May 30, 2006

Open letter

This is a letter written by Harsh Mander. Offered without comment.

***
Open Letter to Striking Medicos
Harsh Mander

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.

24 comments:

Neela said...

Brilliant. Thank you for posting it.

Neela

ankan said...

Since you did not offer any comments, here are some

"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. 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.

Classical argument which is an effort to mask reality. This kind of discrimination is practiced mostly in rural India and victims of this discrimination have been recognized in SC category. There is broad based support for upliftment of the SCs through proactive means although there may be difference in the nuances of the way to achieve it. The use of the SC brush to push quotas for the much better off OBCs is shameful!

"middle class upper caste youth take to protest"
Apparently, Mr Mander did a caste based survey of those who are protesting. Since there is not even reliable data after national cencus, I would not bet my cut fingernails on this one.

"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."

Long ramble which basically says," pahle us aadmi ka sign lao jisne mere haath par yeh likh dia...!". Does not cut much ice!

bhupinder singh said...

Moving as Harsh Mander's letter is, I feel it is pointless to appeal to an essentially upper caste, upper/ middle class youth. A conservative, Tolstoy remarks somewhere, is only sometimes an old man, very often it is a young person who is conservative- because he hasn't had the time or education to think critically.

Our education system, modelled increasingly on an American, vocation based system, has produced a huge army of technocratic conservative youth.

Whatever little hope is there, comes, in my opinion, from the educated Dalit youth. In some of my meetings, I have seen the same contained, simmering anger in them that was once the hallmark of earlier generations of student movements.

tejal said...

Thanks Dilip for posting the letter. It echoes my sentiments in much milder words than i would have used. However, i see the point in bs's comment.
A largely apolitical upper caste/class student body has suddenly taken a very political stand while shouting disclaimers against their movement being political. What can be expected by appealing to such a group?
You can see the very clever appropriation of revolutionary language to fit their ideas of "equality" and "justice".
The Dalit movement in India has been much more successful in politicizing its youth and a lot more can and should be expected of them than can be expected of a bunch who can be so reactionary in rhetoric and action.

Wild Reeds said...

I like the engaging, gentle tone of the letter. It is so much more conducive to debate than the door-shutting that usually happens. This issue is so complicated, so many sides to it...

Anonymous said...

If only we would protest with equal 'josh' and make our governments spend on primary education across India.

wise donkey said...

nice letter.


what stinks is the hypocrisy of the many instigated by the media, that this is the protest for fairness and merit.
the same people dont care about the society imposed quotas. they dont worry why manual scavengers still exist, even though there are laws.

on one hand they protest against merit being lost out due to reservations, but somehow if its economic reservation, merit doesnt matter..and its ok for the society.

casteism exists not just in villages, how many matrimonial ads, mention caste no bar..

i agree reservations need not be the solution for solving all the problems but lets take away the hypocrisy of holy profession etc. they are striking essentially because they fear their children will be affected..not because they care for the nation and want society to be fair..

on arjun singh, well if he cares so much for society, how about addressing the data from CRY that "50% of Indian children aged 6-18 do not go to school" whats the point of reservations at these premier institutions when these many children dont get even primary education?

Abhinav Vinayakh Shankar said...

Nice post!!

lod said...

Thanks Dilip, for posting the letter - echo bs and tejal's comments above that the letter targets mainly the upper caste / middle class. For real social change, the Dalits need (and have) their own champions of empowerment.

However, most people don't react very well to being told they're part of the problem and/or inconsequential to its solution. Mander's letter I think is useful in converting folks who might be bystanders, into partners in a social change movement.

Rahul said...

Very good letter, as I remarked in an earlier thread.

I am curious about why it is only the doctors who are striking, that too mainly in Delhi. Doctors in Chennai aren't on strike -- but reservations here have been a fact of life for decades, and Chennai nevertheless has possibly the best healthcare in the country.

Likewise the science institutes -- I work at one and we aren't out on the streets. I haven't read any news of protests at IISc, TIFR or other top science institutes either.

Can it be that people at these places don't doubt the merit of so-called "lower castes"?

We should have debated, over the last 15 years, how (rather than whether) reservations (or "affirmative action") should be implemented. Unfortunately, after Mandal was shelved people forgot about it. Now it looks like we're stuck with caste-based reservations.

On a positive note, I note in today's paper that Karunanidhi wants to restore reservation for students from rural areas. This strikes me as an excellent idea. The DMK had earlier had such a scheme (15% reservation) and the AIADMK had raised it to 25%, but then the court struck it down as unconstitutional. I hope they do their homework and get it right this time. Alternatively, reservation for students from government schools would be good too. The goal should be to get rid of caste as a criterion, without being unfair to people from "backward" castes.

What!! said...

Dalits again! OBCs are not Dalits. OBCs are the oppressors of Dalits, especially in Indian villages from where most "upper castes" have already migrated to the cities.

Criticising the protesting doctors is right. They are dumb, misguided, and at times downright offensive. However, the people who are doing things like sweeping streets are a minority. A majority of the protestors are those from whom something is being taken away. And it is being taken away without giving any explanation.

Do we not owe the protesting students an explanation, a detailed justified explanation, about why something is being taken away from them?

I find comments by bs and tejal extremely unfair towards the middle class youth. It makes them out to be a decadent immoral and slefish bunch. These charges are being made discounting the ad hoc manner in which the reservations decision has been taken.

I have never seen or heard of a student protesting SC/ST reservations. At IIT I saw these very vilified upper middle class america-centric youth go and help out the sc/st students in remedial classes. And in big numbers.

Yet why are these protests, which are specifically about the OBC reservations, being used to imply that the middle class is somehow apathetic, even hostile, to the well-being of Dalits?

Everyone has agreed that the implementation of the reservations is flawed. That a lot of the benefits of the reservations are being cornered by well-off OBCs who were never oppresed. The NSSO study has data which can question the justification for OBC reservations itself.

Yet the government goes ahead and implements the quota, ad hoc, and without even the propriety to include a creamy layer clause.

Let me repeat this. The manner of protests by the striking students is tasteless. Sweeping roads, striking work, etc are all shameful measures and very disappointing.

But using that brush and painting the entire middle class youth as some sort of privileged pampered brats like bs and tejal have done is churlish.

Remember a few things. The huge Indian middle class is a relatively new phenomenon. Until a generation back, even most of the upper castes had tough lives, standing in long queues for kerosene and American red wheat. It is not a situation like the French or Russian revolution where the privileged pampered classes were leading cushy lvies for centuries.

And remember that it is this middle class that is paying most of the country's taxes. I am not saying they are doing a huge favour, but putting it into perspectives, that this is not the scenario where the upper classes are sucking the poor and underprivileged dry.

In India, the Dalits and the truly needy among the OBC are backward because the state hasnt been able to provide them with water, food, impartial police, a neutral judiciary.... all of which together translate as access and opportunities.

The continuing suffering of the underprivileged has no link to the relatively recent prosperity of the middle class. And so if you are going to take away some seats from them, you need to explain it to them better why this is beinf done.

And you need to ensure that the children of lalu yadav and such privileged OBCs do not corner most of the benefits.

I will say this again because it bears repetition. NO ONE HAS EVER PROTESTED RESERVATIONS FOR DALITS AND TRIBALS, I.E SC AND ST.

So please do not hyphenate the suffering of the dalits with a lament about what you perceive as a lack of "time to think" for the middle class youth.

Nikhil said...

What
Thanks for your comment. The problem is that many of Dilip's co-bloggers are painting everybody with the same brush. Please note there is a huge massof India between the pampered fat cats and the wretched of the earth.

The best part is Harsh Mandar - a knowledgable person keeps on harping the same idiotic argument.

And you need to ensure that the children of lalu yadav and such privileged OBCs do not corner most of the benefits.

Thanks for saying this. This is the question I have been asking - Will many communities be removed from the Backward list? Let all these people who are writing all these letters first ask for this request.
Please do the simple thing of removing the communities who are well off and revise all the backward lists. Let me assure you it is pure vote bank politics and the govt will never do this.

Anyway I am sure going by past responses, people will always diss off my arguments. Please read Praful's column on rediff where he says this entire agitation is a conspiracy.

tejal said...

What!! - "Do we not owe the protesting students an explanation, a detailed justified explanation, about why something is being taken away from them?"

What is being taken away from upper caste students??? I can go only so far as to say that their current advantage is reduced from an 80% open category to a 53% open category, but they are by no means disadvantaged. They are still heavily at an advantage. They will be "disadvantaged" only if 90% of the seats get reserved for others and the 15% upper castes have to compete only in 10% of the seats. Right now, 15% of the upper castes have to compete for 53% of the open seats, thats advantage enough isnt it?, to include all of the "meritorious" upper caste??

If you read Prof. Yogendra Yadavs articles in the hindu, he has given figures for the percentages of different castes in the graduate population, and OBCs also are heavily under-represented, not just the Dalits (although Dalits more so). So are Muslims and so are women.
This needs to change. Like it has changed in places like Tamil Nadu (at least for the backward castes if not for women).

In a really equal society where everyone is fairly represented, every sector should reflect the population distribution of the country. This is really skewed right now and should be set right. Caste discrimination is a reality and u cant wish it away. It wont just vanish when we wake up one morning. We have to eradicate it systematically and urgently. Affirmative action is widely accepted as a way to overcome age old social prejudices and biases. India by far has the most progressive affirmative action policy and has kept abreast of changes in the power and social structures in society. We keep revisiting the status and problems of caste in our society and if for nothing else we should be happy for this one thing that our political parties have done. The political empowerment and backward caste movements are phenomenal and inspiring. In part, it is thanks to the vision of one Dalit (Dr. Ambedkar) who went against the elitist Congress of the time to demand this form of affirmative action.
The upper caste IAS officers, politicians etc. will never be able to identify and solve caste problems in society. Being a visionary and a very politically progressive man, Gandhi was also unable to do so. Empowerment of the backward classes needs to happen to be able to solve problems of the backward classes.

In a country where 14,000 farmers have committed suicide in the last 5 years even as the middle class celebrates a 10% growth, women get sexually harassed by professors and the police dont do nething abt it, there is little to be happy about. The fact that backward caste movemets are on the rise, and in some way or the other, traditional power structures and monopolies are being challegend is a little ray of hope in otherwise bleak times.

Anonymous said...

i remember the last time harsh bander wrote an 'open letter', he passsed off some random rumours as facts and announced grandly that he was resigning from the ias, when he was only retiring to take up a lucrative assignment.

maybe in a few years, harsh can put together a book of his 'open letters'.

Anonymous said...

Mr Harsh Mander, congratulations on a completely content-free open letter, written with weepy, over-wrought, masturbatory prose, making no cogent points, offering no counter-arguments and of no use whatsoever.

Anonymous said...

i forgot 'pompous'. with a pomposity befitting an ias officer.

Sanketh said...

Nice letter.

I have a few points I'd like clarified though:

1) I get the spirit of his argument regarding discrimination from his study in 10 states. However, extending this to assume that "most" of the country practices this discrimination would be fallicious right? My gut tells me he may probably be right. But is he sure?

2) I was recently in a debate with a few friends and I too suggested to them that people of "privilege" have a tendency to leave the country rather than stay back and serve their own people. In the process of arguing this I did realize it is an unfair characterization. Aren't people who avail reservations as likely to leave the country as the rest of the lot?

3) When Harsh says the "senior,influential, supporters" are questioning the merit of these candidates of reservation, isn't he doing the same by assuming they would be the same people scoring lower grades in medical colleges?

4) While I agree the protest so far has been a very urban one, I don't see why one needs to cast aspersions on their intent. They maybe young and middle class but that doesn't make them spoilt brats. They have been through, what you and I would probably agree, is a taxing 14 years of public schooling and in the end they feel cheated when all that comes to nothing. I think they have a right to ask questions and if answered without cynicism and presumption, I am positive they will give a listen.

You know I am glad they are protesting. Regardless of the merit of what they are saying, I am glad they are saying it. Rang De Basanti or not, it is definitely something worth remembering. I feel the middle class has been a dormant political force long enough. I hope they do realize that change is easier when you are part of the political process rather than being arm-chair critics.

This is just my opinion. I am not sure who Harsh Mander is or what he's done. He has made a cogent argument and I respect the fact that he speaks with some consideration for the students protesting.

Anonymous said...

http://www.vigilonline.com/news/whats_new/news_view.asp?plainSpeakId=35

Just for your information, I spend at least 10 hours every week volunteering for civic and environmental activism.

I have my heros in public service (Medha Patkar, Baba Amte, and many many people you will never have heard of) but this publicity-loving cheat Harsh Mander is not among them.

Manish Saini said...

Cannot deny the fact that how impressive and invoving the letter is.
As complete India stands divided on the issue, none of the arguments in the letter would can be countered except one i.e. suggestion of implementing The reservation policy as a panacea to all the issues raised.

Agreed that there is discrimination on the basis of caste at every stage of life. Agreed that we have seen one of the ugliest faces of discrimination in the past 50 years.Agreed that Education is one of the most important ways for the upliftment.

The only thing which bothers me and many others is that this reservation policy has been in place for a long time for now and there is not even a single study available listing its weaknesses and strengths. Which areas have successfully implemented the policy and why? How many people have availed the benefits and what has been the social impact in their lives?

Answering these questions might suggest for more qouta than prescribed or it may be vice versa too. It might even shun the policy and help design an alternative method.
As concerned citizens all of us are in favour to see India and more importantly its citizens shine. Then be it quota or no quota. But at leat whatever the policy, it must be dependable.

Anonymous said...

> I spend at least 10 hours every week
> volunteering for civic and environmental
> activism.

Wow! May I have your atograph??

Anonymous said...

i dont give out autographs. harsh mander and dilip dsouza would be pleased without doubt to oblige.

Anonymous said...

What about reservations in minority institutions? How unsecular to discriminate those minority institutions, eh?

nevermind said...

brilliant. fantastic post.

Anonymous said...

What you are trying to say is "Being born in a particular caste should not be a curse", whether it is a Dalit or a Brahmin.

Do you mean to say that today's upper caste generation should pay the price of what their forefathers did?

You said that untouchability is still practiced in many places in India; that Dalits still don't have access to primary schools. Do you think a TB shot should be administered to a person suffering from pneumonia? Do you think the current reservation being proposed is an effective solution? Don't you think improving the basic education facilities across India would be a better solution? Don't you think land reform is a better solution? Do you think reservation for Lallu Yadav's daughter and similar folks will address the problem you have raised? What about places where untouchability is no longer practiced?

You talked about 'green card'. Would you not want your daughter/son to look for better opportunities ‘abroad’? Do you think all go for 'green cards'. Do you think an OBC will NEVER go for a 'green card’? Do you think this 'green card' rush is confined to some castes?

One thing I can't understand is ... whenever such debates are brought in, some people start discussing about the problems of the whole world. From Kashmir to Iraq; Gujarat to cold waves. Yes I am concerned about these burning issues. But by bringing all these things here, you are simply NOT hitting the nail on its head. Or … to put in other words; Will a caste based reservation policy help the upliftment of the real needy ... irrespective of their caste ... and solve all the issues you are talking about?

Regards
Vishal