Equal rights for one and all: Some experiences from the USA and India.

In the year 2000, when I was on a short visit to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an American lady asked me suddenly. Why do Indians kill girl babies? I know there have been stray cases reported and didn’t like this generalization. My immediate response to her was that we were parents of two healthy daughters. A friend of mine, who was standing by came up with a better answer: In a country of 1 billion, one can find all kinds of people. However, the declining sex ratio led our Prime Minister Modi to announce a program to save girls and educate them as well, so that their dependence is not exploited (1).

American Chemical Society has instituted an award for encouraging women in to careers in Chemical Sciences (2). Department of Science and Technology, India, has some specific funds for encouraging women as well. I have heard about positions in the US Universities reserved for women. Some might wonder, should I take this position? Would it make me less deserved? It is not uncommon, even in the developed nations, to find men talking to working women in a patronizing tone. At times they offer unsolicited comments suggesting that a female colleague got the job mainly because of the gender. I think the women should reply to such comments with a straight face: Are you feeling insecure?

Oscar awards for 2016 were given recently.  Some black actors decided to boycott as there were no black nominees in all the four acting category for two years in a row. Of course, awards are to be given based on performance and not color, isn’t it? However, almost all the nominators are white and there was a perceived bias. Chris Rock, a black comedian, hosted the show. His opening act and comments won wide appreciation. It was funny mostly and touchy at times. I am copying from one part of his speech (3).

:”Why are we protesting this oscars? It’s the 88th Academy Awards, which means this whole ‘no black nominees’ thing has happened at least 71 other times.” He said black people didn’t protest before because they had “real things to protest at the time. They were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who wins best cinematographer.”:

Another thing Chris told in his monologue answers the doubt some women might have accepting jobs reserved for them. Some had suggested that he should boycott Oscar award ceremony and he responded: And the last thing I need is to lose another job to Kevin Hart

We, in India, are all supposed to be one race and so there cannot be any ‘racial’ discrimination. However, we have discrimination based on pretty much everything else: gender, color, caste, region, religion, language, you name it. There has been a plan to reserve 33 % of the Parliament seats to women for long. The ratio of women in academic positions in research institutes is still low. Recently, the Indian Academy of Sciences brought out a book titled “Leelavathi’s daughters” discussing about women in Science in India. My own Department had 3 women, out of 25, in its faculty two decades ago and since then none. We have recently appointed a woman after two decades. It was amusing to read a recent news about what a high school text book says in Chattissgarh, a State in india. Women are one of the causes for unemployment! (4). Notwithstanding such text book comments, the Government of India, funding organizations, various Institutions and Universities are coming up with various programmes to correct this anomaly.

The only thing about caste system that no can deny is that it is real and it exists today. It is unlikely to have been a British conspiracy to keep India divided but they may have very well exploited all these differences.  India has a number of castes grouped under Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) and the name they  have, changes with every state/language. People from these castes have been historically marginalized and were considered ‘untouchables’ by the other caste Hindus, though their service was taken by force. Dalit, meaning ‘oppressed’ has become one word to group them all, though I have read some recent reports which point out that people belonging to similar castes in some states do not prefer this name. This term was perhaps popularized by the architect of the Indian Constitution, B. R. Ambedkar, who himself belonged to this caste. Clearly, with the choice of Ambedkar as the Author of our Constitution, one can see that India has been trying hard to amend the differences. He was not chosen because of the background but because of his capability.

As an independent country, India decided that dalits should be given some reserved seats in academic institutions and Government jobs. Over two generations, this had helped many of them improve their social and financial status. In 2012, I found and pointed out in an article I wrote in Current Science(5) that the cutoff marks for admission to MBBS in Tamil Nadu for General quota and SC/ST were both above 190/200.  However, even now a large section of them remain socially and financially backwards. This is due to various factors including the reservation being exploited by the same families that have gained earlier. There have been reasonable requests for the criterion for reservation to include economic status.

Dalits had different way of lives compared to caste Hindus including their food preferences which includes beef. They constitute perhaps 1/4th of the ‘Hindu’ population in India. Of course, most Hindus had beef in ancient times and stopped consuming it in later periods. I know of many Hindu friends coming from various castes, who eat beef even today. Several, but not all, Indian states have banned Cow slaughter and consumption of Cow meat, also called beef. Some Hindus worship cow as it gives milk. Buffalo meat, also beef, was not banned. One might say this is the result of inherent color discrimination. Anything fair is lovely! Though, these laws have been there for long, eating beef has become a  major source of controversy recently attracting world wide attention on India. Some students organizations have protested this and they have been called anti-national time and again.

Let me point out a few incidents recently. In University of Hyderabad, a dalit student Rohith Vemula committed suicide. He was earlier suspended for anti-national activities. This is what his mother had to say: The day after, at the mortuary of Osmania Hospital, Rohith’s mother cried out: “I used to proudly tell everyone in my village that my son was doing PhD at Hyderabad University. Today, I have come to collect his dead body.’’(6) She lamented: What took me 26 years to rise has been destroyed in a few months.  Among the anti-national activities he committed were being part of the Ambedkar Students Association and organizing a beef festival and a function about hanging Afzal Guru, who was sentenced to death for planning the attack on the Indian Parliament. He was accused of being a ‘casteist, extremist and (indulging in) anti-national politics’, quoting from a letter forwarded by a central minister to the Ministry of Human Resources and Development.

Recently, the vice-chancellor of the Banaras Hindu University Mr. Tripathi, is reported to have said: Dr. Pandey was attempting to rake up “controversial and sensitive” issues at the university, such as beef and Kashmir’s ‘independence.’ (7) He had terminated Dr. Pandey for raking up these issues in BHU. I have been wondering how are these issues getting mingled? It is important for the Government and Society to understand how beef and Kashmir are getting connected. I have written a few blogs about Hinduism, religion and conversions and I do not want to repeat them here.

All over the world, it has been abundantly clear that some people holding on to power have abused it for personal benefit. They have managed to ensure that some are more equal than others. Democracy is one answer to such exploitation. What surprises, rather shocks me, is the attitude of some of the Indian elites, who accuse people who have been exploited for generations in the name of caste, as ‘casteist’. I have not heard any reports from the USA (I may be ignorant on this one), calling Chris Rock, anti-national and someone who brought shame on the Country because he spoke some truth when the world was watching. Even Donald Trump does not seem to have mentioned any such things!

In India, there are many, in the name of ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’, accusing students who organized ‘beef festival’ as anti-national. I note a patronizing tone in their voice as someone who has given to others. ‘What are they still complaining about? They don’t have any sense of gratitude!’ Another aspect that is evident in their comments is insecurity. No one should speak anything about our past, which may look bad now. Unless we realize the fact that no one is giving to others and we are all equal owners of this nation and the world, this mindset will not go. A country cannot ignore the livelihood of a significant fraction of its people. Nor can it ignore the injustice of the past and make amends. It cannot be done by shutting down people who speak. It has never worked!

References (all websites accessed in early March 2016):

  1. http://wcd.nic.in/BBBPScheme/main.htm
  2. http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/funding-and-awards/awards/national/bytopic/acs-award-for-encouraging-women-into-careers-in-the-chemical-sciences.html
  3. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/oscars/12175247/chris-rock-academy-awards-oscars-jokes-monologue.html
  4. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Working-women-cause-of-unemployment-says-Chhattisgarh-school-textbook/articleshow/49065145.cms?utm_source=fb&utm_campaign=toimobile&utm_medium=referral
  5. E. Arunan, Current Science, 107, 555-556 (2014)
  6. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/behind-dalit-student-suicide-how-his-university-campus-showed-him-the-door/#sthash.lyMCTSDB.dpuf.
  7. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/have-prevented-bhu-from-going-the-jnu-way-tripathi/article8306076.ece?homepage=true
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