The recent controversy surrounding the proposal of the NDA government to “upgrade” the National Commission for Backward Classes by providing it a constitutional status at par with the commissions for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes opens up some very interesting political and sociological questions. It clearly suggests a realignment of political constituencies with the rise of the BJP and its expanding appeal across communities. It also indicates a realisation within the BJP of the need to go beyond its conventional political wisdom, and to engage with persisting “intra-Hindu” diversities.
It provides us with an opportunity to revisit some tricky questions concerning caste and its place in the public policy of the modern democratic nation-state. It also invites us to engage with the idea of “backwardness”, its institutionalisation in the state system and the wider implications it has for political processes. Such an engagement raises normative and political questions about the imaginings, the futures of democratic politics and the idea of citizenship.
In its most popular representation, including in social science textbooks and mainstream political and/or legal narratives, caste is viewed quite simplistically as a pan-Indian system of varna hierarchy, emanating from the religious beliefs of Hindus. Beginning with its colonial and Orientalist constructions, caste has also been viewed in an evolutionary perspective — a core feature of India’s traditional past, which ought to weaken and eventually disappear with modernisation. Besides industry and urbanisation, democratic politics too was to be an active agency that would weaken caste.
Thus, unlike poverty or illiteracy, caste did not require any kind of directed political or policy intervention: It was to go away on its own. This linear view of history found purchase amongst a majority of the first generation of India’s elites who inherited power from the colonial rulers. It also became middle class common sense. Hence, when India set out on planned economic growth, caste was not in the list of things that needed serious policy-making. Reservations for the SCs and STs was to be a temporary measure, and only for those viewed to have been seriously impaired by the practice of untouchability. The broader structures of hierarchy rarely found any reference in policy documents.
The experiences of the past seven decades — comprising development, democratic politics and significant economic change — do not conform to this view. Caste shows no signs of disappearing. Even when the social and economic structures within which it traditionally functioned, such as jajmani relations, disintegrated, the ideas of hierarchy, and corresponding identities and economic inequalities, persist. One possible lesson here is that caste is not simply a matter of ritual status and religious belief. Even though caste is certainly not class, it persists beyond the Hindu mind and continues to shape economic life and opportunities.
Interestingly, even though the British popularised the simplistic varna model of caste, they also recognised its disabling effects. During the early 20th century, the idea of “backward-ness” began to be officially framed for a possible affirmative action policy. The category soon acquired currency among reformers and politically mobilised communities on the margins. It was from within this enumerative and classificatory process that the category of depressed classes evolved, to be inserted later in the Indian Constitution as Scheduled Castes.
Besides this, the makers of the Indian Constitution also permitted policy initiatives for other “classes of citizens” who too may need protection and promotion by the state if they remained “socially and educationally backward”. These “classes of citizens” were to be identified as ascriptive communities, not as collectives of individuals sharing common economic traits. Over the years, a series of commissions produced a long list of communities recognised as “backward” for the sake of employment in government jobs. The implementation of the Mandal Commission Report by the V.P. Singh government in 1990, providing quotas for “other backward classes” in Central government jobs, further extended to admissions in state-funded educational institutions, was only a culmination of a process that had begun in some regions long ago.
Besides the complicated and contested listings of communities, the Indian political system over the past seven decades produced a three-fold framework of hierarchy: The generals, the backwards and the Dalits, some states further dividing the “backwards” and “Dalits” into sub-categories on the basis of degrees of “backwardness”.
This brings us to the core question of caste as a subject matter for public policy. In mainstream policy discourse during the early decades after Independence, caste was mostly viewed as a hangover of tradition, to disappear on its own. For the mainstream middle class, it has been an aberration — as was the policy of reservations. Even while they continue to preserve the privileges which come with their communities of ascription, they resent any claims made on the nation’s common resources by those on the margins of caste — the so-called open space of merit has to be their exclusive preserve.
The realities of caste have never simply been aspects of ritual status and religious beliefs. These have actively interacted and intersected with other aspects of social and economic realities as with regimes of power. The contemporary assertion of caste that has increasingly come from below, thanks to the expanding processes of a democratic polity, is primarily for levelling the sphere of citizenship, not for resurrecting the hierarchies of caste.
The proposal to further strengthen the earlier Commission should enable the government to expand the scope of the policy framework engaging with caste. But while doing so, it must also recognise the essentially evolving nature of caste formations. Further, it must frame policies in a language that does not reinforce community identities. Caste is an important variable in shaping deprivation — but not the only one.