By Garga Chatterjee
Last week, I happened to see an advertisement on television that was supposed to sell fans. In the advertisement, a girl and her father is there to pick up what is presumably a college admission form for the girl. The girl looks at the two sets of forms laid out in a table – one marked `Quota` and the other and the other marked `General`. The girl, who appears to be eligible for `Quota`, thinks twice before she picks up a form from the `General` stack. The father looks simultaneously bewildered and then mildly proud.
The times they-are-a-changing. After centuries of intense struggle from non-savarna groups for the right to basic human dignity that is still denied to them in many, many ways in many, many spheres, now we have billion dollar plus companies whose board of directors do not typically have a single `lower` caste person (while the opposite is largely true for their temporary, underpaid lay-off-as-you-wish workers) telling the `lower` caste peoples of the subcontinent how to behave to keep up with the “wind of new thought”.
The summary : The good `lower caste` person is one who chooses not to `use` her quota and competes as `general` instead. This apparently is the “wind of new thought” as this Hindi language advert suggests. Most likely, as it is the norm in the acting circles, both the student choosing “general” nor the father portrayed in the advert are from upper-castes. This tells us much about the socio-political and elite consumer culture in their Hindustan. The message is clear – the `general` stack is for those who want to stand on their own, the `quota` stack is for who want to be stigmatized.
This perpetuates the worst prejudices that are routinely practised privately without finesse and publicly with garnishings like `wind of new thought`. And such winds are fanned by slick commercial by `creative` advertisement `professionals`, funded by CSR money. Certain kinds of shamelessness require a redefinition of the word `shame`. We savarnas love to give each other `awards`. This particular advert definitely deserves one on `Shamlessness` with a capital S, in the sub-category of `Savarna`s burden`.
But nowadays CSR is the in-thing. Some MNC with brown brahmin-bania agents with tricolour smugness tells us to `share the load`, some other skin product MNC wants you to `talk to your daughter before the cosmetic industry does` – the list is long. When those who help blow up protesters in Kalinganagar exhort the young to vote or save the tiger or cosmetics giants do dazzling awards for women `change-makers` (they must have a whole department of such people, with PhDs in cynical deviousness), it can be assumed that the cup of sin has poured over and Kaliyug has truly arrived. Demons are in control. But some say, they have always been. Now they come in the garb of angels.
After this advert was launched, several non-savarnas complained with the advertising standards council, simply stating the obvious – that this demeaned Dalit-Bahujans and denigrated the constitutionally protected provisions of affirmative action. This quick response points to a shifting ground. It is this shift that provokes actions that lead to the death of Rohith Vemula or the all-out siege of Hyderabad Central University by agents too ready to do Delhi`s bidding. Now is the time to push for the removal of the 49% cap on reservations, so that a tiny proportion of savarnas cannot claim fake `general-ness` under the 51% illusion.
This illusion of the fake `general` serves the important purpose of hiding the reality that the still-suppressed socio-economic caste census (SECC) data contains. As long as there is `general`, there will be a fake `public sphere`, mostly upper-caste young people will be referred to simply as representative `young people`, primetime TV studio audiences of `national` media will have mostly upper-caste raising enthusiastic hands against reservations, upper-caste political pundits will pit reservation against `aspiration`. The participants in this gated charade where an apartheid society is paraded as `public sphere` will go to become tomorrow`s judges, police officers, army officers, bureaucrats, scientists, academicians, `eligible` sons-and-daughters-in-law, artists, film-makers, ad-men, philanthropists, NGO-barons, khadi-afficionados, Sufi-dabblers, urban-planners, rural developers and pimps. After all, Delhi and their trans-`regional` agents, like all sentient beings, also need to self-preserve and self-perpetuate.
What they fear the most, from the left-liberal `freedom in India` types to the `Bharatmata ki Jai` Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan types is the formation of a united non-savarna political block that refuses to play by the various `idea of India` and `change` agendas set by the savarna elites. Hence the current PR assault to `keep it individualistic and tell everyone to change themselves`. Their control of the narrative through divisive and value-laden dichotomies like General/Quota, National/Regional, Progressive/Backward need to be renewed with new themes when people start seeing through the earlier hoaxes.
These are thinly-veiled crowd management techniques from above and represents apartheid ideology at its creative best. Just like brahmins are rarely priests and many have learned to perpetuate inherited privileges and do publicity stunts like giving up sacred thread, hiding surnames or adding the surname Vemula to their social media profiles, untouchability also has taken new forms. Who are we fooling here? Personally, I have not given up an iota of my inherited privilege and hence I find it shameful to indulge the fashionable amateur-theatre of savarna `caste-lessness`. But it is important to be able to imagine a future where one is not at the centre of it, which is never an easy thing. Hence, I hope this becomes a long hot multi-year summer, a summer so hot that no sun-screen can protect against, that no water cannon can douse it.