None of us may be completely immune to the game of labelling. We are creators and recipients of labels. Childhood labels and persistent labelling do have a great impact on us. Politicians use this game of labelling extensively. In the context of present-day India, labels like anti-national are very significant and derogatory. With media and bots in the social media playing to the tunes of propaganda machinery, labelling and thereby destroying the life of enemies is not a difficult ball-game for the powerful.
John Metta, in his amazing piece, says that the people of the powerful community are considered inherently good, whereas goodness is a rarety in the weaker community. The power can be attributed to historical, political, numerical (majority vs minority), cultural, religious reasons, or a combination of them. A dangerous mode of labelling exists in the interaction of the powerful with the weaker communities, which could be described as follows.
When the art of labelling can be considered as a mental gymnastic, it is generally accompanied by the systemic counterpart which treats the citizens from both communities differently. This vicious circle of labelling and systemic injustices reaches a tipping point at some moments in history. Except in dictatorial set-ups, the powerful community is forced to take some corrective actions — be it a pain-killer or a surgical procedure of the system.
The anti-racist movement in the US is at one such cross-roads where blacks are demanding systemic changes and accountabilities. The Indian response to systemic injustice can offer some valuable lessons to the blacks of the US, in the midst of their protests.
India has a history of caste-system and untouchability. Untouchability was officially abolished by the national Constitution in 1950. Indian Constitution also declared that all the citizens of India, irrespective of their caste, creed, religion, or language, are equal in the country. The architect of the Indian constitution, Babasaheb Ambedkar, had initiated a systemic response against the historical wrongs committed against certain sections of the society.
The Indian constitution granted reservations or quota for certain groups of people in government institutions (education and job). When we evaluate the situation after 70 years of reservation, do we call it a success? Though I support reservation, I won’t call it a success by any degree. The aim was to create an equitable society with equal access to the resources and opportunities in the country. While I accept that some form of development has reached many of these people, the result is far from anything desirable.
The reservation system has got involved in another rut as the creamy layer of the erstwhile weaker sections continue to garner the privileges leaving the majority of the poor not reaping the benefits of the system of reservation. I don’t think that the solution is to stop the system of reservation, but a thorough renewal is the need of the hour.
Economic Times wrote, “Quota is politician’s penance for failure to provide good education and jobs.” It is a normal tendency to blame the politician and live as blameless individuals. I would rephrase that quote, “it is Indian society’s penance for the failure to provide equal opportunities”. Tim Wise says about the present American situation, “Some white folks don’t want peace — they just want quiet.”
Probably this is the same desire of the creamy-layer of Indian society as peace involves justice and justice may involve losing some of the unjustly gained privileges.
Two major types of actions are required from the side of the government as a systemic response. The first one is the set of empowerment actions to level the playing-ground which will include the creation of better resources and facilities and increased access to them. The second one is providing a set of incentives (like reservation or quota) until the playing field is levelled.
The reservation system in India was limited to the government sector and thus the beneficiaries are a minority. For me, empowerment actions reaching the majority of the backward community are much more important in the fight for equality than the whole series of reservations.
When India did have empowerment actions making the resources and opportunities accessible to the weaker sections, these actions along with reservation were not sufficient enough to turn the tide of historical wrongs. Thus weaker sections, with some exceptions, continue to remain weak and crises like COVID-19 worsens the situation.
Probably this is a message that the black people of the US should take along as they demand systemic reforms against racism. Sadly, I don’t see India taking this message anytime soon. And we are including a new narrative of majority vs minority on the basis of religion, where the game of labelling has already begun and signs of systemic injustices are starting to display their ugly head.