Tina Dabi, the IAS Topper this year, is gracious and calm despite the pressures of the moment. She has read Roald Dahl as a child, is most struck by Jane Austen now and watches The Big Bang Theory regularly. She topped Lady Shri Ram College, among Delhi University’s most prestigious, and earned the title ‘Student of the Year’. And this, after she scored 100 per cent in Political Science and History in the Class XII ICSE board exams from Convent of Jesus and Mary.
A story of “patience and consistency”, as the newest IAS officer puts it herself.
But then, this story is also about her mother Himali Kamble’s decision, despite being a qualified electrical engineer, to put her own career on the side and give her daughters the benefit of her “education and time… like a tapasya”.
The story of Tina Dabi is also one of deep and complex social change in India that has made her the first ever Dalit girl to top the UPSC examination. As Lok Sabha MP and ex-civil servant Udit Raj tweeted, this “would not have been possible 40-50 years ago”.
Tina’s parents, both from the Engineering Services, do not speak much about this but are not in denial of the enormity of the achievement, either. They are clear that it is the enabling environment created over years, through generations of struggle and grit, that made a Tina Dabi possible.
“I realise what a big and prestigious examination the IAS is. We have had a string of engineers in the family but she will be the first IAS,” said Jaswant Dabi, Tina’s father.
Jaswant’s roots lie in Rajasthan’s Dabi village and he recalls how his grandfather struggled to make a life for his children. Today, Tina’s father is one among several engineers in the family — his father is one, his brother, too. His “sister is an educationist and a younger brother in the Merchant Navy.” Based in Jaipur now, his father Nand Kishore Dabi worked with the CSIR in Pilani.
“The real struggle was waged by my father and grandfather who was in the military and left it soon. My father taught in order to be able to study and make money to fund my education. We have never forgotten all that,” said Jaswant.
Tina’s parents met through common friends and got married in 1989, with the rituals involving their home states of Rajasthan and Maharashtra. Tina was born in Bhopal, where her parents were posted then, and studied there till Class 7 before moving to Delhi with the family in 2005.
Is Tina aware of how this is a moment of phenomenal achievement for others in her community? Her passion, she replies, is gender. She argues how “the world over, it is gender which is the glass ceiling, and therefore I decided I would work in Haryana”.
At their home in New Delhi, Tina’s paintings done in Madhubani style stand as a tribute to their time in Bhopal, when her mother would take her to exhibitions. Himali would insist that her daughters Tina and the younger Ria buy craftwork worth “at least Rs 10-15” to help craftspersons and connect with them.
So was there any pressure from Himali for Tina to be like that character from the movie ‘3 Idiots’ and choose medicine or engineering? Tina laughs and talks of how her mother “recognised that I would be able to do much more in Humanities”.
“After two months of science in class XI, she urged that I move. Many people thought it was a strange thing to do, but I could do so much more and I think Humanities has made me a much more wholesome person,” said Tina.
Himali has no contact with her family’s ancestral village Pulgaon, near Nagpur, but says Tina is not the first topper in the family — her father Purshottam Madhavrao Kamble, too, had topped school.
Both her father and grandfather, “found the story of Babasaheb (Ambedkar) deeply inspiring”, says Himali.
“My father was thankful that we did not have to face any exacting circumstances, as my grandfather was a station master and my grandmother did everything to push all our siblings to work, study and defy our circumstances. I always remember their struggle and remember to be humble despite the success over generations,” said Himali.
Other senior Dalit officers, too, are conscious of the “history of the moment” even if it is being celebrated only in hushed tones on WhatsApp groups — no one sure of how openly it should be marked.
P S Krishnan, an ex-IAS officer and an activist on issues of discrimination and exclusion, says the message about brilliant people from discriminated backgrounds shining on pure “merit” is “not anti-quota”.
“It makes clear what removing obstacles and taking away roadblocks and difficulties can do. Cases like these inspire a lot as they are a testament to how meritorious deprived communities can be, and their innate talent shines and cuts through all issues… a sign of great success and possibility for Dalits struggling to break free of their circumstances,” he said.