Outlook India 2010-07-05

Counting Backwards

We are trapped in a caste cage 60 years after independence, but we still seem eager to lock ourselves further—in the divisive politics of caste. So intense are the feelings across the political spectrum for reintroducing a caste-based census that most parties (except caste-based ones) are divided on the issue. Every politician who supports caste enumeration swears that caste is a reality in our country. True, that reality cannot be denied. But the question is whether we want such divisions to gather strength. Don’t we want an Indian identity that’s beyond caste to evolve? Look at what cricket has done for us. Do we have quotas in our cricket team? Or look at Bollywood. Nobody asks what religion or caste the big stars or directors belong to. Nobody even cares where they come from. Open competition in Indian cricket and Bollywood has resulted in the best talent coming to the fore—as Indians first and last. So it’s not as if Indians do not look beyond caste; they do, and indeed feel proud about what could be called a pan-Indian identity. The last few weeks have seen the announcement of the results of various examinations—from school-level board examinations to entrance tests to the IITs and IIMs and the civil services examinations. Many who figure in the top ranks have made it through talent and hard work, without availing themselves of caste-based reservation. The Super 30 group of Patna has put all its trainees—most of them from poor backgrounds—into the IITs. It’s focused coaching that has helped them. Does it not show that what is needed is the right education and the right environment? Over the years, caste-based quotas have increased and are pushing the 50 per cent limit set by the Supreme Court. The Congress and some other parties are even calling for religion-based quotas. These tendencies are bound to get rooted in the political landscape once the census enumeration becomes caste-based. Divisive agendas will tear the national fabric apart. And as political parties compete, caste data will be used as a weapon. The danger of this sort of politics is that it congeals caste into something permanent, for privilege—such as job and college quotas—will accrue only so long as one retains one’s caste identity. There will be no incentive to break away from that mould. Affirmative action is a necessity for peoples who have suffered social discrimination for ages, like the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. It is also important to remember that caste issues are often conflated with untouchability, which is unacceptable in any civilised society. There are enough examples from both history and mythology to prove that caste was never a static phenomenon. There was sufficient room for inter-caste mobility. None of the gods—Rama, Krishna or Buddha—or our rishis—Valmiki and Vyasa among them—are known by their caste. Shivaji and Hemu, both from humble origins, were accepted as rulers. The royal Scindias of Gwalior and the Wodeyars of Mysore are “backwards” by the present classification. This glaring contradiction only underlines the extent to which the present interpretation of the caste phenomenon is disconnected from the reality that existed in pre-British India. The present distortions in the caste system have their origins partly in British imperial policies and the divisive politics pursued by so-called “secular” politicians like V.P. Singh. The British were shaken by the joint struggle put up by the Hindus of various castes and Muslims during the 1857 uprising. A commission of inquiry followed. Lord Elphinston, the then governor of Bombay, sent a note to the commission that said: “Divide et impera was the old Roman motto and it should be ours.” The then secretary of state, Sir Charles Wood, in a letter to the viceroy, Lord Elgin, said: “We have maintained our power by playing off one part against the other; and we must continue to do so. Do what you can, therefore, to prevent all having a common feeling.” Following this paradigm, the British introduced a caste-based census in 1871, a practice discontinued in 1931 following widespread public opposition. The British exploited and widened caste and religious divides to perpetuate their empire. Thanks to increasing urbanisation and industrialisation, space for caste has been shrinking in social and economic life since independence. Especially over the last couple of decades. But against that positive development, efforts are on to put the clock back. With the idea of India being sought to be dented by many forces from without and within—from the jehadis to Naxals—the question is whether we should declare to the world and to ourselves that we are a people organised along caste lines rather than as a single integrated economic and emotional force wedded to pluralism and democracy?