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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Caste in doubt

When the best minds of a society begin to substitute argument by fear,it reflects a larger crisis. This was my first reaction after reading Pratap Mehta’s article...

May 17, 2010 3:02:31 am

When the best minds of a society begin to substitute argument by fear,it reflects a larger crisis. This was my first reaction after reading Pratap Mehta’s article (‘My Caste and I’,IE,May 12). What is truly extraordinary about this article is the extent to which unusual reliance on rhetoric and anger make him share the assumptions of his adversaries: he appears to be as spellbound by the magic of caste as the casteist mindset he seeks to expose.

As always,Mehta’s article makes a valuable point. I agree with him that thinking about social justice has reached a dead-end in contemporary India. The politics of social justice often becomes a cover for blatant casteist politics. Reservations have become a mental reflex blocking any thinking about alternative strategies for affirmative action. An obsession with caste as a category tends to obscure other axes of inequality that operate independent of and within castes. He reminds us that a democrat needs to be alerto attempts that reduce citizens’ identity to an accident of birth,that caste must not be the measure of everything.

The real questions,then,are: Which practices contribute to such a reduction? How can we move beyond the politics of one-dimensional identities? And how does the recent decision about the census relate to all this? Unfortunately,instead of responding to each of these,Mehta sweepingly invokes first principles.

This leads him to conflate two policy decisions that have radically different justifications and consequences: full census of all Hindu castes and a more limited exercise of enumerating OBCs. A full caste census involves questions of principles,but an OBC enumeration follows from a simple administrative logic: a modern state cannot recognise a social group in its laws and policies and then refuse to count them. Mehta directs his fury at the unlikely caste census and assumes that it applies to the real scenario of OBC enumeration.

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This conflation allows him to gloss over a crucial fact. Mehta’s point of departure is that the government has overturned a well considered policy of excluding caste from census. The fact is that caste column has always existed in the censuses held in post-independence India. The census enumerator is required to ask everyone for their caste and then classify them by SC/ST/Others. If the government decides to go for OBC enumeration,it will simply mean that the answer will now be classified as SC/ST/OBC/Others. What is so dramatic or different in this move? Besides,politicians have always had access to caste-community composition of their constituents. How would the new decision change the character of politics?

The temptation to pass a sweeping judgment leads a careful scholar like Pratap Mehta to a simple equation: “caste enumeration = reservations policy = casteist politics”. He does not imagine that collecting OBC data might in the long run actually go against the very dominant OBC castes that have monopolised benefits meant for backwards. It does not occur to him that an intelligent and honest critic of reservations would have demanded caste data in the census,precisely to prove that caste is not a good proxy for backwardness. He does not consider the dilemma of those like me who wish to move from affirmative action based only on caste to the one based on multiple inequalities,but cannot do so without census data on the OBCs.

Caste clearly puts stress on Mehta’s liberalism. His insistence on erasing a form of self identity and on blocking certain information sits uneasily with his liberal convictions. So does his chiding of the executive for “giving in to a discourse of raw political power”,just when the Parliament was doing what he wants it to do more often: debate big issues of our time and check the executive.

This brings me to the point of principle that trumps everything else in Mehta’s argument. For him,recognising caste as a category would lead to negating the idea of India and reducing the citizens to a one-dimensional identity. This is a rather strong assumption for a country where census asks questions about gender,religion,mother tongue,place of birth,education,occupation and much else. Even if caste were being introduced for the first time,why would it trump every other category? If the category of religion has not resulted in a self-destructive politics of mobilisation only along religious lines,why must caste? If the question on “mother tongue” — more prone to misrecognition than caste — has not reduced our identity to just our language,how is a question on caste going to freeze our identity? If the recording of race in the US census has not reduced their sense of the self,why should caste do so in India?

Mehta does not answer these questions,he just assumes an answer — that all other identities and divisions (religion,language,gender,migration and class) can be articulated in and worked through democratic politics but caste cannot be; caste has a special grip on the Indian mind. In accepting caste as a unique social division, Mehta shares the mindset of those who measure everything with caste. They want caste-based census for they hope that caste is the only reality of Indian society. Mehta wants to erase caste from census,for he fears that caste can become the only reality of Indian society.

For the liberal Indian mind,caste represents the fear of the dark. Mehta’s article reflects these difficulties. Thus more than the crisis of the idea of India,this moment represents the crisis of Indian liberalism as it encounters popular politics.

Is there a way out? I believe there is. It lies in recognising caste as one,but only one,legitimate social division that finds articulation in politics. Once it is allowed normal play,it achieves partial success,is made to run against other divisions and ends up either redefining itself or building alliances or simply exhausting itself. The spectre of caste disappears when it is treated as a routine fact of politics,like any other social division. Enumeration of OBCs is a crucial step in that direction.

The writer is senior fellow,CSDS,Delhi,currently with Wissenschaftskolleg,Berlin

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