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Get under society’s skin

The reason that people of ‘higher’ caste origin perform better lies in their environmental advantages, which range from the fields of education, socialisation to economic well-being, writes Gail Omvedt.

india Updated: Apr 20, 2007 00:05 IST

The Supreme Court’s recent decision and reiteration to stay the order regarding OBC admissions until accurate data is available has brought forth the expected reactions. Defenders of ‘equality’ won by ignoring caste are hailing it; proponents of reservations are trying to put on a brave face. But in one way, the decision is helpful: the Supreme Court has given cogent arguments for the need for information to underlay policy. However, what many of the opponents of reservations may not appreciate is that this brings up squarely, once again, the argument for a caste-based census.

The demand for this is now rising, and the Congress has issued a statement rejecting such an option. Why it has done so is hard to understand. If getting information about caste is ‘divisive’, then so is trying to remedy the situation. How do we remedy it without really good information? There is no adequate answer to this question.

Many Indians opposed to a caste-based census have for years argued the issue in terms of divisiveness. Some have even made wild projections of chaos, violence and fragmentation. Yet, for decades, the United States has had not only fairly far-reaching programmes of affirmative action, but also a race-based census: people are asked their race, and do not consider this an insult. The policy has not led to chaos and violence, but rather has provided the foundation for efforts to remedy the situation.

In the 1960s, the US did have a certain amount of violence, with ghetto rebellions, fights with the police and uprisings of angry young Black men and women. The situation was too extreme to ignore; instead, policy decisions were made. Now Blacks have penetrated more fields than ever before, and race riots are a thing of the past, even if racism itself has not been entirely overcome. Recognising the existence of race, like caste, is not the road to ruin, but is a necessary prerequisite for dealing with, and resolving, the issue.

Those who argue for ‘merit’ ignore the fact that merit is not linked to caste. Here, biological inheritance and social conditioning have to be carefully differentiated. The reason that people of ‘higher’ caste origin perform better lies in their environmental advantages, which range from the fields of education, socialisation to economic well-being.

The same, of course, has been true for race. Only, in the US, the arguments for and against, ‘nature’ versus ‘nurture’, have been made endlessly. One of the seemingly solidly documented books arguing for the reality of racial differences, Richard Hernstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, spent hundreds of pages arguing that IQ tests, in fact, reflected the existence of real intelligence — and since Blacks performed on the average significantly lower than the White average, they claimed that this reflected their actual capacities. Yet, the book let slip one important fact about IQ tests — that average scores have risen over the last few decades, by about the same amount as the ‘difference’ between average White and Black scores.

In other words, IQ tests reflect a degree of environmental advantage and socialisation, even ‘learning’ about taking IQ tests. Even at an early age, this environmental difference is there. In many European countries, the average scores had risen because the scores of the lowest deciles rose faster: in other words, the spread of mass education had made a difference.

In India, there has been no such extensive academic and general intellectual debate about test scores, heredity and environment; only a good deal of frantic and self-justifying outpourings. But the examinations here, as well as interviews, are much less objective, much more culture-bound than IQ tests. Education is much more unequally distributed. Denial of caste inequalities has been less reasonable, more ingrained, more emotional.

In comparison with race, though, it is superficially easy to avoid dealing with caste: it is not so easily visible as race is, though both are equally social and not biological factors. There is a good deal of social interaction directed at understanding the other’s caste, but these are less obvious and visible. As a result, a superficial ‘passing’ is much easier, particularly for employment, if not for more personal issues such as marriage. Yet the scars of caste remain, of this there is no doubt. What is needed is more informed discussion and debate, not a closing of eyes, ears and mouths to mimic the monkey reaction to reality.

There is possibly little change since the 1931 census, which gave extensive information about caste. However, there is need for investigation: have some OBCs really become ‘affluent’? Aside from a few of their members, this is doubtful. The very fact that these are mostly rural-based groups, and the rural economy is in recognised crisis, should indicate that the average has improved. There is no point, however, in endlessly arguing. We need the data.

How does one handle a caste-based census? There has been, again, a lot of talk about the complications of the matter. The solution is simple: let everyone self-identify his or her caste. Those who want can say ‘no caste’ (in fact, this itself would be an important data from the census). Those who are out of mixed marriages or confused about their caste in anyway can also say this. A panel of experts at the State level can then make broad classifications out of the responses. There is, in other words, no great dilemma about how to do it. It only takes social will.

Gail Omvedt is a social scientist and author of Dalit Visions: The Anticaste Movement and Indian Cultural Identity and Growing Up Untouchable: A Dalit
Autobiography Among Others