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Mainstream, Vol. XLVIII, No 34, August 14, 2010

Caste Census—Let Us Face The Facts!

Sunday 22 August 2010, by D.K. Giri


The plan of caste enumeration has created confusions in many areas of our public life—political, social, ideal, practical, and so on. It has become so contentious that individuals, groups, industries and political parties are all divided. Once again there are vociferous voices on both sides. Even the Union Cabinet could not reach a consensus and has constituted a GoM under the leadership of Congress veteran Pranab Mukherjee. Thinking people are worried that the caste census will plunge the country into an irreconcilable social and political conflict. However, this seems to be an overreaction and a campaign or any such activity on the issue is unwanted.

Let us face the facts at both the social and political levels and their unintelligent mix-ups. In fact, it is our failure or our inability to see the dynamics between the society and politics, and to separate the two in our discourse and public action, that cause the problem. Social action as reform could be driven by the ideal but the political acts are based on existing realities and practicalities, however, indignant we may be of politicians.

Let us now look at the caste issue from both the political and social angles. Politically, caste has been recognised as a category of reference. In fact, in Article 23 (2) of the Constitution, the government shoved out discrimination of the citizens on the basis/grounds of religion, caste, creed and group. This Article cannot be read in isolation. While this Article seems to create an equalitarian society, from the point of view those who are downtrodden and discriminated against, it follows another principle which is: “If you’re treating all equally, you are treating some unequally.”

So, Article 341 of the Constitution classifies Dalits as Scheduled Castes and entitles them to have reservation, which we call affirmative action or “positive discrimination”, a distributive of social justice. Given the historically low economic and social conditions of these castes, the reservation policy continues with occasional and unsuccessful whispers on amending it. A large number of castes under this SC cluster got registered and recognised in the Constitution. Although the intention of the framers of the Constitution was genuine concern for this caste group, later on it became an electoral tool for many leaders and political parties.

Thinkers like the late Prof Rajkrishna used to say that if the economic criterion was taken as the basis for affirmative action, the caste as a reference point would have remained outside the Constitution and would not have been practically legitimised. He also said that an economic indicator would have included all Dalits. We have three caste clusters in our society —SCs, OBCs and the so-called forward castes. With SCs getting politically recognised and electorally a force to reckon with, the OBCs who are in the majority, were the next political constituency to target. A serious attempt to develop this constituency came with the imple-mentation of Mandal Commission in the 1990s throwing the country into violent turmoil.

Long before that in 1953, the first Backward Classes Commission was set up by a Presidential order on January 29 under the chairmanship of Kaka Kalekar. In the recommendations, submitted on March 30, 1953, they prepared a list of 2399 backward castes or communities. Also to note, they recommended a caste-wise enumeration of population in the census of 1961. The watershed of course was the Mandal Commission report which metaphorically was alleged to have “Mandalised Indian politics”. In order to refresh our memories, the Commission was set up in 1978 during the Janata regime under the leadership of B.P. Mandal, a socialist leader belonging to the backward class himself. The report was submitted in 1985, and was gathering dust until Prime Minister V.P. Singh decided to implement it in 1992. All hell broke loose, as there were violent agitations across North India, the bone of contention being 27 per cent reservation given to the OBCs in public employment.

Against this backdrop, if there is a suggestion to go for caste enumeration, one fails to comprehend the cacophony. In democratic politics, when affirmative action is being carried out for social (caste) groups, like SCs and OBCs, it is politically correct to have fair headcounts of such individual beneficiaries. Also since democracy is essentially about members, their share in politics and other forums should be commensurate with their size and number. One is not arguing for the proposition that people should get position on the basis of castes. But, equally, one cannot explain the vast numbers of people remaining under-represented while the minority rules the roost. The idea of a “level playing field” holds good. A historical injustice, which has been reflected in the caste system, needs to be rectified, and an “equal society” and democratic politics should strive for this.

Social Dynamism

SOCIAL forces in politics play a major role in a democratic polity. In fact, our society impinges mainly on politics. It cuts both ways, it hampers the modern organising principles, but it also supports the democratic structure with its diversity and pluralism. Interestingly, a traditional society and modern democratic politics have been interacting dynamically. Politics has attempted to reform the society, and has had occasional limited impact. Society has reacted to such “benevolent interference”, and has forced politics to recognise and accept the social norms.

There are several examples of society fighting back: in religion, the Shah Bano case; in caste, the Mandal Commission, and so on. And worse, the evil traditions are re-emerging in the Khap Panchayats and the heinous “honour killings”. This is where we should focus all our energies and resources to create an ‘equal society’ where there is no discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, religion and gender. Social reforms or changes cannot be brought about by constitutio-nalism on political forces which are often driven by electoral and material interests. Society has to change from within. The norms of fairness, justice and equality have to emanate from within the society which will build healthy politics, not the other way round.

Caste or rather casteism will disappear when society rises above it and the cultural behaviour changes. Indian society is quite elastic and absorptive. It accommodates but refuses to change. It absorbed British colonialism; the Britishers did not find the need to convert the people as they did in Africa. Indian society underwent reforms under the leadership of Raja Rammohan Roy and others. Although the parallel is not so pleasant to recall, Indian society needs to reform to fit into modern democratic politics. There is so much richness in the Indian tradition that can contribute to a healthy democratic politics, while casteism, communalism, sexism are social evils.

There is an urgent need for social reform campaigns, not movements which get party-politicised, to bring about ethical, attitudinal and behavioural shift for all of us. We tend to reinforce our caste consciousness as we seek to forget it. We need to be very careful about this inadvertent tendency.

I recall one instinctive experience of such unconsciousness. When I was studying the consequences of child labour, we were meeting a Member of Parliament who waxed eloquent on the menaces of child labour and impressed us with his concern. But, to our shock, a few minutes later, a domestic help of about 90 years or so came with tea and biscuits!! Therefore, when we fight casteism or communalism, how we behave is also important—as an upper class Hindu, an SC, an OBC, or a human being? This is the moot question. While politics will continue to accommodate under electoral stakes and society lesser, it has to change its attitudes and practices while aiming for a harmonious and prosperous nation.

Dr D.K. Giri is the General Secretary, Association for Democratic Socialism.

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