At a time when many US institutions, including state universities, are discarding affirmative action, often at the behest of its beneficiaries, like Clarence Thomas, India is stepping up its affirmative action program. India isn’t very racially diverse – in this case, affirmative action refers to efforts to uplift the lower castes, formerly championed by Gandhi as Harijans, meaning “Children of God,” but perhaps better know to Westerners as “untouchables.” The Scheduled Castes, or Dalits as they are commonly known, have begun to show the first signs of improvement as a group after centuries of discrimination.
If you talk to Indians living in America today, they will often tell you, if you are white, that the caste system doesn’t exist anymore. Unless they are upper caste themselves, they probably won’t want to talk about it. In fact, if an Indian is upper caste, you generally discover this fact fairly early on in the relationship – it’s kind of like going to an Ivy League college, you can’t keep it secret for long.
But Westerners often fail to discern the differences between caste and class. Caste is a distinctly, uniquely Indian concept. There really is no Western parallel. While lower castes are linked to poverty and lack of education, that does not fully encompass the concept. Caste, as it is traditionally interpreted, defines your life: your occupation, your status, the money you make, your place in society. For centuries, it has been as fixed as the sun in the sky. Caste determined who cleaned up dead bodies, made shoes, prepared food. Now, a recent study has found that in the last 64 years, the Dalits’ lot has steadily improved. It feels like the seeds of Gandhism have finally started to flower. Truly, it is an exemplary change that should inspire minorities everywhere.
The downside, (and there always is one, you know that!), is that their poor Muslim neighbors, their brothers in poverty, have been largely left behind. It seems like a tough time to be Muslim anywhere in the world, and India is no exception. Many of these poor Muslims are claiming reverse-discrimination as a result of the affirmative action that has bettered the lots of their Dalit neighbors, through jobs and educational incentives not available to Muslims. I’ve traditionally thought of the caste system as a racial issue, perhaps because lower castes are stereotyped as having darker skins. But the caste system is really an artifact of Hinduism, and ironically, many Indian Muslims are converts from former Scheduled Castes. Thus they suffer the stigma and discrimination of their former caste, but are unable to reap the benefits of government aid.
Clearly, government policies based on race or religion are tricky, and need to be updated frequently. Israel’s policy towards ultra-Orthodox sects has proven costly and led to an increase in intrastate violence. In the US, many schools have abandoned affirmative action and adopted economic action – aid based not on being a minority but on being poor. This is because though schools are more racially diverse now, their populations are less economically varied.
So what can be done for the Muslims of India? Strangely, it reminds me of the status of white women in the US. Women as a group are the most underrepresented minority both in government jobs and in the top tiers of finance and entertainment. Yet programs aimed at diversity continually target racial minorities, even lesbians and gays have begun to get a minority pole position over straight white women. We like to think we in the West are more enlightened, but India has had a female Prime Minister while the US cannot elect a woman president even if she is more qualified. At least white women can and often marry white men, the guys at the top of the heap, and get some trickle down.
It seems once affirmative action is started, there’s always a cry against reverse discrimination. But does that mean these policies shouldn’t get started at all?