free expression, we need to ask for removal of defamation laws, repeal of section 377 and other such regressive laws, strict action against goons of any political party who impose their moral views through violence and intimidation. Unless we can have a free and healthy debate without fear of getting sued or vandalized, we would never reach an optimum outcome.
5.Remove political parties from student politics and government from institutions of higher learning - Student politics should be what it was meant to be - decentralized college level student bodies working for the interests of students. One of the key ways to do this is to take government out of higher learning institutions. Those institutions should be run independently and government should support needs based scholarship rather than running those institutions. It is government involvement that creates incentives for favor seeking and corrupts student politics.
Caste discrimination is a serious issue that India has to tackle and first step to do that is to have a serious debate. Our politics would take decades if not generations to reform itself on its own - we can speed up the process by putting forward ideas that can make a difference, rather than perpetuating the rhetoric.

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