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A vicious circle

Last week, caste featured in the news on two separate occasions. First, addressing party workers in Varanasi, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi criticised those who play caste politics. Second, the Cabinet announced its decision to enumerate caste and religion as part of a below poverty line (BPL) census. Yogesh Atal writes.

india Updated: Jun 02, 2011 00:11 IST
Yogesh Atal

Last week, caste featured in the news on two separate occasions. First, addressing party workers in Varanasi, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi criticised those who play caste politics. Second, the Cabinet announced its decision to enumerate caste and religion as part of a below poverty line (BPL) census.

The enumeration for the concluded 2011 Census included caste. It will now be covered again as part of the BPL survey, costing R4,000 crore.

Why was the money not used to eliminate poverty instead?

Independent India pledged to eliminate caste and abolish poverty. But it tried to abolish poverty via caste. The result: neither of them disappeared. Caste, exploited for the sake of the ‘votebank’, has become a gateway to politics.

A Planning Commission pilot study covering 166 villages in 22 states says: “The findings reiterate the long-held hypothesis that Dalits are the most under-privileged sections of the population and the easiest marker of poverty.”

Caste, as enumerated in earlier censuses, was a confused category. Not knowing the exact boundaries of caste, people mentioned all sorts of designations — their place of origin, ‘gotra’ or even a family title. Thus, the 3,000 odd castes in 1931 census are a queer mix. The same is likely to be repeated this time.

Those already belonging to any of the three reserved categories will retain that status while others will gain entry either into the already included lists or in the lists of new claimants. Definition-by-others, needed to corroborate the claims of self-definition, will be absent.

This list of castes will become a tool of political empowerment, ensuring longevity of the system.

It is the 1931 data that became the basis for the preparation of the initial lists of scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST) in the 1950s. The list included 212 tribes. There were many who protested their non-inclusion in the SC category.

The government responded by setting up a commission under Kaka Kalelkar’s chairmanship to consider the claims and put the eligibles in the category of ‘backward classes’. Interestingly, the Kalelkar report was never put before Parliament as Kalelkar himself was opposed to the idea of using caste as a variable for backwardness.

Today, there are more than 700 tribal groups, several hundred castes in the SC category, an increasing number in the other backward classes (OBC) category while resource-rich agricultural groups are mounting violent agitations for inclusion in the OBC list.

Minority communities are also demanding to be included in SC and OBC categories originally meant to redress discrimination within the Hindu caste system.

The caste census was meant to help the colonial ruler understand the Indian social structure. Minority groups like the Muslims or the numerically strong SCs were largely seen in terms of the vote bank.

These groups, the Congress now feels, are drifting away from it. It is paradoxical that while there is a belated acknowledgment of this ‘menace’ of caste, there is also a simultaneous attempt at re-rooting it through the instruments of government.

BPL families are a subset of caste but the set of BPL families cuts across caste boundaries. The backward groups — ST, SC and OBC — were originally designed to eliminate caste distinctions. They’ve ended up fostering their solidarity, despite the loss of their original cohesiveness. All policies and programmes are re-rooting caste rather than uprooting it.

Ironically, we’re investing crores to ensure the continuity of caste politics that Sonia Gandhi publicly discards.

(Yogesh Atal is a sociologist and former principal director of Unesco, India. The views expressed by the author are personal)