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Caste, class and certificates

Politicians embellishing their qualifications reflects the changing nature of caste and its relationship with class. Historically, a graduate was simply assumed to be an upper caste.

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In many middle-class Indian homes, there is a cupboard in the front room —with dust-streaked sliding glass-doors—that is at once a proclamation of family achievement and a formulaic understanding of success. It is the cupboard groaning under the weight of trophies, medals, ribbons and various other ornaments of accomplishment.

The cupboard, also referred to as a showcase, and its contents are the most noticeable part of the room, invariably drawing visitors’ attention. Fading inscriptions on discoloured metal plates unevenly screwed on to wooden bases of trophy cups speak of debating competitions, egg-and-spoon races, cricket matches and ‘LLB Examination Topper’. Doors are hard to open—the sliding track is jammed with detritus—but the trophy cupboard’s significance endures undiminished. It symbolises the desire to be seen to have achieved. The form is important, the content irrelevant.

There is something of the trophy-cupboard syndrome when it comes to politicians and their education qualifications or, rather, their claims to it. The mushrooming of universities–both private and public—over the past decades has not translated into either a higher standard of learning or more employable graduates. There are many more degree-holders now but the value of the qualification is severely degraded.

New graduates are neither trained to be thinking citizens nor find jobs that are in consonance with their qualification. PhD holders competing against dropouts for a livelihood is an accurate reflection of the state of affairs.

However, like those trophies in the cupboard whose meaning lies in their acquisition, politicians continue to claim they are graduates or more. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union textiles minister Smriti Irani have faced questions over their education qualifications. Irani’s affidavit for the 2019 Amethi Lok Sabha election says she is not a graduate, which contradicts her earlier claims.

Another of Rahul Gandhi’s Amethi rivals Dhruv Lal, an independent, challenged the Congress chief’s nomination, claiming discrepancies in his citizenship and education status. Rahul’s nomination was given the all-clear on April 22. Delhi’s law minister and Aam Aadmi Party leader Jitender Singh Tomar lost his job and was even arrested for allegedly misrepresenting his qualifications.

Why claim academic credentials which, as a vast number of degree-holders will testify, have little value? What’s the lure of the credentials that at best serve as wall decorations? Why do politicians go to such lengths to present themselves as graduates in a system where degrees can be bought and sold? The first element of this charade is the changing nature of caste and its relationship with class. Historically, a university degree was a marker of class and a graduate was simply assumed—or expected—to be an upper caste.

In recent times, a larger pool of non-upper caste youth has got access to higher education and a formal degree has—not unsurprisingly—become a marker of self-worth and a way of rejecting the prescriptions of caste.

But, and this is important, it has not translated into rejection of caste identity. For an Indian politician, this would be a death wish. Rather, a formal degree—earlier a marker of privileged birth—has now come to show that it is possible to have a caste as well as a class identity. And, that a non-upper caste politician is worthy of being a leader of his community by virtue of that degree. So, a
marker of class is now important for gaining caste respect.

Secondly, there is the straightforward relationship with class. The privileged regard formal qualifications as a mark of intelligence rather than a result of historical privilege. So, being well-born carries enough merit and qualifications may not matter much for this group.

Some of our most privileged politicians either did not finish higher education or obtained qualifications that may be more in the nature of finishing-school credentials. But it does not matter. Blue blood is enough qualification. That rule, however, does not apply to the low-born. Hence, the desire to prove one’s worth through claims of a formal degree.

Finally, credentialism—the demand for and acquisition of degrees—has become an end in itself. We are a nation of ‘double MAs’ and university ‘gold medallists’ whose sense of prestige comes from the faulty logic of vacuous university bureaucrats. Credentialism too has a link to caste: we have been reared on a steady dose of hierarchical relationship between manual and mental labour.

Among all this, is there really a connection between a university degree and greater competence as a politician? Education is important but what kind of education? Can a politician with elementary education not learn on the job? Is a university degree holder less corruptible? Or, more open to thinking about gender issues and social inequality? On current evidence, certainly not.

The problem is not merely the fetishisation of university education and the fact that the rich and powerful ensure that their undeserving wards get into elite universities. If admission to the so-called Ivy League universities is any indication of innate talent, then the global business and political elite can easily lay exclusive claim to the intelligence gene pool.

A far bigger challenge is what the so-called fake-degree problem says about our education system. What we are faced with is a university system that supports—rather than questions—the prevalent value system. Our universities continue to churn out graduates with valueless degrees because of our false sense of prestige that demands them.

Our universities barely question the idea that human worth is primarily linked to a university education. Our universities are hardly the places to offer critical perspective on caste and privilege. Our universities rarely teach students to be wary of politicians who claim a university degree as a mark of prestige rather than a means to reason and eschew bigotry.

As in the claims made by the owners of the trophies in the cupboard, politicians’ claims of degrees reflect a larger mishmash of aspirations, uncritical deference to authority and struggles against (but also conforming) to the status quo.

The fact that politicians’ claims of earning a degree frequently prove to be false—or unverifiable—is also a damning reflection on a system that has degraded to the extent that it emboldens false claims. When degrees become as easy to get as a debating trophy, both their value and meaning as tools of social empowerment diminish. Degrees merely become inert objects in the barter of ersatz prestige.

Sanjay Srivastava is professor of sociology at Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi

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