Finding Unity in Diversity – A Peek into the challenges of Inclusion in India

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by Jai Thade, Content Designer

Around 2 weeks ago, news broke in Indian newspapers about a Mosque in the region of Kerala hosting a traditional Hindu Wedding – one that was performed as per Hindu rituals and was even solemnized by a Hindu priest.  

This gesture is not just a timely show of solidarity in an otherwise divisive time. It also falls within a long Indian tradition of a feeling of kinship transcending social boundaries. Truth be told, the scenario in India often extends beyond mere inclusion, to one of interdependence between groups.  

India’s historical ability to not just absorb, but also integrate can be demonstrated in the curious case of the potato. What is now a central staple in almost all cuisine spanning the country’s 3200-kilometer length, and whose absence in daily food is unimaginable to many – is actually an 18th-century import by the Portuguese. The point being – India’s generally fared well at not just absorbing newer cultures and people, but at integrating them into its fabric as well.  

However, every human being comes with contradictions. And when you have as many human beings as we do, there are a lot more contradictions. For instance, the Intersex (also known as Kinnar or “Hijra”) community in India was once woven into our political, administrative and mythological fabric. Today, however, they languish on the margins of society. 

Enshrined in the very first draft of our constitution is an article prohibiting any kind of discrimination, be it based on religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. The subsequent article also laid down the principle of equality of opportunity in matters of public employment. The word “employment” here also took under its wing issues pertaining to promotions, termination and equal pay for equal work. 

Affirmative action, which already had a pre-independence history here, also found its way into the Constitution. First as a directive principle, and then as an amendment – with a certain percentage of jobs and classroom seats being set aside for various socio-economically marginalized Castes and Tribes – in a process called “Reservation”. 

While good intentions lay in the hearts of those drafting the laws, for these intentions to percolate evenly to the grassroots reality was an uphill task. This initial list didn’t even take into consideration all groups that face some form of marginalization, for instance, people with disabilities and transgender people. 

Before we proceed, it’s also important to throw in another crucial piece of the puzzle: much of the “workforce” in India finds itself in the informal sector, with some estimates saying the number is as high as 81%. What does that mean? Around 8 out of every 10 individuals work outside of the legal protection that guarantees them things like humane working conditions, fair pay and safeguards them against exploitation. The informal labour market can at times operate like a “Wild, Wild West” of employment, where “anything goes”.  

These kinds of numbers may lead a cynically minded person to think that this makes marginalization the rule, not the exception. And perhaps they wouldn’t be that far off from the truth for thinking that.  

With all this in mind, let’s dive deeper into the issue of Caste, and specifically look at caste-based “reservation”. This has been a flashpoint of controversy; so, it would be best to try to relay some relevant facts from all sides of the argument. 

Historical injustices have certainly set members of some groups far, far behind the starting line as compared to others. Not just in terms of being socio-economically deprived, but also in their ability to escape their deprivation. There are also a lot of visible and invisible hurdles that are can often be impossible to cross, before these individuals can even avail of the jobs and academic opportunities provided to them by “reservation”. 

Moreover, the discrimination they face is not just a relic of the past. A recent National Crime Reports Bureau report showed how even major cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad have annual caste-related violence cases in the hundreds.  

It’s also not the case that discrimination ends after a job or admissions in an educational institution is secured. For instance, the Thorat Committee (constituted by the Indian PM) in its investigation of AIIMS – one of the foremost medical institutes in the nation – found that a whopping 72% of students belonging to marginalized castes and tribes experienced some kind of discrimination during teaching sessions. Even a 2011 ILO study reported practices like people from marginalized castes being forced to work, eat and drink at a physical distance from their peers. 

Before we look at what critics of the practice have to say, it’s important to dispel one misnomer. While caste and economic status are often closely linked, belonging to an upper-caste does not guarantee the absence of economic deprivation. You can belong to an upper-caste, and still be poor. 

Critics of the practice of “reservation” say that although the practice was put in place to provide some people with opportunities, it ends up excluding other people from the same opportunities, ironically, because of their caste. And losing out on an opportunity which you technically should be entitled to based on merit, can carry dire consequences for the futures of many.   

Critics also bring up how those who drafted the practice of “reservation” into existence had also intended for it to be phased out gradually, whereas to the contrary, the reverse has occurred – the practice has only gradually extending to include more and more groups. With newer forms of “reservation”, the percentage of opportunities set aside can hover around 50%, which can imply that a lot of people who could acquire the same opportunity on merit are unable to.  

Moreover, this practice is likely going nowhere, as the issue of “reservation” is often used manipulatively by political parties to secure support. In such an environment, it also becomes difficult to separate the authentic from the opportunistic. “Reservation” also gives those in power something to hide behind, allowing them to evade the difficult task of planning & executing more effective forms of reparations (e.g. providing high-quality education or financial support). 

I think it may be a slightly more tenable solution to engage in “reservation” based on economic criteria. This kind of “reservation” would naturally encompass various marginalized identities within it, while also allowing for much-needed flexibility in who benefits. The government has recently been taking steps in this direction with its proposal to include reservation for a new “Economically Weaker Sections” category. 

Next, let’s look at an area of inclusion that is often overlooked: Disability. It took the Indian Government until 1995 to pass its Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act. And it then took us till 2016 to then grant disabilities like Parkinson’s Disease, Cerebral Palsy, and Autism Spectrum Disorders recognition under the law.  

While a step like increased “reservation” for disabled people (as per the 2016 legislation) may be a step in the right direction, it is questionable what impact this decree will have. Another one of the government’s initiatives (“Accessible India”) was also launched around the same time and had been tasked with making buildings and transport more accessible. Therefore, I wonder how “real” these “reservation” opportunities, within a context that lacks the infrastructure to support the disabled from accessing them? It seems kind of like “window-shopping” – you can see the opportunity, but you can’t truly possess it. 

Here, it’s more the private sector that appears to lead the way with quite a few innovative initiatives. Some examples include Wipro Technologies integrating Braille signages, ramps, voice-enabled elevators, and wheelchairs into their workspaces.  Another example is the transport team at ANZ Bangalore being trained to communicate in sign language for their hearing-impaired peers. 

Lastly, let’s look at people from the LGBTQ community. As alluded to earlier, the perception of sexual minorities in Indian history has been a largely positive one. This is discernible, in part, from their positive depictions in art and mythology.  

It would be disingenuous to play the blame-game here with regards to colonialism since there were certain scriptures which may arguably be regarded as unfavourable to homosexuality, and by the Mughal era, “unlawful sexual relations” were punishable under Sultanate Law. However, the fact remains that colonial powers do have some role to play behind some of the troublesome ideas our queer community has been advocating against, such as the recently repealed Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. 

Despite the progress made so far, the community is still far away from complete legitimacy in the eyes of the law: same-sex marriages are still not legally recognized, nor are same-sex couples offered limited rights such as a civil union. Even the 2014, 2016 and 2019 iterations of the Transgender Bill had no mention of key aspects like marriage, adoption rights, and property rights. However, moves like a Haryana court granting legal recognition to a same-sex marriage involving two women is certainly a step in the right direction.  

The contradictory chasm between the two ends of the community’s lived experiences is wide – on one level they are still fighting for the legitimacy of their identity, on the other hand, there are also promising, forward-thinking initiatives being undertaken by more and more organizations. For instance, Godrej allowing same-sex partner medical insurance coverage, and all-gender restrooms at Cap Gemini offices. 

Which brings us back full circle to the idea of contradictions that we began with. All this brings to my mind something that the writer William Gibson said.  

“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” 

As bad as some things are, they co-exist with some great strides that are also being. The onus is on us to do a better job at distributing this “better future”, one that every human being deserves. 

Next week I’ll be sharing examples of organisations and individuals developing positive initiatives to create change to the challenges above as well as sharing details on some of the working partnerships we here at In Diverse Company are currently undertaking with companies in the region.

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