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No accounting for caste

Enumerating caste is a messy and futile affair,and it can be wielded for the wrong ends...

Written by Ravinder Kaur |
June 2, 2010 3:17:27 am

The consensus of political parties and of senior Congress leaders like Veerappa Moily and Pranab Mukherjee on including caste in the upcoming census,is the worst kind of caving into political pressure by other parties who see this as an opportunity to demand higher quotas for their constituencies.

That this should be happening just when the importance of caste in our lives may actually be decreasing and we may be looking at each other beyond the over-determining primordial identities of caste,region,religion and even gender,is rather depressing.

There is little doubt that the more caste-based our policies and politics become,the more they heighten our consciousness of caste. Whether it is on khap panchayats or caste-based reservations,the logic of political gain and expediency seems to be pushing us into reverse gear as far as the project of modernity is concerned.

Yes,no doubt,caste continues to be a reality of Indian life. Most of us still carry caste names as our last names and many of us still surreptitiously check if the last name indicates a Brahmin,a middle caste or a Dalit. We remain adamant about making sure our progeny marry within our caste and punish couples who dare to fall in love across caste lines. And most importantly,our politics is completely caste driven.

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So much so that without any sense of shame,Moily,generally a sensible politician,reveals that caste identity is indicated in the left hand column in the list of party candidates for election — an open secret. A young politician like Rahul Gandhi is also known to be fascinated by caste arithmetic,perfecting the art with modern technology and databases.

Prior to the last census also,there was a raging debate over whether we should include caste in the census.

At that time,I had argued explicitly in favour of caste enumeration on similar grounds as many others are proffering today — transparency — allowing for better execution of our social justice policies,mainly affirmative action. Today some optimistic social scientists are excited about finding out how many people will opt for “no caste”.

Yet,in 2010,I am completely against caste enumeration,whether full-fledged or only of the OBCs. The last time around,I was in a minority camp against stalwart sociologists Andre Beteille and A.M. Shah who argued against caste enumeration. Beteille argued that it would harden and exacerbate existing caste divisions just when caste was becoming unimportant to large portions of our lives; Shah on the impossibility of a sociologically accurate or sensible enumeration given the complexity of caste even in small contiguous pockets.

He had argued that subcastes (jatis) were innumerable and that caste ranking and social levels varied enormously within regions. When asked about caste,one person may accurately name their caste,subcaste and even gotra while another may mistakenly offer sect or even religion or today very often,SC or BC as their caste. In the early 1980s,when I did fieldwork in a village in Punjab,I came across a new caste — “refugee” — only to find out that these were Hindus from what

became Pakistan and were inhabiting the abandoned homes of Muslims.

Today I argue against caste enumeration for several additional reasons. Social anthropologists like Bernard Cohn,long ago,described vividly the role of the 1931 caste census in hardening of caste identities — their transformation from “fuzzy” to “fixed” categories,as Sudipto Kaviraj also argued. Cohn describes how caste associations materialised out of nowhere,acting like modern-day lobbyists and sought to get enumerated as groups with higher social standing. The literate among them wrote petitions to the British government while others conjured up elaborate stories of fall from grace and the need to recover higher caste status. Whether the caste census would actually grant anybody a higher status was not of concern and not the point of all this activity; the power of government enumeration,that at some point this may enable one to avail of certain advantages,material or social,was in the minds of these groups. Yet,great British census commissioners such as Risley and Yeatts were defeated by the complexities of caste and finally gave up on what also turned out be an extremely expensive exercise.

Today,with the Internet at their command,caste communities will coalesce and position themselves for action as soon as a caste census is announced,as easily as every website provides a drop-down menu with caste names to choose from. Except that unlike 1931,people will be wanting to move down and not up,because the limited government jobs and educational seats in highly subsidised elite educational institutions will be available only if you are one of the privileged “reserved”.

The time of innocence,of gathering “uncontaminated” data (if it was ever there) has long gone. One must not also underestimate the mischief that enumeration of social identities has the potential of enabling — if electoral rolls have been used for targeting religious communities,how do we know that next time it won’t be on the basis of caste?

Knowledge is power — dangerous power — when in the hands of the unscrupulous.

The writer is professor,sociology and social anthropology at the Indian Institute of Technology,Delhi

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