The stories I get the most satisfaction from are usually about the neglected margins of India, where struggle is enmeshed with life. The ones I will upload have been written for The Sunday Guardian and (the now defunct) Covert Magazine. I'll be putting up any articles here at least until The Sunday Guardian website is up in a couple of months. Thank you for reading.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

India Needs a Caste-Based Census

(this piece was the edit for The Sunday Guardian on 27 June)

The caste-impelled “honour” killings that are blighting parts of North India illuminate just how badly many vital parts of the Indian system function. The greatest failure of six decades of self-rule has been the inability of Indian society to dilute caste from the matrix of social behaviour; if anything, the Indianisation of democracy may have served to strengthen it.

This failure to address the “caste problem” is inextricably linked to the decision by the Indian government in the 1950s to remove from the public sphere any debate on caste at all. Until the rise of Kanshi Ram, it was considered unseemly to discuss caste in matters of policy, politics and national movement. The preference was to use euphemisms such as ‘vote bank’ to describe communities that voted uniformly, whether willingly or unwillingly. The widespread consensus amongst the educated, middle class (and largely upper caste) urban Indian was that caste was a previous evil, a pre-Independence relic that was rapidly vanishing. Its revitalisation in the Indian context was seen as a product of the “encashability” it received through electoral politics, wherein backward status became something poor, rural groups aspired to.

A parallel contemporary belief is that caste no longer plays a public role in urban life, only a private one. For instance, caste may be discussed in a matrimonial website, but must not be discussed with your child’s teacher. That, however, ignores that divisions of labour and domicile in the city are still overwhelmingly determined by caste: how many non-Dalit sweepers are there in Delhi? And what is the proportion of upper-caste residents of the more superior neighbourhoods of the capital? These are questions that can be answered only through a caste-based census.

The caste-based census should not be portrayed, as it has in some parts of the media, as the work of arriviste, lower-caste politicians from the rural hinterland, determined to extract some unidentified political advantage. The truth is that the census already makes important distinctions on the basis of caste, separating the people of India into categories like scheduled, backward and general. More detailed information better equips the Indian government to identify the poorest communities in India and determine the nature of the assistance they need.

As sociologist Satish Deshpande wrote in 2003, “the post-Independence backlash against caste was strong and sustained. It ensured that one of the paradoxical lessons of modern governance – that the state must measure whatever it wishes to eradicate – would not be learnt…we refused to collect such data because we thought we should not collect it and we did not need it. However, the irony is that the end result is not very different from what might have been the case had there been a giant conspiracy to suppress evidence of caste inequality.”

Caste-based reservations have often been criticised for helping out the “creamy layer” of lower-caste groups of India. This criticism is at least partially valid. But the solution is not to eradicate reservations; it is to collect better information.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Viva the Vuvuzela

FIFA President Sepp Blatter does not get much right. His 12 year reign as President could be described as a merry-go-round of incompetence: massive financial mismanagement, repeated allegations of corruption, including a highly amusing cash-for-votes scam before the last FIFA election, even gender bias (he once said people would only start watching women’s football if the girls wore tighter shorts and low cut shirts). But this World Cup Blatter has got one thing 100% correct: the vuvuzela, a somewhat disagreeable, atonal South African trumpet, should not be banned.

In asserting the right of South Africans to blow whichever trumpet they please, Blatter is standing up for the independent cultures that football creates all over the world. In an age where Western European football leagues groom so many players that Brazil plays with the efficiency of Germany, it is the varied vibrancy of national supporters that give the World Cup much of its flavour. Blatter is right to take on the collective might of European and North American media, who are so perturbed by the unending vuvuzela drone that the instrument became the hottest topic of the first week of football.

The vuvuzela is not a South African instrument. It originates in Mexico, from where it travelled to Brazil and much of South America. Indeed, every country that has a football tradition has a unique way of watching the game. But many of the appeals for banning the instrument are misty-eyed evocations that privilege and misrepresent European football culture. Yes, the terraces of many European stadiums are filled with passionate singing and witty banter during matches. But those same stadiums also spawn the worst kind of parochial anger, racial intolerance and outright violence in football. Even in the sanitised, TV-friendly Premier League, homophobic, anti-Semitic and other racial abuse is rife. During a Euro 2008 qualification match, neo-Nazi Croatian fans, in a patently pre-planned move, gathered to form a huge human swastika. Right wing gangs, the Ultras, control the stadiums of Italy, and once tossed a flaming scooter onto a pitch. There are worse things than some partisan noise.

South Africa’s troubled racial divisions are hardly a thing of the past. The overwhelming majority of white people live in gated communities and “safe” neighbourhoods in the big cities. Most of the money has stayed in the hands of the Apartheid-era rich, and it is very rare, even today, to see young black and white South Africans socialising in the same places. There are still “white” and “black” nightclubs in every city in the country.

Every commentator who has criticised the instrument must acknowledge that 25 years ago blacks in South Africa did not have the freedom to make the racket they pleased. The vuvuzela is a conch of freedom, and because no European today should be allowed to tell black South Africans what to do, it will be heard.