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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 45 November 4, 2023

Locating Caste Survey of Bihar in the Context of President K R Narayanan’s Vision on Affirmative Action | S N Sahu

Saturday 4 November 2023, by S N Sahu


On 9th November 2005 former President of India K R Narayanan passed away at the age of eighty-five. This year when the solemn occasion of his death anniversary is being observed on 9th November there is a countrywide discussion on the details of the data concerning the Bihar Government’s historic caste survey which was released on 2nd October 2023, on the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary, and tabled in the State Assembly two days back on 7th November.

Convergence of Caste Status with Poverty and Low Social Indices

One of the defining features of that data is that there is a convergence of caste status of people with indices of progress. It meant that placement of people at the lower order of the caste hierarchy largely determined their low status in the realms of education, economic plane and other spheres of life. Such revealing data clearly proves the point that the caste system described by Ambedkar as "ascending order of reverence and descending order of contempt" determined social, economic status of people as their placement in the descending or ascending order of caste hierarchy.

When Narayanan was Asked to Wear a Sacred Thread

It is instructive that K R Narayanan hailing from a humble background rose to become the President of India faced caste-related humiliation when he while studying in the erstwhile Travancore university secured first class first in MA in English literature in the beginning of 1940s. The high-caste people wielding power asked him to wear a sacred thread so that he would be acceptable to them. Apparently his worth as a human being and not even his extraordinary academic accomplishments flowing from his excellence in studies was not enough for high caste people to accept him in terms of equality of status. Therefore, he was told to adopt that custom of wearing a sacred thread, associated with high caste status, so that he would come up to their level and he would acquire the qualification being treated by them on their terms. Narayanan refused to be guided by that caste norm and asserted that he was what he was and would never wear a sacred thread. Swami Vivekananda during his visit to Kerala described it as a lunatic asylum on account of the widespread practice of untouchability prevailing there.

Swami Vivekananda Indicted Monopolisation of Education by a Few

In such a highly caste ridden society where caste itself is source of inequality as a structure determining or hindering access to education, livelihood opportunities and even other entitlements so essential for leading normal life , it is a categorical imperative to count castes for the eventual goal, in the words of Ambedkar, of its annihilation.

The caste survey of Bihar revealed that extremely backward castes constitute 37.01 per cent of the population and other backward castes 27.12 per cent. The figure for Scheduled Castes is 19.65 per cent. It also brought to light that the poverty level is the highest among the SCs and those of the high castes are not afflicted to the extent to which lower castes are afflicted with. The close association of caste with levels of social status and socio-economic indices is now proven by the caste survey beyond doubt. Dr. Ambedkar used to talk about the annihilation of caste and in his last speech in the Constituent Assembly described castes as anti-national. He was the first leader of public life to indict castes in such a manner. It is instructive that K R Narayanan did articulate in the same pattern by explaining the decline of India in its long history to appropriation of knowledge by people based on caste identities. In this context he used to quote Swami Vivekananda’s words that "the chief cause of India’s ruin has been the monopolising of the whole of education and the intelligence of the land among a handful of men". It is well known which caste in the fourfold varna system had the right to education and intelligence; which one had a monopoly over military training and which completely had access to trade and commerce. Referring to such caste monopoly over education and intelligence by a few K R Narayanan used to say that there was hundred per cent reservation for high castes in the field of education, military training and trade and commerce. So he asked those critical of affirmative action on the basis of caste to interrogate themselves and see how the cause of social and economic justice enshrined in the Constitution would be served without reservations of some per centage of jobs.

Narayanan on Who Are Illiterates and Poor in India

As President of India in his speech delivered on 8th September 1997 on the occasion of the celebration of International Literacy Day, he asked a question- "... who are the illiterates in India?"

"First of all", he said, "they are women of all classes and castes, especially, the women of the lower castes". "Secondly", he proceeded to add "there are men and women belonging to the minority communities, scheduled castes and tribes ...and of the backward and deprived sections of our society". He then sharply observed, "It is precisely among these sections and classes of our society that literacy is at the lowest and the phenomenon of poverty is at its acutest".

What K R Narayanan said in 1997, twenty-five years before the release of caste survey data clearly traced the prevalence of high levels of poverty and illiteracy to the low caste status and gender of people. He had suggested the adoption of a special strategy to deal with those problems occurring due to the identities of people determined by their ascribed status or socially determined gender roles. His observation that "... our strategy for universal primary education must be directed at these immense deprived sections of our society and taking into account their special circumstances and problems" assumes greater significance in the context of caste survey data which makes us conscious of "the special circumstances and problems" of people so that we can, in the words of Ambedkar "reclaim human personality."

Narayana’s Defence of Affirmative Action for the Cause of the Republic

Now that the Bihar Government has declared it intention to raise the reservation quota to 65 percent taking into account the new caste data affirmative action is being taken to new levels for taking forward the cause of social justice. While the Bihar State BJP supported the stand taken in the Assembly for caste survey the national leadership of the party are opposing it. In doing so the national leadership of BJP is opposing expansion of the scope of affirmative action. In this context what he said in defence of affirmative action as President K R Narayanan is of paramount importance. While addressing the nation on the eve of Republic Day on 25th January 2000 he with anguish referred to some kind of a counter-revolution taking place in the social realm against benefits to the suffering humanity of our country and reminded them the "benefits have been provided not in the way of charity, but as human rights and as social justice to a section of society who constitute a big chunk of our population, and who actually contribute to our agriculture, industry, and services as landless labourers, factory and municipal workers". "There are signs," he noted with sadness "that our privileged classes are getting tired of the affirmative action provided by Constitutional provisions". "On this Golden Jubilee," he said, "I would like to say that let us not get tired of what we have provided for our weaker sections, for otherwise as Dr. Ambedkar pointed out, the edifice of our democracy would be like a palace built on dung heap".

Later in 2021 while delivering his Republic Day eve speech on 25th January 2002 he pleaded for affirmative action in the private sector. He was the first President to do so in the annals of our Republic.

Very insightful and illuminating articulations of K R Narayanan assume significance now that the data collected by the Bihar caste survey is in the public domain. The announcement of the enhancement of affirmative action based on that data is a step in the direction of strengthening " the edifice of our democracy."

(Author: S N Sahu served as Officer on Special Duty to President of India K R Narayanan)

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