Open Letter to Striking Medicos
Throughout history, in every country and every culture, it is young people who have been at the forefront of struggles to fight for and build a more just and humane world. Therefore stirring images on the front pages of newspapers of young people stoutly defying police batons, riot shields and water cannons in defence of what they believe, should normally seize the imagination and lift the heart. Yet they inspire in me instead a deep reflective sadness.
I feel compelled therefore to write this open letter to all of you, young people who are on the streets to protest reservations in centres of higher learning. I am sorry if you will not like what I have to say, yet I write because I believe in you, and I care.
I personally believe strongly in affirmative action for people who have historically suffered discrimination and a systematic, comprehensive, often brutal and savage denial of their rights to education and to respected livelihoods. Many young people who have taken to the streets believe that such discrimination as may have existed has passed into history. Yet a recent study in 10 states of which I was a part, confirmed that humiliating practices of untouchability and structured discrimination against people of so-called 'lower' castes, continue to be widely practiced in most parts of India, barring their access to dignified livelihoods, public services like water, even sitting with others in school or in tea-shops.
I find the debate on merit raised also by senior influential supporters of your campaign, spurious and demeaning to people who live with injustice, suggesting not that they lack fair opportunities, but that they intrinsically lack worth. We need also to reassess what we mean when we speak of merit. I would see more immeasurably more merit in a doctor who scores lower grades in medical college, but is willing to serve in deprived villages and slums, than one who tops the 'merit' list, and applies for the first green card that transports him to privileged and well paid jobs in the United States.
Still, I do not intend to enter here into a debate on reservations. I agree that the modes of designing and implementing affirmative action including reservations can legitimately be contested, and we owe it to the young people who have taken to the streets to listen and debate with them.
Yet the anguish is because middle class upper caste youth take to protest for the first time in years in our country, ultimately for what they must recognise to be the preservation of their privilege. It is more painful when they do so using slogans of equality, unity and justice. These words caught the imagination of many of us as we grew up, and are far too precious to be squandered and devalued in battles for defending the rights of those that already have better chances than millions in the country can ever dream.
But I grieve most when they choose to protest by holding brooms and posing for photographers, claiming that they will be 'reduced' to sweeping the streets if reservations in institutions of higher education are extended. It is an insult to the dignity of labour, a mockery of generations of people who are confined by the cruelty of caste to the work of scavenging, often carrying human shit in baskets and buckets on their head, people whose work ensures that we have cleanliness and comfort in our worlds.
I long for the day when the same young people spill on to the streets because two million people in our country go to sleep hungry, despite the fact that we grow enough food to fill every stomach. Because fifty thousand homeless children are forced to sleep under the open sky in the capital city of Delhi, hungry, abused, at freezing winter temperatures. Because more than two thousand people were brutally massacred in Gujarat and over a hundred thousand are unable to return to their homes even four years later, only because they happen to worship a different god. Because dalit children are still made to sit separately in several rural schools. Because there is an epidemic of despair in the countryside, as thousands of farmers feel compelled to take their lives. Because as many infants and children die of malnutrition and infection in slums in our country as in the poorest countries of sub Saharan Africa.
Oppose reservations in schools of higher learning if you must, my young friends. But just for a moment, close your eyes and try dreaming of a world that is more fair and caring. And maybe you will be spurred to fight police batons and water cannons on the street, in the way that hundreds of thousands did recently in Nepal, to help build a better country and world. Earlier generations such as mine may have failed you profoundly. Fight them if you feel you must, and lead them to reclaim lost, betrayed, almost forgotten dreams of a world of peace, equality and justice.