Caste confuses me. Perhaps it’s because till I became a journalist, I had no notion of it at all. For most of us who were brought up on a staple diet of Nehruvian wisdom, you disowned caste much before you rejected institutionalised religion. It took graduating from the cocoon of liberal education and being thrown into the deep end of Indian politics for me to finally understand how insidious the influence of caste is in our country. I also had to confront the uncomfortable fact that I represented a privileged minority where caste often coincided with class. I could grandly say that caste didn’t matter to me, perhaps because I had never lived on the margins of socio-economic development. Nor had I ever known the prejudice that was the constant fellow-traveller of ancient social hierarchies.
Over the years — while my own personal disbelief in caste as a marker of identity has only got stronger — I have had to grudgingly accept that caste-based politics has forced a certain amount of egalitarianism into the political system. No matter how abhorrent Mayawati’s narcissism and dictatorial style may seem, there is no denying the fact that she has given the Dalit community a sense of proxy empowerment. Lalu Prasad’s deliberate country-bumpkin style may amuse the chatteratti but his initial success was based on identity politics. Yes, of course, much of this ‘empowerment’ has remained psychological, operating at the level of symbolism alone, and rarely translating into actual development on the ground. Yet, at least in the first flush of change, one cannot underestimate the value of historically marginalised communities feeling a sense of direct relevance in the political process.
The problem arises when caste-based politics becomes a short-cut for quota propaganda. Since V.P. Singh first rolled the Mandal dice to more recently, when Arjun Singh forced India’s best institutions into the quota regime, ‘equality’ has become a political euphemism for perpetuating reservations. And 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.
It’s also the reason why the two major political parties — the BJP and the Congress — are so divided on the decision to include a caste-count in the census but are too politically meek to come out and say so.
It’s trendy these days to quote J.H. Hutton, the commissioner of the last caste-based census in India who argued that the mere counting of castes did not necessarily strengthen its influence. But might we not want to remember B.R. Ambedkar instead? The architect of the constitution, whose name has been tragically re-branded for a twisted version of Dalit politics, is on record saying, “How can a people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation?”
Yes, caste is already everywhere. Yes, matrimonial advertisements obsess about caste, kangaroo courts in North India pronounce judgement on those who dare to marry outside their caste and even educated, urban Indians are still guilty of keeping a separate glass in their kitchens for their sweepers. So, should we legitimise the basis of prejudice by seeking to include it in the census? Unlike the men and women who won us our Independence and sought an India that would one day be free from such divisions of caste and creed, it appears we don’t even strive to the goal anymore. To include caste in the census — is to accept — that Modern India will frame policy based on caste, in perpetuity.
If the reality of caste-based divisions is enough of a reason to mainstream those differences, then — by the same token — why are we all so outraged when Congress MP Naveen Jindal argued that the sentiments of the khap panchayats deserve a fair hearing? Once you give a certain respectability to caste as a legitimate way to divide and organise people, it becomes impossible to pick and choose our outrage at caste-driven prejudices. The very act of a government official going door-to-door surveying people on their caste is a constitutional encouragement to divide ourselves on the basis of caste.
There’s also the strange “enumeration, not analysis” formulation adopted by the UPA after having reluctantly agreed to a caste census. If the stated imperative for the caste-count is to make social schemes more effective, then don’t you need to scrutinise the data for larger patterns? If the enumeration is based on ‘caste as declared’, how do you handle a possible scenario where — for argument’s sake — 70 per cent of India declares itself to be OBC? How do you then tackle the Supreme Court cap on quotas? If you say the court-sanctioned cut-off remains unchanged, despite the enumeration, what is the purpose of counting castes? The UPA has tackled most of these questions by postponing them and saying the “analysis” belongs to a later date and time. In that case, isn’t the very process of enumeration merely another act of political tokenism? In other words, here is another example of a policy decision that pretends to be about bringing the marginalised into the mainstream, but is really only about other political compulsions.
The truth is that the decision to include a caste-count in the census was pushed through in a hurry, and has hardly been thought through. Till just before the Prime Minister indicated his assent to it in Parliament, the Congress had, in fact, been divided on the issue. Pressure from the Yadav allies may have swung the pendulum in a certain direction. But it’s a path that could take India back by decades.
So, when the census official comes knocking on your door, do what Amitabh Bachchan did. Say: ‘My caste is Indian.’ I wonder, whether they have a separate column for that.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal