Monday, May 17, 2010


The Great Caste Census Debate is on. Many of those who have an opinion on it have been almost untouched by the realities of caste in their own lives. So, before I start expressing mine, here is an admission: I have been personally touched by it, but only a little. I have not faced discrimination, but have seen others who have. I must also reveal right here that I vehemently oppose the move to carry out a caste based census. If you have have a closed mind in favour of the what I believe will be a long term disaster, read no further.

Till VP Singh unleashed Mandal in 1990, all I knew was that I was a Brahmin. I knew little about other castes except the shudras whom I had seen as a child carrying human excreta on their heads. I had also then heard that they were not be touched physically, were not allowed inside homes and that no social interaction whatsoever was permissible with them. But, I also heard that sex with shudra women was not only not prohibited but was to indulged in as it protected one against leprosy; they were untouchable too but not when needed for sex. Unlike some of us who have witnessed or heard about these and similar stories of caste discrimination from family or friends, I am strongly against any division or discrimination on the basis of one's birth. To me people of all castes are equal. I abhor any caste discrimination and believe that this has been the one single feature of Hinduism in practice that has sapped the religion of its vitality and one that clashes with the very basis of Sanatan Dharm: Vasudev Kutumbakam - the whole world is one family.

The sudden decision of the government to agree to a limited caste based census that will count the number of OBCs, in addition to SCs and STs, manifestly as a result of a petty and immediate political trade-off with the two powerful Yadavs, Lalu and Mulayam, has, not surprisingly, raised a storm, but only a small one considering that a fundamental, irreversible change is going to be unleashed on the people of India. Defenders and opponents of the move are, as happens most of the time, playing with words, history, political expediency, even caste affiliation, to support their arguments, some of which are absurd, even illogical.

Among the many who have written on the subject, I have picked the views of five, three of whom support caste census. It is an arbitrary selection but I think it broadly covers the main points that have been made in the media and elsewhere. Of course, as you would have guessed by now, I am going to use their arguments to support my own view. That may look like a devious and indolent way of going about this task. But, is there a better way for the millions of us who are not well versed with subject but want to know whether this move is in India's interest? So, here goes.

"The decision to, in principle, enumerate caste in the Census is a monumental travesty," says Pratap Bhanu Mehta."The premise of enumeration is that we can never escape caste. The state has legitimised the principle that we will always be our caste." This is the fundamental point which is being lost sight of by those who say casually that since caste is a reality, the census only recognises it. The harsh truth is that caste based enumeration is only going to play into the hands of those for whom "social justice is endless stratagem to assert the power of compulsory group identity, rather than finding the means to escape it." "In the name of breaking open prisons, they imprison us even more... caste census is the basis for a self-destructive politics...mobilisation will take place only along caste lines."

Barkha Dutt believes that caste based politics has become "a short-cut for quota propaganda...‘equality’ has become a political euphemism for perpetuating reservations," and adds with good effect the unpleasant fact that "reservations, as we all know by now, are the perfect way for a State to abdicate its responsibility to its poorer citizens — substituting real deliverables with ineffective largesse"

The tall architects of our constitution recognised that the India of the future had to free itself of the caste chains that had had tied it for long. As Dutt notes in her piece, even Dr BR Ambedkar had asked “How can a people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation?” However, they also recognised the social burden that had been borne primarily by dalits and tribals for thousands of years. Therefore, with a view to eradicate it, they incorporated reservations for dalits and tribals as a temporary measure only, to speed up their empowerment. They were fully alive to to the fact that permanent reservations on the basis of caste would only perpetuate age old divisions and prejudices in society.

Unfortunately for India, the arithmetic of elections combined with the absence of tall leaders with a similar vision for India has ensured that not only have reservations for dalits become all but permanent, we now have reservations for OBCs - implemented out of the blue for petty political gain by VP Singh without any demand from anyone and without consulting anyone either. That move not only almost manufactured a demand but has also given rise to more demands on similar grounds.

Yogendra Yadav's defence of caste census starts where the objections of Mehta end. Yadav cleverly skirts them. "What about objections on grounds of principles? There is an understandable unease about giving caste primacy in public life. But it is unclear how counting of the OBCs is in this respect qualitatively different from counting the SCs and the STs. We have done this for more than half a century." So, the OBC in Yadav tells the nation that just because we have deviated from the original vision of ushering in a modern, 'casteless' society, it is perfectly fine if we screw up this foundational principle even more by counting OBCs too. He agrees that this will have the effect of making caste boundaries even more rigid but, unlike Mehta and like the two powerful Yadav politicians who have forced the issue, he is more concerned about short-term gain for some rather than the long term damage to India: "It is true that official enumeration of any category tends to solidify its boundaries a little more than would be the case otherwise. But this subtle and long-term cost has to be weighed against the most evident and short and long term cost of official non-recognition of categories that everyone operates with."

Yadav also dexterously side-steps the next logical question about a full caste census by saying that although there are good arguments in its favour, "we may not be ready for it at this stage of the current census operations and national deliberations". In a subsequent rejoinder to Mehta's article, Yadav changes even this view and opposes a count of all castes on the "question of principles" which he fails to elaborate. Mr Yadav, if "politicians have always had access to caste-community composition of their constituencies" then where is the need for a formal census for OBCs at all and what can be the objection to counting the remaining castes too? Also, were there any "national deliberations" before Lalu and Mulayam blackmailed the government almost overnight to agree to an OBC count? Should such a count not have been done before VP Singh sprang the forgotten Mandal report on an unsuspecting nation?

Yadav would also like us to believe that once caste "is allowed normal play, it achieves partial success, is made to run against other divisions and ends up either redefining itself or building alliances or simply exhausting itself. The spectre of caste disappears when it is treated as a routine fact of politics." Has he already forgotten how the spectre of caste has only grown since the OBCs were given reservation and is now in danger of going almost viral across religions? He also knows well that no matter how prosperous and empowered a caste becomes, it will keep enjoying the benefits of reservations; an entitlement once given has not been and cannot be withdrawn. Some people can really travel in search of justifications for a view point. Also, built into in Yadav's stance is his acceptance of the danger that reservations will become irreversible, that India will remain divided by caste forever. That is, if anything, a scary thought.

Cleverly, Yadav also tries to present opposition to this increasing division of India socially and politically along caste identification as an unfounded fear harboured by liberals who are far removed from caste. Why should he even mention that what is being done is also exactly the opposite of what our founding fathers had visualised? Why should he remind us that for hundreds of years social reformers and spiritual leaders have been trying to remove the sting and stigma of caste from society because they realised that it is a social phenomenon that has hung for long over society like a curse? He surely knows that even they have succeeded only partially. Yet he wants us to accept his argument that caste might actually disappear if it is allowed to have its normal play! Will anyone in his senses believe that Laloo Yadav and Mulayam Yadav were motivated by such lofty considerations when they ambushed the UPA and held it and India to ransom in full public view in broad daylight? They have not pushed for a caste census to cast off the comfort of caste that they are enjoying.

Sagarika Ghose mirrors the dilemma in the minds of most untouched-by-caste educated Indians about the need for having a casteless society and a caste census at the same time. "Should caste matter to a modern Indian? Of course it shouldn’t. Yet, whether we like it or not, caste is still a defining category. Unless we all understand and study caste, we will never be able to fight it or develop a genuinely anti-caste mindset." Ghose wants to study caste to fight and eradicate it. Her vision of India is in the right place. But she has allowed herself to be trapped into believing that a caste census is only going to help us "know the enemy". Counting numbers and studying are not synonymous. There is a touch of naiveté in her reasoning that "a caste census should not be seen as simply a political instrument designed to secure quotas." What else is it being seen as by those who are asking for it? In fact it is going to be seen as much more and put to much worse uses by our politicians who are already milking caste and other identities increasingly to divide and marshal Indians, but not as Indians, to acquire disproportionate political clout that our flawed model of democracy enables them to. But, like many others who have been taken completely by surprise by the sudden move to have a caste census, she too has been seduced by the specious argument that not having such a census equals denial of the existence of caste. "If we continue to act as if caste does not exist, or deny its existence, we would be failing to do battle with one of the most urgent social inequalities of our time."

The most perplexing and, to my uneducated mind, bizarre argument in favour of the census has been put forth by Shiv Vishvanathan. And that hits you only after you read the last paragraph. Concludes Vishvanathan: "Let us face it, the great reform movements of India were not the modernist, communist, socialist or liberal democrats. The great reform movement was the Bhakti tradition. Nanak, Kabir, Mirabai did more to dent caste than the 'Communist Manifesto'. Once one realizes the wisdom and potential of this, the ironies of caste become more obvious." I can’t think of a better argument against any political move that solidifies caste boundaries once again, much less from a sociologist who knows that "caste can be a procrustean entity" and that "it is the protean nature of caste, its adaptability and inventiveness that we have to grasp." But he does precisely the opposite and casts his vote in favour of a caste count, knowing fully well how our politicians are going to utilise whatever data is thrown up. "One has to move caste from its locus in a moral economy to location in a political economy," he says. I can't figure the logic.

More than 500 years ago, when caste boundaries were extremely rigid and defined and limited almost all aspects of life, Guru Nanak, Kabir and others spoke up against the caste system and asked their followers to shun it completely. The Golden Temple in Amritsar was built with entrances on four sides to signify, among other things, that God's abode was open to all the four varnas without any discrimination, that they were all equal in His eyes. These Gurus and saints did not know that centuries later in an independent India, so-called modern and educated Indians would reconstruct the very walls they had tried to demolish and push people back into their rigid caste identities, giving fallacious, even dangerous justifications. For some of the 'justifiers', honesty is a useless, ornamental appendage that they remove whenever political expediency demands that of them. That is one reason why India has got into a vortex driven by conscience-free considerations of the moment without a care for the price that will have to paid by the nation.

What "realities" of caste are we talking of glibly now only to enable dishonest and devious politicians count their sheep so that they can shepherd and exploit them for their narrow, immediate gains? Why are we forgetting the teachings of our gurus and saints who saw the evils of the caste system? Why are we shutting our eyes to the wisdom and vision of the founding fathers of this nation who dreamt of an India liberated at last from the clutches Of caste? Why are we allowing dishonest political midgets, including and particularly ones with high IQ and higher education, to ruin the future, the idea of this nation just so that they can hang on to power, so that some of them can plunder India for a little longer?

Castes are not going to disappear if they are not counted. But if the count is done, as now is almost certain, they are going to re-appear in the socio-political fabric of India in a disruptive, divisive, destructive manner that will strike at the very idea of India as a modern, progressive and, above all, united nation ready to take its place among the great nations of the world in the 21st century. The price of moving back in time just for the benefit of those who see not India but their own little clans, castes and religions is going to be heavy and its effects long lasting. India cannot afford such an enormous mistake. It is time to for us to look forward and build a new India that is ready for tomorrow, and not recreate one that needs to be consigned decisively to the pages of history.