Rohith Vemula was “desperate to start a life”. That didn’t happen. But in death, the young Dalit student from Hyderabad may have given new life to awareness, if not conversations, about privilege and discrimination in India.
Here, and in most of the world, life can be an exercise in alienation if you’re not born into the right family. The discrimination (or privilege) starts from birth and is cemented by the time you enter your first playground and educational institution. Society, and governments, may pay lip service to the intent of leaving no child behind, but they consistently put the child’s social background and the family’s financial status before his needs and gifts.
Lucky is the child whose dreams are in sync with society’s expectations from him. Privilege is another name for this luck.
But the irony is that while the disadvantaged well understand their reality, the privileged have no idea about theirs. It’s like an invisible force. Ask any urban, upper caste, middle-class male executive or student the reason for his success, and he will invariably attribute it to his hard work. The fact that his birth might have something to do with it and that many factors and resources were in place long before he even began making his choices in life will rarely be touched upon.
Most of us crib about the sops given to minorities and rant against reservations. But how many of us ever consider how difficult it is for single women from the Northeast or Muslims, for that matter, to find good flats to rent? Or look around our workplace to see how much diversity there is in the employee base? We scold our cook for not being as efficient as the neighbour’s help without stopping to consider how lucky we are to have someone else cooking for us in the first place.
Perhaps it’s time for all of us to take the ‘Privilege Walk’. It’s an exercise that’s designed to unveil the distance between those born to privilege and those not. It starts with everyone standing in a straight line. The facilitator then reads out statements related to the participants’ religion, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and wealth, and invites participants to respond. ‘If you were ever stopped or questioned by the police because of your religion, take one step back.’ ‘If you have ever felt uncomfortable about a joke directed at your gender, take one step back.’ ‘If you can legally marry the person you love, take one step forward.’ ‘If you can buy new clothes or go out to dinner when you want to, take one step forward.’ ‘If you get time off for your religious holidays, take one step forward.’
By the time the questions end, there’s invariably a long distance between the privileged person standing at the front of the room and the one at the rear, whose steps back in the room are just a sad reflection of the many steps back she’s had to take in life.
Tired of stepping back, Vemula chose to step off. Isn’t it time we all took equal steps to level the playing field?