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Recast over time, caste lives on

Upper castes say they've transcended caste, but lower castes want representation - and the attraction of symbolic gestures alone has reduced. Varghese K George, Charu Sudan Kasturi and Vikas Pathak write.

delhi Updated: Apr 25, 2013 22:17 IST
Varghese K George,Charu Sudan Kasturi,Vikas Pathak

To each his own. The verdict on caste is split within the growing Indian middle class, with upper castes claiming to transcend it and blaming its perpetuation on quotas, and those from low castes insisting it persists and wanting proper representation.

For 34-year-old Patna banker Sameer Kumar, a Rajput, caste continues because of politics. With a smile, he talked about how those "we" exploited now have power and are exploiting "us".

"In our office, people from every religion and caste work, and caste never matters," Kumar said. "But whenever we discuss politics, we end up discussing caste."

Many among the upper caste in the middle class see quotas as thwarting their aspirations.

"I was refused admission to a college because the general seats were full, but I am sure if I were from a backward caste, I would have got a seat," complained Prakash Gurav, 26, who handles accounts in a small car-rental company in Mumbai. "Politicians who use caste as a vote bank should not be allowed to come to power."

Medical students protest against reservation in New Delhi. Many among the upper caste in the middle class see quotas as thwarting their aspirations. HT

Most upper caste people HT interviewed across several cities opposed caste-based quotas. Some said these should be based on class.

But talk to an emerging Dalit middle class and the picture changes. "Caste still exists in subtle ways," said Sanjay Paswan, a 30-year-old Dalit working with an NGO in Patna. "Though there is no longer direct exploitation when a lower caste person changes class, she is never considered an equal."

He asked why fingers aren't pointed at upper caste politicians on corruption the way they are pointed at Mayawati. "From Narasimha Rao to Mayawati, the perceptions on corruption change drastically." Paswan added that while inter-caste marriages are on the rise among the urban middle class, Dalit and upper caste marriages are rare. To him, reservation helps increase Dalit representation.

However, a few among middle class Dalits have a different take.

Pratbiha Kamble, 26, a Dalit researcher in Mumbai, would be entitled to benefits because of her caste. But she opposes caste-based quotas and says she has always contested in the general category. "I have the capability and shouldn't use the benefit, if someone else can," she said. Instead, Kamble says economic considerations should be the basis of reservations.

Even in completely literate, urban cities like Thiruvananthapuram, caste identities matter, found union minister Shashi Tharoor, who has to negotiate conflicting caste claims there. "Caste affinities do not seem to be reducing. Even in the urban setting caste survives, and in many cases thrives," the Thiruvananthapuram MP told HT.

With the coming of social media, caste has gone virtual too. Online groups devoted to caste proliferate, people seek their caste "origins" on the net, and policies like quotas are discussed. Opinions differed among respondents on how caste as an institution was negotiating the new media.

Even as many others among middle class Indians consider social media "democratic" because one can express one's views without censorship, Paswan disagreed. "Manu-waadi (casteist) ideas are articulated on social media in a sophisticated way as most users are upper caste," he said. "Anti-reservation campaigns are run with impunity with lakhs of people endorsing such comments."

However, Dalit intellectual Chandrabhan Prasad says the right to be heard is very important to Dalits, and the social media open up uncensored forums for this.

Yet, even as quotas in government jobs gave stable incomes to some Dalit families, there is a sense of frustration among middle class Dalits over their prospects in the expanding private sector.

"As white collar, middle class opportunities in India are linked to one's contacts, Dalits get excluded as they lack contacts," Paswan told HT.

Medical students observing a hunger strike in Maulana Azad Medical College campus in New Delhi to protest the proposed OBC reservation policy of Union government. HT/Sonu Mehta

For many Dalits and OBCs (other backward classes) caste-based politics has been an instrument of assertion rather than divisive, unlike for most among upper castes.

But emerging opportunities may be changing the contours of caste politics.

Figures like Mayawati and Ram Vilas Paswan among Dalits - and Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav among OBCs - provided a sense of pride to a generation of Dalits and OBCs in the 1990s, leading to a politics of symbolic empowerment.

Symbolism alone may not do the political trick much longer, as there are aspirations to consume more, to learn English, and to get into white-collar jobs. "Earlier, people enjoyed caste politics. But now they are focusing on development and education," Yadav bureaucrat Shailendra Kumar said.

This doesn't mean caste-based regional parties are passé. In fact, they too are changing tack to adapt to changing aspirations. The Samajwadi Party shed its opposition to English and Akhilesh Yadav promised laptops. In Tamil Nadu, the DMK and AIADMK offer competing sops like TV sets and fans instead of talking caste.

Survey: Caste and you

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First Published: Apr 24, 2013 23:06 IST