Of Casteism, Hinduism, Hi-tech Jobs and Cricket
What does caste, Hinduism, IT jobs and cricket (all with reference to India) have in common ? They feature in two recent examples of rank poor journalism and grossly ignorant (perhaps deliberate) misinterpretation of India by western journalists. Therefore, opportunities to rant !
In brief, exhibit A: according to Paul Beckett of Wall Street Journal, India’s corporate ladder has for years followed the strict Hindu caste systems, which has only been relaxed recently due to India’s economic resurgence (helped of course, by ‘international companies’) and the need to look beyond ‘traditional sources of employees’; and, exhibit B: Scyld Berry in the Sunday Telegraph makes the even more jaw-dropping contention that India’s cricket failure abroad stems from the Hindu fear of traveling overseas!!
Sigh ! How quickly can you say ‘colonial hangover’ ? Anyone ?
Now if you have stopped banging your head against the table or the wall nearest you, read on.
It gets hackneyed, but every once in a while you have to shake your head and marvel at how the mainstream media can resort to astoundingly low, scraping the barrel levels of journalism. Sadly, this is not the TOI or the Rediff comments section, its the supposedly venerable Wall Street Journal and the Telegraph of UK.
Take Beckett first He says:
But India’s rapid economic expansion — and its booming high-tech sector — are beginning to chip away at the historical system that reserved well-paying jobs for upper castes and menial jobs for Dalits. With annual gross-domestic-product growth exceeding 9%, companies that have hired tens of thousands of workers in recent years are looking beyond their traditional sources of employees. High-tech firms, both foreign and domestically based, are at the forefront of that search. As a result, some Dalits are rising into India’s middle class.
Technology giant Infosys Technologies Ltd. now recruits from 700 colleges around India, many of them in semi-rural areas where lower-caste people often live, up from about 50 urban colleges 10 years ago, says T.V. Mohandas Pai, the company’s director in charge of human resources. “Today, a great number of the people whom we hire come from poorer backgrounds both economically and socially,” he says. “It is changing the ground rules in India.”
International companies are also having an impact. “We don’t give a damn about any of these differences in caste or religion,” says Ravi Venkatesan, chairman of Microsoft Corp.’s India unit. “It has made talent the number one issue for all companies.”
Nothing wrong with the primary assertion mind you. With an improving economy, more people will get jobs, become richer and less will be any perceived differences (as pointed out by Amit Varma in this article). The problem is that Beckett insinuates quite wrongly, perhaps for the ‘gasp-factor’ from his American audience, that India’s corporations have actively discriminated against non-Brahminical castes. If that had been the case, none of my non-Brahminical parents and relatives, or grandparents for that matter, would have amounted to anything. If there has been bias, it has been with respect to the poorer sections of the society with little access to good education – both primary and higher (The failure to provide equitable education to all surely lies with the government).
Beckett provides no statistics to back his claims – his central thesis relies on are a couple of juicy anecdotes. And the only piece of hard information used (“An August 2006 study of technology workers at multinationals or sizeable Indian tech companies found that 86% came “from upper castes and/or economically better-off communities.”[see update below]) actually tosses out his hypotheses. There is an altogether total failure to account for economic inequities irrespective of castes in the article.
Perhaps it is stronger elsewhere, but neither in Kolkata, nor in the economically rising Hyderabad-Secunderabad twin cities or the bustling Mumbai (places where I have spent considerable time), have I ever observed caste-based discrimination in job sectors. The only places I have observed its effects is where it has been enforced by the government – in the colleges I attended. Of course, my version is completely anecdotal, that is to say, no different from Mr Beckett’s.
Even while I am a fan of capitalism and free-market economy, the single-minded conservative rhetoric of the WSJ often irritates me. But considering their target audience, I figure that’s how it should be. Additionally, their reporting on India/China etc is much better than the usual, ‘oh look at the poor third world’ New York Times’ condescension. Unfortunately, Paul Beckett’s article goes the NYT way and lacks any kind of serious credibility.
(For additional humor, do check out the helpful cartoons on the side of the article that serves as a ‘Castes for Dummies’ guide.)
[UPDATE]: Rohit pointed me in the direction of the actual study mentioned in the WSJ article . Two points emerge from it. Firstly, the study was conducted with a sample size of 132 software professionals, and in Bangalore only ! And secondly, even the authors of that study acknowledge:
It is no one’s case that the industry deliberately practices discrimination on the basis of regional, community or other such ‘ascriptive’ identities. But it should be recognised that the requirements of a ‘global’ offshore or outsourcing business tend to exclude those from non-urban and less privileged backgrounds, who lack the social and cultural capital required to work in a ‘global’ environment. Industry leaders themselves acknowledge that there is such a filtering process, in that they have repeatedly urged that appropriate ‘soft skills’ be taught in schools and colleges.
Which goes against Beckett’s hypotheses of active discrimination in the work-place. Additionally, before others jump on this, I am not saying that casteism does not exist or is not a problem in India, but pointing out that Beckett grossly exaggerates its effect in the Indian corporate and does not take into account economic conditions or the failure of the government in providing basic education. And all his assertions seem to be based on hearsay.
The next rant is against this article by Scyld Berry ahead of the India’s cricket tour to England. Berry points out that Indians have been poor tourists with an abysmal away record and that before the arrival of John Wright as the coach, senior players were a pampered lot and got away with bad fitness etc. Sadly, all that is quite true. Where Berry starts going loony is with this insane assertion:
Then there is the attitude to playing away from home, away from their comfort zone of porters and waiters. Wright does not say so, but the Hindu belief that one lost caste when crossing the sea may have helped to set Indian cricket abroad off on the wrong foot, where it has more or less remained ever since.
Heh ! One wonders if that belief rubs off the Muslim players that accompany the team as well. Also Pakistan is not really ‘overseas’ – but we have a dismal record against them!
But wait, it gets better – apparently India has been ‘saved’ by one Rahul Dravid, who is…
….an urbane south Indian who has played for Kent and Scotland and become a cricketer of the world as well as India’s captain.
Now, pray explain who/what is (a) an ‘urbane south Indian’ – as far as I know the majority of Indian cricketers are from urban areas, with only recently players emerging from non-metropolitan cities; and (b) how does one become a ‘cricketer of the world’ ? Just because that person has played in England (and Scotland) – he gets blessed with the title ? (as Rohit suggested, perhaps playing in England has made him overcome the Hindu fear of overseas).
Apart from the factual inaccuracies in the article, Berry goes overboard in trying to justify Dravid as the savior of Indian cricket. No one is doubting Dravid’s credentials and his immense contributions to the batting line-up and his presence on the field, but to say that he single handedly won the Headingly Test in 2002 is an exaggeration, in a match where Sachin and Sourav lead a savage assault on the English bowlers in the darkness of Day 2 evening (no doubt though about Dravid anchoring the innings early).
Btw, if you read the full report, you will be stuck by Mr Berry’s amazing powers of clairvoyance. He reads the minds of both John Wright (“Wright does not say so, but…”) and Rahul Dravid (“his reply was perfectly correct in what he said, but even more remarkable in what was unsaid…”). One wishes Mr Berry would use such superpowers to better uses.
What bothers me is how the theme in both articles are eerily similar – ah those poor Hindus with their entrenched caste systems and irrational superstitious beliefs etc. Further, how ironical is it that the opinions come from an American, in a country with a track record of slavery and discrimination till very recent times; and from an Englishman, because one wonder which tenets of Christianity makes the English cricket team such poor tourists to India and Pakistan ?