OPINION: Can India annihilate caste and become a modern nation?

Caste is synonymous with Hindu faith and this has been the main strength and weakness

Representative image | AP Representative image | AP

Parliament recently, through an amendment in the Constitution, has restored the rights of the States and Union Territories to uphold their own list of socially and economically vulnerable classes, an affirmative action that can help the States and UTs to give impetus to their social and economic engineering programmes and such decisions and serious deliberations on the subject by Judiciary and Government attain special significance in the context where very little efforts have been made so far to reform the structure and means of social engineering efforts in order to make it more effective, all-encompassing and transforming.

It is by anchoring in the caste base, akin to class in the Indian context, that all social and economic engineering programmes are shaped in the country. Caste is an inseparable and ever enduring facet that stays ingrained in the psyche of the majority of Indians irrespective of religious, philosophical and political predilections. It is a phenomenon that has survived all and every onslaught on it; from the proponents of Charvakas to the rational thinkers of different genre. It is very interesting to note that this very regressive ideology has been passed on to the posterity by successive generations for centuries as if there is nothing else or better than this doctrine in our scheme of things in the line of inheritance. The sentiment of caste traverses through different vicissitudes and takes different manifestations in the Indian mind and for many, life sans caste is unimaginable, let alone the concept of a casteless society. India is yet to grow up to have the mind and maturity to engage in an objective discourse at any level on the all-pervasive 'state of mind' called caste.

In such a scenario, it is almost impossible to have serious discourses on the very notion of caste and caste-induced challenges and advantages devoid of prejudice and subjectivity. In the caste ladder, all those loosely and amorphously defined groups, on whom the ‘higher status' is bestowed upon as a result of various social and economic mobility factors gained over a period of time, would never jettison the self-imposed ’tag' that was officially validated later on through administrative actions, and the socio-political, cultural and economic benefits and privileges associated with it. In the case of the so called 'low rung' who had been marginalized by the privileged high in every gamut of their existence for decades, and centuries for many, would not jettison the political and economic power that they started wielding, albeit off late, with the backing of affirmative political and administrative actions. This rather intricate backdrop makes it almost impossible to find amicable and all accepting solutions to this very contentious issue of bringing in reforms and restructuring into the social engineering sphere through the medium of dialogue and discourse.

Nevertheless, the dialogue should continue and the matter should be subjected to continuous deliberations and study both by the social scientists and policy makers. However, narratives and counter narratives on the subject should be based on the fundamental position that thriving of ‘caste’ and 'casteism' even in the post independent India has not been because of six to seven decades of official empowerment programme aimed at social engineering through reservation and government service but because of the continuing legacy of unofficial reservation and inhuman discrimination which is very much ubiquitous even today in our backyard. 'Reservations' of all forms still exist in the Indian mind and interestingly we even try to export this 'regressive ideology' to the progressive and modernized societies, mainly targeting the second generation of the Indian diaspora in such places, making it amply clear that this phenomenon is here to stay both in the context of space and time.

Our sectarian mindset is very much reflected in our approach, attitude and antipathy towards social engineering actions in the form of reservation for the deserving. The 'privileged' Indians who shrewdly and ardently promote their kith and kin to establish themselves in every possible sphere of polity and also in every gamut of social and economic life, when millions of Indians still struggle even for basic education and decent living conditions, is a deeply disturbing phenomenon and this ‘subtle’ form of reservation makes official reservation very relevant even today. The submission of facts in the Lok Sabha a couple of years back by the then Union Minister for Education Ramesh Pokhriyal that “more than half of the faculty position reserved for the OBCs in Central institutions of higher education are vacant while about 40% of those reserved for Scheduled caste and tribes also remain unfilled. Institution wise, in the Indian Institute of Managements more than 60% positions reserved for SCs and OBCs lie vacant and more than 80% of the positions reserved for ST too lie vacant”, indicating huge gap between those who have access to opportunity and wealth and those who do not have. The upholding of the OBC quota in NEET by the Honorable Supreme Court should be viewed against this background. The fundamental reason why India still remains as one of the most backward nations in the world is mainly because fifty to sixty percent of its population still don't get fair chance to partake in the nation building process and the affairs of the nation is still controlled by the 'privileged high' who fortify their fiefdom by not allowing the 'other' very little chances of entry, a sort of subtle 'ghettoization'.

Against this highly complicated and emotive backdrop the subject of bringing in reforms in the social engineering sphere should be approached with utmost care and sensitivity. It is an accepted fact that there cannot be caste-based reservation forever. It may take infinite time to eliminate caste from the Indian mind but it is important that we begin the process of eliminating it from our records and such a step can be the stepping stone towards the process of ‘annihilation of caste’.

Every society in the world devices different strategies to empower and uplift the most vulnerable and underprivileged among them. Even in Communist China, Government pays special attention to train and ensure that ethnic minorities are well represented in the official system. One of the highly developed and progressive Asian region, Taiwan, gives special preference to its indigenous Formosan people in education and Government. Likewise, the United States, counties of the European Union and many other nations have such progressive and pro-active programs to empower the underprivileged and social minority. However, those countries and Governments ensure that benefits reach only the real needy, through reforms, periodic reviews and revisions and precisely this is what India should also do as far as restructuring the social engineering schemes are concerned.

The first step in this regard should be the process of identifying communities that no longer require support in the form of reservation in education and government and also those who need support only in education. Scientifically eliminating more and more groups from the reservation category would work beneficial for the most vulnerable and needy among them. Exclusion of groups that were and are socially and economically powerful in a given spatial context should be the prime trajectory and approach when planning for such a revisit.

The Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) carry out as part of the census process can be a perfect tool towards this, as such a survey would give clear reflection of the socio-economic positions of each group in their contemporary local, regional and national context and also will help map social inequalities as well as social change. It is also imperative to carryout research on the historic position and progression of caste groups to really understand where they were in the historic context and where do they actually stand in the contemporary socio-economic milieu. This process is very important because many of those communities who were part of the 'savarna fold' in the 'varnasrama dharma' somehow managed to find place in the official reservation list as well. This is rather strange especially when the whole idea of reservation had its base on the 'yesteryear' phenomenon called 'varnasrama' and the official reservation was meant only for those who were outside the 'varna fold' known as 'avarna'! It happened not only because of the unscientific methodology adopted to categorise deserving communities but also because of the political pressure exerted by powerful caste groups to get them included in the reservation category. There were also many cases where caste groups and religious groups shied away from availing reservation fearing that they may not be able to climb the social order with reservation tag on them which was proved right as in the case of different Christian denominations in Kerala.

The Kerala society had been subjected to many progressive reforms within their fold through renaissance movements, universal access to education and also through the influence of strong socialist and Leftist ideologies. It is a fact that all these factors had really helped slacken the strong hold of caste over the Kerala society. It is not that the Kerala society is devoid of any kind of caste prejudice but the level of engagement is very minimal in public life when compared to rest of India and Kerala’s unique social development index is a clear testimony to this fact. The unique socio-economic and natural resource conditions of the state make it a befitting place for introducing reforms in social engineering methodology and this can carried out with proper engagement, deliberation and scientific assessment. In Kerala, it is easy to identify communities that enjoy the benefits of reservation but in-effect have no socio-economic, political or cultural disadvantages.

Eventually, all the ‘benefits’ emanating from reducing the strength of the reserved category should go to the most vulnerable in our society viz., the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes as they remain one of the most victimised and oppressed 'communities' in the entire world even today by any standards. As a civilised society, India must work to empower these highly vulnerable groups so as to bring about a visible change in the living conditions.

Among these groups, those who take the route of conversion to another religion to escape the tyranny of caste oppression and stigma should also be treated with equal concern. Reservation was introduced as a viable solution to rectify and course correct the historical impact of the oppressive and discriminatory system that existed among those who followed the Hindu faith but sadly other religions that do not have any caste proclivity within their belief and practice too followed systems akin to caste in the Indian context, thus necessitating reservation for the weakest among them as well, especially for those who took the route of conversion within the last one century. However, creating any 'new' SC/ST caste groups under political patronage and pressure should not be encouraged and endorsed at any cost. Of late, we have been witnessing numerous accounts, like the Gujjar agitation, from various parts of the country where caste groups coerce governments to include them into SC/ST category. There shouldn't also be any move to include any new group or groups in the existing reservation list of different categories as this would further complicate the efforts to skin the list and getting away with reservations eventually. We will have to wait and watch how the government would handle the politically motivated agitation for Maratha and Patel reservations.

With the introduction of 'economic reservation' and creamy-layer' norms, in effect caste-based reservation has ceased to exist for a large section of the society. One cannot avail reservation only on the basis of caste alone and also one is not denied reservation on that basis only. In the long run, as the country makes strident economic progress which is going to empower a lot more people economically, there would not be many people availing reservation.

Caste is synonymous with the Hindu faith and this has been the main strength and weakness of the sect. Great proponents of the faith like Sree Narayana Guru, Dayanand Saraswati et.al. mooted ideas of a Hindu faith without any barriers among the practitioners. Interestingly, Sree Narayana Guru’s whole idea of Hindu way of living was nothing but the universal brotherhood of men with ‘one caste one religion and one god’. However, such noble causes never found many takers as the sect took refuge in the hands of strong votaries of caste-based society. As per the true spirit of the Hindu dharma, the basis of 'caste' is in the virtue of one's deeds and not in birth but very conveniently vested interest overlooked and defeated that philosophy for selfish motives. Ardent proponents of the faith keep doing everything possible to give legitimacy to a very wrong practice in the name of the ‘Hindu Dharma’.

Mohan Bhagat, the Sarsanghchalak of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the most powerful organisation espousing the cause of Hindu nationalism, had called for obliterating caste among the Hindus in a public meeting held recently in Mumbai. He also termed all Indians as part of the Hindu faith a year ago, again in a public meeting. Hope his organisation channelises all its energy to convince his fellow '130 crore Hindus' to renounce their caste thus creating a 'Vasudaivakudumbaham' at least within India, so that no reservation of any sort is needed and India will march forward to become a truly progressive and modern nation. By all possible means, that would be the only way through which the ‘annihilation’ caste can happen.

Rajan Chedambath is director, Centre for Heritage, Environment and Development.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of THE WEEK.


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