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My caste and I

The decision to,in principle,enumerate caste in the Census is a monumental travesty.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
May 12, 2010 11:26:09 pm

The decision to,in principle,enumerate caste in the Census is a monumental travesty. At one stroke,it trivialises all that modern India has stood for,and condemns it to the tyranny of an insidious kind of identity politics. The call to enumerate caste in the Census is nothing but a raw assertion of power wearing the garb of social justice,an ideological projection of Indian society masquerading under the colour of social science,and a politics of bad faith being projected as a concern for the poor.

It is not news that India is deeply structured by hierarchies of various kinds,including caste. These hierarchies still appallingly define structures of opportunity and oppression. But the vision of a just and modern India was founded on an aspiration to promote justice without falling into the same pinched up identities that had kept us narrow and bigoted for so long. The premises of a caste census reproduce the very things we had so long laboured to fight. The precise contours of the Census are still not clear,and much of the debate has been on the practical difficulties of this exercise. But there is little doubt how enumerating caste will condemn us in a normative sense.

First,a caste census condemns us to the tyranny of compulsory identities. The premise of enumeration is that we can never escape caste. Our identities are not something we can choose; they are given as non-negotiable facts which we can never escape. The state has legitimised the principle that we will always be our caste. This is a way of diminishing our freedom,agency and dignity in a way that even votaries of tradition could not dream of. It takes away the fundamental freedoms we need to define ourselves. Is there not a deeper indignity being inflicted on those to whom emancipation is being promised? You will be your caste,no matter what. There is a risk of gracelessness here. But we have too many purveyors for whom social justice is endless stratagem to assert the power of compulsory group identity,rather than finding the means to escape it. In the name of breaking open prisons,they imprison us even more.

Second,a caste census condemns us to misidentify the remedies of injustice. Caste has,particularly for Dalits,been an axis of deprivation. And discrimination needs to be addressed. But it does not follow from that fact that you need a census to attack injustice. Make a list of all the things that are necessary to empower the disempowered: education,resources,food security,economic resources,political participation,etc. Not a single one of the major things that need to be done to make an impact on people’s empowerment requires a caste census. The instruments of justice are ready at hand,if we only shed diversionary illusions. The focus of justice should be on universalising basic provision,as is now possible. It is simply false to say that building a just India requires Census data on caste.

Third,giving in to a caste census is giving in to a discourse of raw political power. The blunt truth is that designing remedial measures for Dalits,including addressing discrimination does not require a census. This demand has rather been fuelled by politically assertive groups like OBCs,who first hijacked the Dalit discourse on deprivation to their own ends.

Fourth,a caste census is the basis for a self-destructive politics. The consequences of a caste census depend a lot on the terms on which a census is carried out: whether it enumerates all jatis or counts OBCs. Which particular groups solidify and mobilise their identities may be an open question. But what is not an open question is that mobilisation will take place only along caste lines,displacing other and more consequential axes of stratification. It will also reinforce an inordinate emphasis on the politics of reservation,pitting one group against the other for purported benefits.

Fifth,a caste census invites misrecognition. Census did not create castes and the deprivations associated with it. But it is naive to think that a caste census is an enumeration of an objective reality. In a context where the state privileges certain categories over other,gives incentives to certain group identities,enumeration based on caste creates its own reality. Caste pre-existed the classifications of the modern state; but the classifications we use fundamentally transform the institution. In that sense,the Census will bring into being a new social reality; it will not simply describe an objective one. Caste facts are shadows created by our politics.

Sixth,the politics of caste has diminished our sense of self. Imagine what society has become: a vast web of enumeration and suspicion. Dealing with discrimination is one thing. But testing the legitimacy of every institution by seeing how many of what caste there are undermines both the purpose of the institution and our own relationship to it. The project of enumerating caste in Census is fundamentally inspired by a cast of mind that measures the legitimacy of everything largely through caste. What more pinched up conception of citizenship can we imagine?

Seventh,the politics of caste has also largely become the politics of cowardice and hypocrisy. It has not produced much justice,and has in fact diverted attention from things that are more consequential. But what it has produced is a fundamental distortion of our character,where the variance between what we privately acknowledge to be true and what we profess in public increases by the day. Indeed,the subtle corrosion of reason and character alike that the tyranny of caste categories is producing by displacing reason with identity,reciprocity with group narcissism,is a price we are already paying.

Finally,the manner in which the Congress took the decision betrays its fundamental casualness about all the values that form our moral compass. A well-considered decision,taken by nationalist leaders whose understandings of both moral values and our infirmities as a nation far surpassed ours,was overturned in a matter of minutes at the altar of political expediency. It sends the message of crass political instrumentalism. The backlash may not be immediately apparent,in part because the opposition has also stopped thinking. But the Congress’s casual caving in to a retrograde demand is reminiscent of all reactionary politics it spawned in the ’80s,pitting one group against another. And what does it say about its character,that its young MPs,exemplars of India’s modernity,have no will to resist? It is already a sign of how small caste makes it. And now we will count it at every step.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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