That Tina Dabi has topped the civil services examination at age 22 is an extraordinary achievement. Her success is about individual excellence, but it is about more than that. The powerful symbolism of a Dalit girl topping the IAS list must not be ignored. To be sure, her middle-class background — both her parents are engineers — may have relatively insulated her from the social and economic oppression a majority of Dalits in India are forced to endure and eased her pursuit of success. Yet, Dabi’s journey can become a source of inspiration for scores of students from underprivileged castes and communities — to fight prejudice and win against all odds. Symbols have the power to move people, to motivate them to break the limits set by history and society. Symbols can empower communities in unexpected ways. Mahatma Gandhi and Babasaheb Ambedkar recognised well the potential of symbols and used them astutely to undergird their respective emancipatory visions.
Even as we celebrate the symbolic resonance of Dabi’s achievement, this is also a moment to remind ourselves of the structural constraints that still hold back others like her. Systemic discrimination and institutional infirmities continue to prevent a large section of India’s population from realising its true potential. Despite the long history of social justice movements and constitutional safeguards, caste inequality remains an inescapable reality. Its dominance as a social institution may have diminished over the years, but caste continues to manifest itself as an instrument of power, including in the state’s institutions. The case of Rohith Vemula, who took his own life after what was, by all accounts, a tortuous battle against institutional discrimination, is telling. It was only the latest reminder that there remains a larger battle to be fought against deeply entrenched and routinised prejudices. Solitary success stories, however heartening, become meaningful only when they help build the momentum against the injustice and biases embedded in society. Dabi must not remain the exceptional hero. Her story must help open up greater possibilities of change.
Significantly, the second rank in the UPSC examination has gone to a Kashmiri Muslim. Athar Aamir ul Shafi Khan’s success is a welcome departure from the dominant Kashmir narrative about alienation, violence and oppression. As in the case of Dabi, this country needs many more stories like his.