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Satya Nadella (right), Microsoft’s new CEO, with founder Bill Gates. Photo: Microsoft Handout/Reuters
Satya Nadella (right), Microsoft’s new CEO, with founder Bill Gates. Photo: Microsoft Handout/Reuters

When diversity is seen as discrimination

The advantage upper castes hold over other Indians

This tragic story, a recent Reuters profile of one of JPMorgan’s bankers interested me. It began with the words: “Fifteen years ago, when Anu Aiyengar went for an interview to become a mergers and acquisitions banker at a major Wall Street firm, she got a stark, disappointing message.

‘You have three strikes against you,’ Aiyengar, who was born in India, recalled the interviewer telling her. ‘How can I hire you? You are the wrong gender, wrong color and wrong country.’"

She was, of course, the right caste. When a Brahmin, an Aiyengar no less, feels discrimination, we know we are in trouble. But happily, the story goes on to report: “Aiyengar, now a managing director at JPMorgan Chase & Co., is seen as one of the rising stars within the largest US bank’s M&A group, advising clients in sectors ranging from retail to industrials."

So it turned out well after all, no doubt purely through merit. I want to look at this idea of merit and ask what it is. My argument isn’t about merit in the workplace—of course one deserves to be where one is in a Western environment because that usually comes out of hard work and personal qualities.

This is about the push at home that children in the vast majority of our communities don’t get. I wonder if our upper castes realize the enormous advantage they hold over other Indians. So dominant and privileged, and consequently so visible, are they that outsiders conflate them with all Indians. It is one reason why foreigners think of “Indians" as being vegetarian while most actually aren’t.

When Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani interviewed PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi a few years ago for The Economic Times, she revealed where her drive came from:

“Nilekani: Your mother seems to be have been a huge influence on you, right from the days she prompted you to get 100% marks in Maths and all that...

Nooyi: That is typical southern Brahmin stuff. So there is nothing unique about that. I think that she was genetically programmed for that. The entire family focused on grades. When parents got together they only compared the report cards of their kids. Anybody who got together would say, ‘so how is your child doing’, ‘what rank’."

It may not be realized how uncommon this sort of parental pressure is. Most Indian children don’t get this push from above because the parents did not get it themselves and do not know it because it didn’t come down to them culturally.

This is the main reason why some castes dominate the professions. A segment on CBS’ show 60 Minutes examining overseas Indians a few years ago began: “The United States imports oil from Saudi Arabia, cars from Japan, TVs from South Korea and whiskey from Scotland. So what do we import from India? We import people—really smart people. And the smartest, most successful, most influential Indians who have migrated to the US seem to share a common credential. They are graduates of the Indian Institute of Technology."

And also the fact that they are from three or four small communities. To assume it is open to all Indians on merit is wrong, and we should examine this when Indian stars are streaking across the US. When Satya Nadella took charge of Microsoft, DNA noted that “the Nadella family, belonging to the Brahmin community, hails from the Bukkapuram village, Anantapur district".

A few weeks before that, Rakesh Khurana became dean of Harvard College. Khuranas are Aroras, one of the two outstanding Punjabi mercantile groups. The ministry of culture’s anthropological survey, People of India Vol XX (Delhi) tells us: “The primary and traditional occupation of the Aroras is business. They are active, enterprising and industrious and will try their hand at anything".

Last year, Business Today reported on Baniya professionals who were doing exceptionally well: “Anshu Jain is the CEO at Deutsche Bank and Ajit Jain is Warren Buffett’s favourite at Berkshire Hathaway. Nitin Nohria runs the Harvard Business School as Dean and Dipak Jain does the job at Insead."

Their individual qualities aside, and clearly all must be very bright to reach where they have, what did they inherit from their communities? In my opinion something tangible, and of great value, even if they cannot see it themselves.

A few years ago, at the height of the Wall Street crisis, an Italian man was home for dinner.

He complained to me angrily about how tough it was for white bankers like him, while people of colour could easily walk into a job on Wall Street because institutions wanted to be seen as being inclusive.

The centuries of privilege Europeans had meant nothing to him, and so far as he knew it, he was where he was on merit alone. To him, the idea of diversity itself meant discrimination against him, and I think many in our parts feel the same way.

Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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