Foreigners in their own country

It is said that the past is a different country. Mukul Kesavan makes a point about how in this country, there exist different countries in the present, and not just in the past:

Walking my children to their school in Brooklyn some years ago, I met panhandlers asking for money at the corner of every block. My technique was to either ignore them or to hurriedly give them change and move on. The natives did things differently; they stopped, exchanged greetings, and only then did money change hands. A fraternal acknowledgement of a poor man’s humanity doesn’t come naturally to desis. This has everything to do with the exclusions of caste. The caste system is distinguished from other forms of social differentiation not merely or even principally by its endorsement of inequality; what makes it unique is its ideological hostility to fraternity.

In India, the poor and the privileged, even those who are modestly middle class, aren’t divided by class; they’re divided by a line of control. The poor, to adapt L.P. Hartley’s famous first line, are another country. It’s a country that we write about or help make policy for — if we’re feeling curious, generous or charitable. Our concern is frictionless because their country and ours might be adjacent but they’re sealed off from each other. It’s only when this line of control is legislatively breached, when people not-like-us have to be admitted into our country, that we find reasons with which to repair the breach. Thus every episode of affirmative action in our history has been met with arguments from merit, arguments against a pernicious ‘creamy layer’ and now an invocation of the ‘real’ problem in Indian education, the reform of the state schools.

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