Caste in Indian census will set clock back (Comment)

The renewed emphasis on caste via census operations does not bode well for India’s social and political stability.

That caste has been one of the most divisive forces for centuries has never been in doubt. Its segmentation of Indian society into various mutually exclusive groups, who in many places do not marry or break bread with each other, has enabled politicians in recent years to garner support by pitting one caste against another.

The result has been the emergence of parties such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) of the backward castes, mainly the Yadavs, and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of the Dalits. The earlier idea of a national party representing all sections of people has taken a back seat.

The impact on the political scene has not been beneficial because the outlook of these sectarian parties has mostly been retrogressive, as the SP’s opposition to computers and the English language shows. Besides, since the politics of these parties is based on fomenting casteist animus against the challengers, it isn’t surprising that the Dalit czarina, Mayawati, has alleged that the Congress’ heir apparent, Rahul Gandhi, washes himself with a ‘special’ soap after spending time with the Dalits.

It was to turn the country away from such narrow-minded exploitation of casteist prejudices that all great leaders of the past endeavoured to eliminate this baneful feature of Hindu society.

Whether it was Swami Vivekananda, who described Kerala as a ‘mad house’ because of its obsession with caste, or Mahatma Gandhi, who went on fast to eradicate the practice of untouchability – an integral feature of the caste system – or Jawaharlal Nehru, who described it as ‘reactionary, restrictive and barriers to progress’, the effort of all of India’s great men was to put an end to this disruptive social order.

If they failed, the reason, according historian Romila Thapar, was that the ‘social disparities’ in Hindu society were ‘legitimised through a theoretically irreversible hierarchy…based on a supernatural authority’.

Now, there is even lesser chance of the earlier endeavours being revived because the wheel is being moved into reverse gear. Curiously, this retrogressive step is being taken at a time when the diminishing potential of exploiting casteist sentiment to mobilise political support is becoming evident.

Mayawati, for instance, realised before the last assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh that dependence on the Dalits (the lowest in the Hindu caste hierarchy) alone would not lead to her to victory. So she constituted a so-called rainbow coalition comprising the upper castes along with her core group of lower caste supporters.

Similarly, Nitish Kumar has realised in Bihar that the backing of the backward castes has to be supplemented by a purposeful implementation of development projects in order to stay ahead of his rivals. It was Lalu Prasad’s inability to appreciate this fact that led to the RJD’s defeat after 15 years in power.

Yet, if the Congress is making the same mistake of boosting caste at the expense of forward-looking policies, it is apparently because it wants to keep on the right side for its parliamentary survival parties like the RJD, the SP and the Janata Dal-United (JD-U), another party of the backward castes, which have been in the forefront of the demand for including caste in census enumerations after a gap of nearly eight decades.

The attitude of these parties is understandable. Their vision is so circumscribed by their caste identity that they are incapable of taking a broad view. The Congress, however, is better placed because of its long history to appreciate the damaging consequences of legitimising the caste system by this latest move.

That the party has had second thoughts is evident from the decision to refer the matter of including caste in the census data to a group of ministers for consideration. Perhaps the realisation has dawned that the tabulation of an estimated 65,000 castes and sub-castes will cause an upheaval in the political system because of the emergence of new leaders belonging to these groups who will not be averse to using the familiar rabble-rousing tactics to gather support.

Votaries of the ‘caste in census’ proposal argue that these thousands of castes are not new ones. They were always there. Their identification, therefore, in the census records will only reflect the existing reality. But the OBCs (Other Backward Castes), too, were always there before 1990. However, it was the V.P. Singh government’s decision to implement the Mandal commission’s report on job reservations for them (which was kept in cold storage by the Congress) which made the OBCs a new political force in the country.

What is unsettling, therefore, is that this virtual explosion of castes via the census will put pressure on the government to undo the Supreme Court’s obiter dicta of keeping reservations in jobs and educational institutions for them to below 50 percent. Similarly, the demand will again be raised for extending the quota system to the private sector since the public sector will be unable to find room for so many castes.

The harmful effect of the fresh lease of life which caste received in 1990 is evident from the appearance of the khap panchayats with their approval of the killing of couples who defy caste rules to marry, and also of ‘honour’ killings by ultra-orthodox families for the same reason.

If the ‘caste in census’ proposal receives official blessing, India can bid goodbye to social and political harmony and economic advancement.

(29-05-2010-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)

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