Talking about Caste and Affirmative Action in India

During a day at work, my colleagues and I started talking about caste in India. The conversation started with people in the office claiming that castes did not matter in Indian society anymore. Furthermore, they said that people from “lower” castes even had an unfair advantage, since there are well-paid government jobs set aside for people of certain castes. One of our colleagues who belonged to the Brahmin caste claimed that they and their families were discriminated against by this system that reserved jobs and promotions for people from “lower” castes.

These points in the argument are strikingly similar to the ones I often hear in the argument about affirmative action in the U.S. and Vietnam. In Vietnam, there have been ongoing discussions about assigning bonus points on the national college entrance exam for ethnic minorities and students in certain rural areas. Since the exam is already extremely competitive, the extra points assigned to a group of students have resulted in others’ inability to gain admission even with perfect scores. Affirmative action in college admission has also been a major discussion point in the U.S. It is a difficult situation for both sides of the argument. While it is unacceptable that hard-working citizens are not fully compensated for their work and dedication, it is also necessary to address the injustices that certain groups have faced in the past.

While I do not have enough knowledge of Indian society and the present state of the caste system to fully join in the discussion, I think everyone can benefit from checking our own privileges and sympathizing with others. While my colleagues think that caste does not matter in India anymore, it might be easier for a Brahmin to say that than a Dalit. Although the caste system is outlawed in India, many people still report experiencing discrimination. On the news, there are reports and stories of Dalits facing discrimination in India and even after they move to the UK or U.S. The inter-caste marriage rate is low at about 6 percent. In our office, there is no one from a lower caste to share their perspective.

For me, my time in India has been a great opportunity to check my own privileges. Although I never think about the topic, there are certain benefits that come with merely being a heterosexual female of Southeast Asian descent. People never see me and hold on to their purses a little tighter or roll up their windows. I never get stopped by police anywhere. When I travel, I do not have to worry about how people in that country perceive homosexuality because I fit in with the norms of straightness.

I work with many young women at the company’s manufacturing base when I was doing my experiments. They are hardworking, curious, and awesome at problem-solving. However, they could not finish K-12 without having to worry about working to support themselves and their families. There were multiple times when I wondered what great things these young women could achieve if they were given more opportunities.

Mai Nguyen is a member of the class of 2022 studying Mechanical Engineering. This summer period, she in interning at Saathi Pads in Ahmedabad, India.