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Thursday, August 13, 2020

Attack the system: Policy must deal not only with caste-based discrimination, but identity itself

Division of labour — or the rationale behind the Varna Vyavastha — does not exist today and the country certainly needs to get rid of its vestiges.

Written by Alok Bansal | Updated: June 6, 2019 7:33:52 am
It is essential that the government create a category of people with “no caste” for all those who do not wish to subscribe to their caste identity.

One of the biggest achievements of the 2019 election was that the common man in India clearly showed that he is willing to rise above caste barriers for the national interest. The caste system is arguably the biggest bane of Indian society, and has adversely affected India’s growth, development and security over centuries. Primarily a Hindu concept, this malady has transcended religious frontiers and affected every religion in India.

Many apologists for the caste system tend to justify it by stating that caste-based identities are not bad, only the discrimination based on caste is bad. However, this is nothing but indirect support to an extremely divisive and repugnant social practice. One needs to understand that in an extremely hierarchical system, discrimination will exist as long as caste-based identities remain. Many Hindu sages and social reformers have criticised caste-based divisions based on birth. Maharshi Dayanand Saraswati, founder of the Arya Samaj, had criticised the hereditary caste system and had asserted that such a system never existed in Vedic times. His namesake and founder-convenor of the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, stated that “Birth-based discrimination and cruel treatment of individuals and families which developed in Hindu society over time as socially sanctioned practices are in gross violation of ancient Hindu teachings and philosophy. Many people that revere and owe allegiance to our ancient Dharmic teachings and philosophy have suffered over the years as a result of such discriminatory practices. Such suffering continues even today, despite the law of the land and enlightened social and religious leaders having continued to make, over the centuries, major and effective contributions to diminish the depth and extent of these discriminatory practices, which have nothing to do with Hindu Dharma.”

The most serious indictment of the caste system came from Balasaheb Deoras, former RSS Sarsanghachalak, who stated that “just because something is old, it need not necessarily be good and valid for all time. Neither should we think that since we have been living all these years on the basis of old principles, we need not even think on new lines… Science has progressed, new inventions have been made. Therefore, it is inconsistent with the demands of modern times to insist on the hereditary varna and caste system… What exists now is not system… Hence we should all put our heads together and think how to guide it — a system which has to die and is already dying must finally end and have a natural death.”

The Constitution does not recognise caste and guarantees all citizens equality of status and opportunity and recognises the principle of fraternity. However, many politicians have nurtured caste-based identities to consolidate their vote banks. The founders of the Constitution had sincerely hoped that caste-based discrimination will disappear soon. Consequently, reservation of seats for Scheduled Castes in Parliament and state assemblies (reservation in jobs isn’t mentioned in the Constitution) was for a limited period

Regrettably, in the last seven decades, no significant step has been taken to eradicate or dilute the caste system, although actions have been initiated (both effective and superficial) to curb caste-based discrimination. On the other hand, numerous steps have been taken by the government, regrettably, to perpetuate this social anachronism. The caste-based census and need to mention one’s caste in numerous government forms defeats the very purpose of diluting caste-based identities. A large number of youth in urban India do not identify themselves with any caste, but are often forced to mention one in official documents.

It is essential that the government create a category of people with “no caste” for all those who do not wish to subscribe to their caste identity. Children of inter-caste marriages must necessarily belong to this category. A social movement may be started for people to relinquish their caste and caste-based surnames. There may be a need to incentivise inter-caste marriages. Eventually, asking of an individual’s caste could be made a cognisable offence and all caste-based organisations must be banned. All mention of caste, except where required for reasons of affirmative action, must be eliminated.

Division of labour — or the rationale behind the Varna Vyavastha — does not exist today and the country certainly needs to get rid of its vestiges.

This article first appeared in the print on June 6, 2019 under the heading “Attack The System”. Bansal is director, India Foundation. Views are personal

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