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Caste is not invisible

People opposing the caste census say they think caste shouldn't matter. But it still does — just ask parents in UP who don't want Dalit cooks in schools

An unnecessary debate is going on over a possible caste census in India. Those opposing it claim that it will promote casteism,and that is why it is not desirable. One very interesting fact about this opposition,though,is that almost all of those who do oppose it belong to some dominant class of society that has been a beneficiary of the caste system. They may claim that they are against this caste system,and want it to wither away; but the problem is caste will not wither away merely from wishful thinking. We have to take many actions against it. Yet,oddly,those opposing the caste census are not coming out with any solution to end the menace of caste.

While the government is yet to take a formal decision about the caste census,we are witnessing another kind of caste menace in India’s largest state by population. Some parents in Uttar Pradesh have not been allowing their children to go to school,because Dalit cooks have been appointed to prepare mid-day meals. This is a clear case of the practice of untouchability,where parents do not want their children to eat food made by so-called untouchables. This incident has exposed the claims of those who say that the caste system has weakened in India and that untouchability is fast turning into a thing of the past.

It is interesting to see that those who oppose the caste census are silent over happenings in UP. All those writers and columnists who have been creating a lot of heat over the caste census have no words when the ugly face of the caste system becomes visible in the country’s most populous province. And this kind of caste reaction happens in other parts of the country too: we have received news that students have been withdrawn from schools for this reason elsewhere,as well. The difference is that in UP,we witness this on a large scale,because almost all of its schools have got Dalit cooks.

Our Constitution has abolished untouchability. Sixty years have passed since its adoption,but we still face a situation where parents won’t even allow their children to go to school because the meal they will have there may be prepared by Dalit cooks.

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We cannot ignore incidents like this by saying that these are minor things,mere exceptions. In fact,the opposition to Dalits cooking mid-day meals is widespread,and the state government is under pressure to change its policy of keeping Dalit cooks in schools — and,reportedly,has already diluted this policy in certain areas.

Our political class should take a serious view of these happenings. Our Constitution-framers had thought that the caste system and untouchability would lose its relevance in independent India: that is why political reservations for scheduled castes and tribes were provided only for 10 years. They had thought that after 10 years,untouchability would have become a thing of the past.

Whenever political reservations for SCs and STs are extended for a further decade,a great hue and cry is raised by certain elements in our society. They say: it was only for 10 years,why are we extending it? They fail to understand that our Constitution-framers’ expectations that caste would lose its sting after 10 years proved wrong.

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Those who are against the caste census say that it will promote casteism,that the era of casteism is over,and those who are demanding caste census are trying to reintroduce it. My question is: if casteism is over,then why are people forcing their children to boycott classes?

The facts are otherwise. Sixty years after of the adoption of our egalitarian Constitution,we have yet to free our society of caste discrimination. Only we are to be blamed for it. We have ignored the caste reality of this country; we have ignored the fact that we should give special attention to the abolition of caste-based disparities and discriminations. We just shy away from talking about caste. Indeed,we did not conduct caste censuses,only because we do not want to talk about caste publicly.

Caste is a disease our society suffers from,one we cannot get rid of by suppressing. The fight against it has been on for centuries. Saints like Kabir,Ravidas,Peepa and others had launched a campaign against it. Guru Nanak fought it in the best-organised manner. Yet our society still has this disease. Because caste is not merely a social disease,but also an instrument of rule in the hands of the powerful ruling class.

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Caste is a political institution and so it has to be removed using political power,but as politicians in power,we try to evade questions of caste as far as possible. That is why there is no caste census. We do not study caste; so there is no institution solely devoted to the study of caste. No university in our country even has a specialised department of caste studies.

Yet casteism pervades each and every institution of our society and polity. These incidents in Uttar Pradesh are just the latest example,and are only a modest form of the casteism practised in India. In fact,it is being practised even in the most cruel of forms beyond our sight,and those who have been victims of discrimination know this.

I see only one difference between those in the villages who do not allow their children to eat school meals cooked by Dalits,and those in our cities who oppose talking about,and conducting censuses of,caste. The rural people who practise untouchabilty are a bit honest,while those who are against the caste census are totally intellectually dishonest.

The writer is an MP and president of the JD(U)

First published on: 31-07-2010 at 02:58 IST
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