Affirmative action policy has Indian origins

U.S. Blacks can learn from examples of discrimination beyond our shores

Sukhadeo Thorat
Sukhadeo Thorat

Discrimination — whether in America or his native India — is wrong, but despite established laws to the contrary it still goes on today in both countries, said a retired Indian professor.

Sukhadeo Thorat, a professor emeritus at New Delhi, India’s Jawaharial Nehru University and now Indian Council of Social Science Research chairman, spoke last week during a March 25 event, “Affirmative Action Policy in India: Origin, Nature and Issues” at the U-M Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

He told the student audience that affirmative action policies in education and employment were put into his country’s constitution as far back as the early 1930s. However, “Inequality does exist” in his country, especially among children, he stated.

“Children face discrimination in schools. School is the beginning place where there is discrimination,” noted Thorat, who also is a member of the Ministry of Human Resource Development in New Delhi.

He purported that a key reason why discrimination still exists in India is the centuries-old caste system, largely based on societal and religious beliefs and practices. “The caste system is a social constant, based on identity. It is not based on physical characteristics.”

After he showed a 2010 documentary on poor conditions in India, Thorat added that the caste system is even more prevalent among the poor: “There is a difference in the poor belonging to the non-discriminated, and the poor belonging to the discriminated.”

During the Q & A session, someone asked if this was because India was once under British rule. “The British opened up the public schools” and other equal opportunities in India, Thorat quickly responded. Despite the fact that anti-discrimination laws and policies are in place, “People are governed by habits…

“Discrimination is also practiced by educated people. Discrimination is a day-to-day phenomenon.” India needs a “strong [general] policy…where everyone benefits,” he suggested.

Thorat, in a MSR interview after his speech, further explained his key points. “India was the first [country] to have an affirmative action policy as far back as 1955,” he said, adding that it also was the first country to put it in its constitution.

“Other countries may have affirmative action policies in public employment and education, [but] no other country has [had] affirmative action policies in politics [since 1937], and that’s the most important.

“Under the law since 1955, discrimination isn’t allowed in the public sphere,” he reiterated, adding that it’s more prevalent in education and the private sector. He also listed the five groups of people or “caste” in India in the following hierarchy: Brahmin, Kashya (military), Vashya, Sudra and Dalit (“untouchable”).

“The social structure is deeply rooted, and it is not the problem with the government,” said Thorat.

When asked why U.S. Blacks would be concerned about people in India, Thorat said both groups experienced past discrimination and discrimination in “modified forms” today: “The Blacks were discriminated on the basis of race and the color, and we are discriminated on the basis of sociology,” he noted. “They should learn from each other…there’s a need for solidarity between the two [to] find some common understandings.”

“We have to look beyond our own shores,” said Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice Professor and Chair Samuel Myers when asked the same question.

Two of the event’s attendees afterwards told the MSR that affirmative action policies haven’t proved to be a quick fix: “There’s still huge disparities, which affirmative action both in India and in the United States was supposed to fix,” said second-year graduate student Stephanie Kobbe.

“I think problems in the United States aren’t just here…it exists all over the world,” added Katie Murphy, a first-year public health grad student.

Myers says he believes that President Barack Obama, despite being the country’s first Black president “has been hesitant” to speak on continual discrimination that still goes on in America. “It’s not just about him. He reflects a dominant view in American society,” surmised Myers. “[U.S.] discrimination policies are being politically assaulted.”

“Discrimination on any ground [should] not be tolerated,” concluded Thorat.

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