I am somebody who is a typical run-of-the-mill product of the great Indian middle class: well-schooled (as opposed to well-educated), well-fed (as opposed to well-nourished) and well-paid (as opposed to well-employed). So yes, I am this poor little rich kid, who hasn’t seen much of the world, who lives in her own cosmopolitan urban haze, who hasn’t experienced any serious setbacks, challenges or discrimination. For me, a setback is a dry day on a national holiday, a challenge is recovering all the movies and music from a hard disk crash and discrimination is when a nice guy in a crowded public transport offers me his seat because I AM A GIRL.
So, no, I DO NOT subscribe to “affirmative action”, “reservations” or “emancipation”, because, to me, they are all synonyms of “votebank politics”. When I was taking all sorts of MBA entrance exams back in 2006, there was a lot of hue and cry about Arjun Singh’s decision to have an additional 27% reservation for OBCs in the IIMs apart from the existing quotas, and the staunch activist that I was at that point, I wrote a lot of letters to various newspapers strongly criticizing that move, and dismissed it as yet another populist measure pandering to an archaic caste system.
With the rose-tinted glasses firmly perched on my nose, I envisioned a world of Ayn Rand, where only individual brilliance and meritocracy counted: either you were good enough or you weren’t, either you deserved it or you didn’t, either it was black or it was white.
But over the years, I figured out that it was, in fact, not as simple as I thought it was. Not just in India, which has a rich legacy of social injustice going back centuries, but across the globe, racism is an ugly truth: be it the Apartheid in South Africa, the African-American civil rights movement in America or the Holocaust in Germany, history is replete with examples of prejudice. It got more complicated as I read stories of ordinary people being victimized: from the 9-year old Scout’s story in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird to the 13-year old Anne Frank’s secret diary, from the young professor’s hapless experience in To Sir with Love to Celie, the poor and uneducated 14-year old black girl in The Color Purple, and most recently, the sordid life of the African American maids in the sleepy town of Jackson, Mississippi, as illustrated by a white journalist in the book, The Help (Octavia Spencer won the 2012 Best Supporting Actress in the movie of the same name).
So when I watched the “Justice with Michael Sandel” episode on affirmative action which argued the case of a white aspirant, Sheryl Hopwood, who, despite her impressive grades and test scores, was rejected by the University of Texas, although her black counterparts made it with similar/lesser achievements, I couldn’t help wondering if this was an instance of history trying to correct itself for all the years of injustice and nepotism.
But can two wrongs make a right?
Should the present generation pay the price for the mistakes of the past?
Does justice invariably involve some amount of inequality?
There are really no right or wrong answers, because it’s never really black or white…