In early 1960s, at my college,
Syed Mubarak Ali, the Art teacher, and Devi Singh, physical training
teacher, used to be served food in white porcelain plates at teachers’
lunches while others ate in brass thalis. I thought it must be a reward
for their meritorious services; they were two of the most popular
teachers. Years later, the retired principal let out the secret: it was
an action in pollution control rather than recognition of their talent!
According to him, the brass/copper was good conductor not only for
transmitting electric current but also for pollution related to caste
and religion. If Ali, a Muslim (Mleksha) and Singh a Scheduled Caste
(Shudra) were served food in thalis, pollution of a Mleksha and a Shudra
would have passed on to other teachers; they could have resigned. So,
introduction of porcelain plate was a diplomatic solution: it avoided
offending other teachers and also retained the much needed two teachers.
I was left speechless at the genius of the scion of a family of
Chaturvedis (who had mastered all the four Vedas!)
In late 1960s, at one of Allahabad University’s hostels named after a
great Indian educationist, there was no ban on admission of the
Muslim/SC students if their marks met the criterion but the students of
these two categories seldom opted for this hostel. Once, a Muslim
student got admitted. On the very first night, during the harrowing
ragging session, the seniors set fire to his pubic hair; he ran for his
life without collecting his meagre possessions, never to return again!
An additional secretary in the MEA, on a trip to Hong Kong in late
1980s, won’t initiate a conversation with the first secretary as he
couldn’t figure out correctly what caste he belonged to. He rose to
become the foreign secretary and died in harness as the governor of an
A former young Turk of the Congress party, while serving as the governor
didn’t know what to talk to when he couldn’t make out the caste of the
Indian ambassador designate from his name. When his repeated insistence
on the full name failed to elicit the most vital information, an
exasperated Rajyapal Ji blurted out “OK, then, what is your caste?” He
rose to become the vice-president of India!
In 1980s, the vice-president of India (he later became the President)
who had graduated from the prestigious Cambridge University of UK felt
terribly uncomfortable in talking to the head of the Hindi Service of
BBC’s World Service during his visit to London when the Press Counsellor
couldn’t tell him in advance the caste of the interviewer!
On the auspicious day of Holi this year, after the time for throwing
colour and besmirching faces with gulal was over, one of the retired
ambassadors residing in the IFS apartments requested us to drop by for a
drink in the evening. Another ambassador, retired recently, had also
joined with his wife. While we were chatting about increasing cases of
rapes in Delhi, this ambassador turned to me and asked, “So, what is
Forty years after joining the IFS, I was puzzled by such a question from
a fellow ambassador. But to satisfy him, I told him my name as
mentioned in my passport.
Not contented, he said, “Let me rephrase my question, if you were to
give your full name, what it would be?” I replied, “This is all what it
will be; there is nothing more to add or subtract!”
Not to give up his single-minded quest, he added, “Then let me ask you
directly: what is your caste?” I couldn’t resist telling him tersely
that he reminded me of that AS (AD), the governor, the vice-president
& the President of India who were lost for words unless they knew
the caste of an individual and that I was wrong in imagining that 38
years in IFS with several postings abroad and the tolerant faith he
followed might have made him lose interest in the phenomenon of caste.
“Well, I wanted to know out of curiosity’, he responded.
Surprisingly, like that governor 20 years back, he showed no curiosity
about the fact that I was India’s ambassador in Libya for five years and
had met Col. Gaddafi more than 20 times!
After listening to thumris, dadras and kajris in soulful voice of
matchless Girija Devi ji at Azad Bhavan last month, I and my wife were
having dinner on the lawns with the renowned art critic, Shanta
Sarabjeet Singh. Another lady whose face looked familiar turned towards
me and remarked that she had attended some of IAFA events at the IIC
including the memorial for late Dr Abid Hussain. Then I realised, she
was the wife of a highly respected civil cervant who had spent nearly
three decades in the US with an international organisation. Suddenly,
this lady turned to my wife and whispered, “Is your husband’s last name
Kohli?” “No, it’s Kumar” my wife whispered back. “Kumar? So, what is
he?” she couldn’t suppress her curiosity!
Since India took the plunge in favour of economic liberalisation in
1991-92, a lot has changed in India for the better, contrary to the
claims of cynics and naysayers. We have a middle class bigger than the
total population of the US; cellphone owners number three times the
number in the US. From the stage of having to mortgage gold, the outflow
of investment from Indian firms today is higher than the annual inflow
of FDI. Though industrial production and economic growth have slowed
down, India is still one of the fastest growing economies. India’s IT
industry, especially software sector, is a force to reckon. With
demographic dividend on her side, India is tipped to be a major global
player in the knowledge society of tomorrow.
But what might trip India? Near total collapse of moral and ethical
values in day-to-day life, governance and management; insatiable
obsession with caste (those who claim that caste doesn’t matter to them
are simply being hypocrite and dishonest) and rampant corruption at all
levels of life. In the US and UK if you told your co-passenger in the
metro that you were from a business firm or a university, your
introduction was complete; conversation veered around the business firm
or the academics of that university. But in India, the mother of all
curiosities is the curiosity about one’s caste! Just have a look at the
matrimonial columns, some of the brightest young men and women coming
from IITs/IIMs and serving in lucrative positions are looking for
suitable matches from their respective castes! The sage who said: jati
na poochho sadh ki.. was wrong! He should have urged: jati hi poochho
sadh ki ...!!
Mera Bharat Mahaan!
The writer is a former secretary in the ministry of external affairs