“Silence is Golden” is what I learned in my school but it’s not a coherent decision to consciously opt for silence when every new day 8-12 Dalit women (ladies belonging to the ‘untouchable’ caste) are raped in India. To stay apolitical on this contemporary issue is a matter of vociferous ignorance and ‘privilege of elitism’. The predicament does not stop here. The Dalit community, even in today’s century, continues to experience exploitation and discrimination in different forms, despite of the fact that the architect of Indian Constitution (Dr B R Ambedkar) was a Dalit. It’s assumed by the toadies of the ruling party that ‘casteism does not exist’, but little do they know that cowbelt states (Madhya Pradesh: 53%, Himachal Pradesh: 50%, Chhattisgarh: 48%, Rajasthan and Bihar: 47%, Uttar Pradesh: 43%, Uttarakhand: 40%) often practice untouchability or casteism willfully than other regional states in India. Majority of the caste-apologists here are Hindus, Sikhs and Jains. These findings come from a report (2011–12) by NCAER which conducted ‘India Human Development Survey (IHDS-2)’ across 42,000 households.
The buck does not stop in India alone. Wherever a Hindu travels, casteism inherently travels with his soul. A survey (2016) conducted by Equality Labs figured out that around 1,500 people of South Asian origin in the United States confirmed that Dalits often face various types of caste discrimination in South Asian American institutions. This discrimination ranges from derogatory jokes and slurs to physical violence and sexual assault. In the survey, around 26% of Dalit respondents said they had faced physical violence because of their caste while 20% reported discrimination at their work places. When it came to religion, 40% were made to feel unwelcome at their places of worship, the report said. And, 40% of Dalits said they had been rejected as romantic partners because of their caste. In all, 60% of Dalits reported that they had experienced caste-based derogatory jokes and comments.
Casteism is a social structure founded on the tenets of Brahminical hierarchy that determines the caste of a person based on birth and colour. On Wikipedia, it’s defined as “a form of social stratification characterized by endogamy, hereditary transmission of a style of life which often includes an occupation, ritual status in a hierarchy, and customary social interaction and exclusion based on cultural notions of purity and pollution.Its paradigmatic ethnographic example is the division of India’s Hindu society into rigid social groups, with roots in India’s ancient history and persisting to the present time.” It does not just openly exist in the rural areas of India, but it is also existing in meso and micro forms (even in urban areas) too. From separate utensils to casteist slurs, from arranged marriage systems to ghettos, casteism is horrendously and vociferously practiced. In fact, urban cities are known to be the ‘path of development and prosperity’ but unfortunately the very privileged ones residing in the non-rural spheres (not just on the realm of facebook and twitter alone) often condemn and scorn affirmative actions, inter-caste marriages (6% as per the 2011 census report, against the total population), compartmentalization and social equity, etc. A recent series ‘Indian Matchmaking’ on Netflix also tells how educated Indians consider caste to be an important parameter before tying the knot. To add to this woe, the Lok Foundation-Oxford University survey(2018) administered by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) ratiocinated that maintaining caste-based endogamy still remains an important feature of marriage in India. Interestingly, the report also found that lower caste communities slightly practise more inter-caste marriages or exogamy than the upper caste.
What astonishes me is why the international community, other than few UN reports on HR or some renowned NGOs, is unable to collectively call-out the issue? The epoch in India is presently infected with Hindutva nationalism and it continues to ‘otherises’ the minorities, including sexual minorities. Rape culture is something India conserves, excuses, and ignores when crimes are committed against women. It’s the system and the society that has vociferously failed to emancipate and free the Dalit community from a web of oppression. More than ever, it is brutally important to make people aware that casteism, not just caste alone, remains a bitter reality today that stimulates bigotry and sexual exploitation of vulnerable communities. Discussions around abolishing the caste system have been long ongoing. One seminal text is ‘Annihilation of Caste’ by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, written in 1936. Ambedkar was part of Jat-Pat Todak Mandal (Society For The Abolition Of Caste System), an anti-caste platform that challenged conventional societal norms and orthodoxy of Hindu Society. There is a dire need to think out of the box in abolishing casteism and freeing people from the age-old matrix of slavery. The Annihilation of Caste was a radical work for its time, and it continues to be, although it is not introduced in the exercises of parenting and schooling. The book’s theme revolves around the effect of casteism (as it matters for ‘untouchables’ like Ambedkar himself). The caste system is a conventional, misogynistic, and a very rigid social order that discriminates and exploits people, except the upper-caste (Brahmins), on the basis of birth, color, gender, identity, and community. It is proven that casteism lynches the very scope of social mobility, cultural emancipation, and freedom of individuality.Ambedkar sought to comprehend and thrust the inequality of casteism into the Hindu consciousness, to divulge social and economic inequality. This question or the social question of political reform is coupled with economic reform, thinking through the characteristics of ‘Indian’ society, but from the perspectives of Dalits. For Ambedkar, it is casteism that prevents a human being from practicing humanity with other humans and nevertheless deprives ‘segmented’ individuals in the hierarchy of caste from experiencing empathy and fraternity.
In 2016, a report on caste-based discrimination by the United Nations Human Right Council’s special rapporteur for minority issues Rita Izsák-Ndiaye irked the present Indian government. It was expected that the government would turn schizophrenic against the report. Her report quoted India’s National Crime Records Bureau data highlighting that there has been an increase in reported crimes against the Dalits by 19% in 2014 compared to the previous year. It mentions that despite prohibition through legislation, the state has institutionalised the practice with “local governments and municipalities employing manual scavengers”. Further, the SR’s report notes that casteism directly affects the health of the discriminated, citing an Indian study which “demonstrated stark disparities between Dalit and non-Dalit women in terms of life expectancy and access to prenatal and postnatal care”.
Buddha aka Siddhartha Gautama himself condemned and scorned the practices of casteism and untouchability in his discourses. He welcomed Hindu untouchables like Prakriti, Suneet, Uppali, etc in his sangha (community). The scripture ‘Majjhima Nikaya’ records it. Thus, it is a logical error to blame the introduction of casteism on Britishers alone, as assumed in today’s India, when casteism has been the core practice since ages. At the same time, currently, not just the academic textbooks of History, international communities too have ignored divulging India on circumventing caste-based massacres: Kilvenmani massacre (1968), Karamchedu massacre (1985), Dalelchak-Bhagora massacre (1987), Tsundurmasscare (1991), Bara massacre (1991), Bathani Tola massacre (1996), Melavalavu massacre (1996), Laxmanpur Bathe massacre (1997), Senari massacre (1999), Kambalapalli massacre (2000), Khairlanji massacre (2006), Mirchpur massacre (2011), Dharmapuri massacre (2012), Saharanpur violence (2017) and other individual cases that unfortunately experienced bigotry, rape and lynching. All these massacres stem from the cultural philosophy of casteism. There have been many cases of Dalits killed, beaten and abused for riding a horse, flaunting moustache, eating in front of upper caste, sitting on a chair, etc. It’s high time for the international community to call-out the culture of casteism that is practised in India and enshrine accountability over human rights violations on the global level too.
Meritocracy in the Age of Mediocrity
Authors: Ash Narain Roy and Sophia Thomas*
Meritocracy, political theorist Hannah Arendt famously says, “contradicts the principle of equality. Without equality, it is no less than any form of oligarchy.” Until there is equal opportunity for all, meritocracy will only be a facade. In the best global universities ranking in 2019, eight of the 10 best were American in terms of academic research, academic reputation, international collaboration, publication and citations. The US, thus, may claim to be an “aristocracy of talent”. In reality, it is what French sociologist Jean Baudrillard says a land of “utopia achieved”. In the name of meritocracy, inequality has grown. As President Obama said during his presidential campaign, “a strong middle class can only exist in an economy where everyone plays by the same rules from Wall Street to Main Street.”According to Oxfam, the richest 1 % today has as much wealth as rest of the world combined. The richest 62 people in the world have as much wealth as the poorest half of the total population.
Meritocracy is the new aristocracy. It is a myth perpetrated by the rich and the elite. Meritocracy as it is being practiced is a great delusion and a smokescreen for a system which is rigged. It is another form of plutocracy. Industrial sociologist Alan Fox poses a question rather succinctly, “Would you give more prizes to the already prodigiously gifted?”
Meritocracy has figured prominently in both ancient Western and Oriental political theory and practice. But the earliest practical example of meritocracy finds mention in ancient China. Daniel A Bell, author of The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, says that China has a long history of debates over political merits and a concept of “elevating the worthy.” Confucius and his followers saw worthiness in relation to morality.(Bell D. A., 21-23 May 2014)
China is known to have invented the civil service examination system. For over 1300 years, Bell says, public servants have been selected in China through the public service examination which is in line with Confucian tradition of meritocracy. As Confucius said, society should select those who are both virtuous and capable of public service. Bell describes China as a “vertical democratic meritocracy”. From Confucius to Mencius, there have been debates throughout Chinese history “how to select able and virtuous political leaders”.(Bell D. , 2015)
Zhang Weiwei, Fudan University professor of international relations refers to shangshangce, the best of the best which is the Confucian tradition of meritocracy whereby “competent leaders are selected on the basis of performance and broad support after a vigorous process that includes screening, opinion surveys, internal evaluations and various types of elections.”(Weiwei, 2018)
Plato in The Republic says, only a small number of people, the philosopher-kings are naturally suited to rule because only they are able to know how. They alone have the ability to make morally informed political judgements and the power to rule over the community. However, it is common knowledge how Athenian democracy later evolved into what Herodotus called, “the one man, the best”.
India’s has been a case of meritocracy trap. Its much-maligned caste system saw its worst perversion with Brahmins becoming a class with prerogatives and access to sacred knowledge. It perpetuated the presumed supremacy of one small group against the ‘inferiority’ of others on the basis of ancestry.
Age of mediocrity
Meritocracy in the age of mediocrity and reckless demagogues has become even more farcical. Today one sees an assortment of mediocrities all around. The educated members of government, parliament and bureaucracy appear too happy to submit before the autocrat. Voters across the democratic world too have remained ignorant despite rising educational levels.
Ironically, mediocrity in the post-modern world is new genius. With the rise of mediocrity, a bubble of mediocrity has been created and citizens have slowed down their aspirations. Mediocratic and demagogic leaders have patronized mediocrity and fraternalized sycophancy.
Technology and technological violence have resulted in our mediocrity and cultural-intellectual morass. As Adrian Chiles says, “long before the machines get too clever for us, we ‘ll all be too stupid for words.”.(Chiles, 2021)
This has prompted some scholars to go beyond meritocracy. Jason Brennan in his book Against Democracy argues that it is entirely justifiable to limit the political power that the irrational, the ignorant have over others. Plato had first articulated such a view.(Brenan,2017) John Stuart Mill also favoured giving more votes to the better educated. Some suggest extra votes for degree holders, a council of epistocrats, with veto power, while others prescribe qualifying exams for voters. From around 1600 to 1950, people in Britain who had college degrees, had an extra vote.
Is epistocracy the answer? Is it even desirable? What about those not qualified to be in power? Epistocracy is antithetical to democracy. Jennifer Senior, New York Times columnist, writes that 95 % of Representatives “have a degree. Look where that’s got us”. In the 17th Lok Sabha, lower house of Indian parliament, 394 of 545 members have at least a graduate degree which is almost three times the number of graduates in the first Lok Sabha. And yet, bills are often passed without much discussion and critical scrutiny. A few years ago, President Pranab Mukherjee asked lawmakers to improve the quality of deliberations, discussions and debates in the House, saying India can’t remain a role model to the world simply because of the size of the electorate.
As Mark Bovens and Anchrit Wille maintain, representative democracy has become “diploma democracy” ruled by those with higher qualification but to what good.(Bovens & Welle, 2017) Modern democracy has become vulnerable because of institutional weaknesses. Strong institutions and enlightened citizenry, not degree holder MPs, are the sine qua non of robust democracy.
Many political leaders, industrialists, bureaucrats and intellectuals owe their leading position to their bloodline. Michael Young argues how stratification “becomes inevitable in a perfect meritocracy. Each individual has an equal chance of becoming unequal.”(Young, 1994)
Another analyst maintains, any system which rewards “through wealth and which increases inequality don’t aid social mobility”.(Littler, 2017) Half the students of America’s 12 top universities come from the richest 10 % of families. Robert Reich, professor of public policy at University of California, Berkeley, says that 60% of US personal wealth is inherited.
Nearly two decades ago, The Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Golden wrote a series of investigative articles how donations and influence helped undeserving students to grab elite university seats at the expense of meritorious students. That practice has not only continued but become worse.
Nathan Robinson maintains that the college admission scandals “reveal the lies that sustain the American idea of meritocracy”.(Robinson, 2019) He further adds that there are three ways in which a rich student gets into top college or university. The front door is when one gets in on merit. The back door is “through institutional advancement”, often ten times as much money. The third way is through what he calls “side door” that is by paying bribes and faking test marks.
Infantilisation of higher education
There is another worrying trend what Frank Furedi of University of Kent calls “growing infantilization of higher education”. Referring to the practice of The University College, London, permitting students to leave class if they find historical events “disturbing,” Furendi says, “today one can’t teach the Holocaust without unsettling students.”
He further laments how universities which nurtured intellectual experimentation are today becoming conformist and censorial. Earlier university students “were treated as young adults, capable of independent living and learning”, says Furendi.Today, that distinction “has eroded as institutions of higher education have become reorganised around the expectation that their students require paternalistic support.”. Furendi further says that the infantilisation of higher education is based on the premise that “undergraduates are emotionally vulnerable and lack the psychological resources for the conduct of independent life.”(Furedi, 2006)
Educationist Jonathan Zimmerman echoes Furendi’s views. He argues that allowing administration to solve every problem infantilizes students and that time has come to wrest control of the educational process from an administrative bureaucracy. It is time to stem the rot or else colleges and universities will become courses in “self-infantilisation.”
In universities across Europe, often students are educated to accept ideas that don’t challenge them. They are also encouraged to adopt the role of “biologically mature school children.” In 2018, when Toby Young, co-author of What Every Parent Needs to Know, wrote a stinging comment on the state of British universities describing them as “left-wing madrasas”,(Young,2018) he was brutally attacked from all quarters including Higher Education Minister Charles Camosy. Even in Sweden, known for its egalitarianism, the academia is no model of meritocracy as it is plagued with an entrenched culture of cronyism.
In China and East Asian countries, teacher-student relationship is hierarchical. In China, teachers are seen as transmitters of truth and students as passive recipients of knowledge. Chinese academics have long believed that the task of the students is to learn about the world until 40 or so and only then try to critically examine the world. Several Western scholars have noted a big difference between in and out-of-class of Chinese students. As one scholar writes, often the Western teachers find “the deathly silence of students rather unnerving”. Even open-ended questions “mostly meet with no response.”(Biggs, 1999) However, such behaviour could be cultural. For example, asking question during a lecture is considered impolite and unrespectful.
Meritocracy is the new face of inequality.In fact, as Francois Crouzet argues, the “image of the self-made man as the mainstay of the Industrial Revolution is a myth.”(Crouzet, 2011)
Daniel Markovits, author of The Meritocracy Trap, sees meritocracy itself as a problem.It produces radical inequality, stifles social mobility, and makes everyone — including the apparent winners — miserable. These are not symptoms of systemic malfunction; they are the products of a system that is working exactly as it is supposed to.(Markovits, 2019)
About 140 million people in the US are categorised as poor and with low income. About 24 million people of colour, 38 million Latinos, eight million Asian-American, two million Native people and 66 million Whites fall under this category. Many Americans have argued that riches are the “fruit of industry” and that America must “honour the fruit of merit”. Such meritocracy is of course a false narrative and a plutocratic fraud. China may have evolved a sophisticated system of selecting and promoting political officials, involving decades of training and examinations at different stages of their career, but its much-touted political meritocracy too is anything but meritocratic. Meritocracy remains a dystopia.
The culture of mediocrity is growing. The alternative to meritocracy should not be to stick with the status quo. Thinkers like British Social Democrat R N Tawney argue that we must strive for “equality of result” and “democratic equality of condition.” David Civil, author of The Rise of Functiocracy, has come up with a formula:Social Need +Democracy=Function. Social need, he stresses, must be “democratically identified by the community as a whole.”. It, however, raises more questions than answers. American civil rights theorist Lani Guinier, author of The Tyranny of the Meritocracy,underlines the importance of “educating a class of students who will be critical thinkers, active citizens and publicly spirited leaders.” She lays emphasis on “democratic merit”(Guinier,2016) that measures the success of higher education “by the work and service performed by the graduates who leave.”
Meritocracy inevitably metastasizes into oligarchy.Yet, even a flawed meritocracy is far better than epistocracy, feudal aristocracy or Brahminical caste system. John Rawls provides an interesting alternative. He says, “those who have been favoured by nature, may gain from their good fortune only on terms that improve the situation of those who have lost out.”Working towards radical egalitarianism is the right model. Of course, that work is never done. It is like Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus—to struggle perpetually and without hope of success. As they say, sometimes it is better to travel than to arrive.
*Sophia Thomas is Masters in Public Policy and Governance from Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, India
- Bell, D. (2015, December 17). Chinese Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy. (E. Pastreich, Interviewer) Diplomat.
- Bell, D. A. (2016). The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy. Germany: Princeton University Press.
- Bell, D. A. (21-23 May 2014). On the selection of good leaders in a political Meritocracy. Third Nishan Forum on World Civilizations. Shandong University, Jinan, China.
- Biggs, J. (1999). What the Student Does: Teaching for enhanced learning. Higher Education Research & Development, 18(1).
- Bovens, M., & Welle, A. (2017). Diploma Democracy: The Rise of Meritocracy. Oxford University Press.
- Chiles, A. (2021, January 20). Never mind machines getting cleverer : Is technology making me stupider? The Guardian.
- Civil, D. (n.d.). The Rise of Functiocracy.
- Crouzet, F. (2011). The First Industrialists : The problem of Origins. University of Cambridge.
- Furedi, F. (2006). The Culture of Fear Revisited. Bloomsbury Publishing.
- Guinier, L. (2016). The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America. United States: Beacon Press.
- Littler, J. (2017, May 20). Meritocracy: The great delusion that ingrains inequality. The Guardian.
- Robinson, N. (2019, May 14). Meritocracy is a myth invented by the rich. The Guardian.
- Weiwei, Z. (2018, 03 17). Selection and election: How China chooses its leaders. Retrieved from https://news.cgtn.com/news/3341444e796b7a6333566d54/share_p.html
- Young, M. (1994). The Rise of the Meritocracy. Routledge.
Media, Democratic Politics and Citizen Journalism
Media plays a key role in liberal democratic regimes. There are many functions of media in enhancing democracy. Media freedom is essential to a working democracy as agenda-setting is one of the significant roles of media. There is a constant relationship between the ruling elites and those governed in democratic countries. Public opinion is shaped in this process of interaction. The main tool of this relationship and interaction is the media.
Media is seen as the “fourth estate” in modern democracies. It acts as a “watchdog” for state affairs. The media coverage of issues—why and how they have emerged, why they are important for influencing people’s understandings of political and social reality – is very important in agenda setting (Blumber, 2015)
Journalism serves various democratic functions such as giving information, making investigation, providing society a public forum, and democratic education (Schudson, 2014). Ruling elites need media support in order to be able to create effective public support. The Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci’s (1971) conceptualization of “hegemony” states that rule must be based on both coercion and consent. Thus it can be said that media has a major role in providing a solid ground for consent.
Historically, the press has been an indispensable building block for a democratic regime. In a democratic regime, the media actors must provide a basis to the public that will enable the free expression of thoughts and opinions, the freedom of criticism of every institution and organization, including political power-holders. It can be said that, media discourse plays a key role in shaping the dynamics of the relationship between governments and the masses. Media through using a discriminatory or even stigmatizing language can undermine the legitimacy of certain actors while stressing the positive features of other actors to make them have legitimacy in the eyes of the masses. The powerful actors such as elites shape news discourse by setting time and space, agendas, participants, and news language. It is known that, the media is generally under the influence of diverse ideological forces.
In the course of time, with changing dynamics including technological advancement, democracy and media relationship has changed too. After 1945, a new type of democracy emerged. John Keane (2009) calls this as “monitory democracy”. If assembly democracy is linked to the spoken word, today’s democracy [monitory democracy] is linked to the digitalized societies.
It can be said that, in the age of globalization, the media structure has transformed. This transformation has an impact on democratic politics as well. In this new era, digitalization is on the rise and this is a major factor paving the way for citizen journalism. Citizen journalism is conducted by people who are not professional journalists. These people disseminate information using web sites, blogs, or social media platforms such as Twitter. Citizen journalism is also known as network journalism, and Web 2.0 journalism and it makes reference to the shifts in the nature of news and the media professionalism in a general sense. According to Chris Atton (2003) citizen journalism presents a “radical challenge to the professionalized and institutionalized practices of the mainstream media.”
The monopolies that constitute an obstacle to the freedom of having access to information erode democracy. However, citizen journalism offers small-scale, decentralized and interactive communication tools to ensure the freedom of having access to information and this empowers democracy.
As final remarks, it can be said that, the developments in digital communication have facilitated the proliferation of small companies and citizen journalism practices in the environment which once was dominated by a more rigid structured media sector. The developments in technology have attached a major importance to social media. The advent of new technologies and grass-roots media tools has created a significant shift in collecting and sharing information. Citizen journalism as an alternative form of news gathering and reporting is conducted outside of the traditional media boundaries. The technological improvements created a new platform for both news makers and news consumers. Thus, citizen journalism made the access to news easier and cheaper. Moreover, the global crisis like Coronavirus pandemic has shown that digital news consumption has become more critical and this ultimately increased the importance of citizen journalism.
- Atton, C. (2003), “What is ‘alternative journalism’?” Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism 4, No. 3: 267-400.
- Blumler, J. G. (2015), “Core Theories of Political Communication: Foundational and Freshly Minted” http://commres.net/wiki/_media/comt12077.pdf (Access Date: 24.1.2021)
- Gramsci, A. (1971), Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Translated from Italian by Hoare, Q. and Nowell Smith, G. London: Lawrence and Wishart.
- Keane, J. (2009), The life and death of democracy. London: Simon & Schuster.
- Schudson, M. (2014). “How to think normatively about news and democracy”, In: Kenski, K, Jamieson, KH (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Political Communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
An Analysis on Marshall McLuhan’s concepts
Marshall McLuhan is an important scholar who has made major contributions to communication discipline through introducing new concepts like “global village” and “medium is the message”. It can be said that ideas of McLuhan can be applied to new technologies and social media discussions today.
McLuhan introduced the idea of “medium is the message” in his book called Medium is the Message that was published in 1967. According to McLuhan, what is said by the message is not very significant. The media actors which can be regarded as the medium hold a more major influence on the masses than the message it presents.
The medium (or media in other terms) does not only have the role of being the carrier of the message but it is also the message that shapes people’s views and perceptions (McLuhan, 1967). McLuhan, based on the idea of “medium is the message” gave examples to support his claim in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man published in 1964. According to McLuhan, the content of any medium is always another medium. For instance, the content of writing is speech; the written word is the content of print; and print can be seen as the content of the telegraph (McLuhan, 1964).
Another important concept coined by McLuhan is “global village”. This concept was introduced in the 1960s to say that mass media will spread all over the world and make the world become a global village (McLuhan, 1962). According to McLuhan, the electronic interdependence of today’s world produces a world in the sense of “global village”. The global village has been created by the instant electronic information movement according to McLuhan.
McLuhan believed in the usefulness of communication technologies. One of the most important emphases McLuhan made was about drawing attention with his findings about the global communication revolution. According to McLuhan, TV has been a critical invention that ensures that nothing remains a secret, and that eliminates privacy, and he believed that the change of societies is possible with the development of communication tools in various forms. McLuhan made one of the most important predictions of the 20th century. This was the Internet.
In contemporary world, social media is used by millions of user all over the world. New technologies have turned the world into a “global village” Although McLuhan said almost 60 years ago, his ideas about media (medium is the message) and the “global village” concept are still relevant today.
- McLuhan, M. (1962), The Gutenberg Galaxy: The making of typographic man. London: Routledge.
- McLuhan M. (1964), Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man by Marshall McLuhan, McGraw Hill
- McLuhan, M. (1967). The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. London: Penguin Press.
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