They teach you in middle school that traditionally, there were four broad divisions in Indian society, based on different occupations, created to preserve the social order. They also teach you which box you are supposed to tick on various kinds of forms. I have always known which “category” I belong to. But having grown up in the 21st century, where I change my mind every two days about what career I wish to pursue, I’ve never paid much attention to what that one word- General- means. Like many others of my generation, I thought the only thing it meant was I’d have to do extra well in board exams and admission entrances, while some other people could get away with scoring significantly lower. I didn’t quite resent “them”, those who seemed somewhat unfairly favoured, but I remember feeling proud that I got by on sheer merit, and I also remember feeling a trace of anger on behalf of friends who might have needed the advantage too, except they were unlucky enough to have the same label that I did. After all, it didn’t make sense to let people in who didn’t deserve it. They would just end up lagging behind later and wasting a seat, right?
They don’t tell you a number of things in middle school. Or later. What they forget to teach you is that for generations, some sections of people have been treated in a sub-human way because they happen to be born with a different “label”. They’ve been beaten, abused, forced to clean toilets and act as manual scavengers. They’ve been thrown out of schools and hospitals, ostracised in places of worship and social spaces. They’ve automatically been labelled incompetent without a fair chance, so much so that so many of them have begun to take it as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The merit that some of us swear by, accumulated through generations of care and indulgence from our ancestors, is something a large strata of people are getting acquainted with, only in the 21st century. It’s a car rally where half the people have barely started on bicycles while the other half are halfway to the finish line in sports cars.
Armed with four generations of government employees to back me up, a convent education, and a mastery of the English language, I cannot even begin to claim that I know how it feels to struggle without these privileges. Even so, I have picked up my pen, to try and talk to those who say reservations on social grounds should be completely eliminated. I’m sure if you reflect for a minute, you’ll know it yourself. The problem isn’t merely economic, not when some employers are tossing aside applications based on the applicant’s surname, and when a majority of our domestic helps and cleaners, the ones we take for granted, are still bearing the stigma of a certain label. I’m not defending the structure of the reservation system. Those who have benefited and now emerged at par must answer to their conscience as well as the provisions of the system, and indeed some sort of an economic tie-in with the social seems essential. As with any mechanism, it has its flaws, but in the present state of affairs, it needs to be transformed, and not discarded. To those who’re still affected by discrimination every day, we as a society owe apology in form of redressal before we urge them to bow at the altar of Bharat Mata.