Learning To Speak Caste


That fount of all contemporary wisdom — the Internet — offers an involuntary but acute diagnosis of the predicament of caste via this feeble joke: India decides to send a 20-member space exploration team to the moon, and the caste quotas are decided immediately — six SCs, four STs, eight OBCs, and, if possible, two astronauts. While the intent of the joke is all too obvious, the unintended insight is in the fact that the ‘astronauts’ have no caste, but the ‘reserved categories’ have only their caste. Futher explores Satish Deshpande who is professor in Sociology in Delhi Unuiversity.

The joke rightly assumes that although we tacitly know the caste of the astronauts, we agree that it is not relevant, only their qualifications (‘astronaut’) are. It also assumes, rightly again, that although we tacitly know that the ‘reserved categories’ would also have qualifications, we agree that they are not worth mentioning, only their caste is. In short, the joke knows exactly who ‘we’ are and who ‘they’ are and why the two can never mix.

This, then, is the predicament of caste today: its invisibility — or persistent denial — in one context versus its hypervisibility — or constant invocation — in another. India is split into two irreconcilable parts. One part appears to be divesting itself of caste, having climbed on to a plateau of economic and educational security where the normal rules of the game are now in its favour.

But the larger part of society is still heavily invested in caste, because it is trying to climb the steep slope of inherited disadvantage, and caste is the only lever it has to reduce the tilt of the playing field. These unequal and opposed parts are also mutually reinforcing in a strange way. It is as if each must weave what the other must unravel. How and why did we get here? Is there a way out?

The first clue to how we got here is in the peculiarity of caste as an institution marked for abolition. Unlike religion or other aspects of traditional culture, there was nothing in caste that was thought to be worth preserving. Modern, progressive Indians could (at least in public) only desire ‘the annihilation of caste’, to use Babasaheb Ambedkar’s passionate term. In the Nehru era this desire took the form of a public silence on caste.

A caste-blind state refused to track the differential flow of the benefits of development. Under cover of this high-minded refusal, the upper castes proceeded to encash their inherited advantages and monopolise the spheres of urban privilege, particularly higher education. At the same time, attempts to mobilise lower caste identities were discredited as ‘casteist’.

A second clue is in the fact that 1947 was not a revolution but a transfer of power from the British to an Indian elite. What should have been a sharing of power among different social groups turned into a project of ‘nation-building’ controlled by the upper castes.

The Dalit challenge was neutralised by the Poona Pact of 1932, an abject surrender — masterminded by a ruthless Mahatma — of Dalit claims to power-sharing in return for reservations as a sort of welfare programme. If the Dalits were ‘constitutionalised’, the Other Backward Classes were ‘regionalised’ in the Nehru era. After an abortive attempt with the First Backward Classes Commission, the OBC issue was banished from the Centre to the provinces.

Here, the upper segments often became quite powerful as rural ‘dominant castes’ and were given subordinate roles in the ‘Congress system’. But large lower segments comprising the artisanal castes stayed poor and powerless. Most importantly, urban OBCs remained economically and educationally much closer to the Dalits than to the upper castes.
It is only after Mandal that both Dalits and backward castes have begun to speak the language of national power-sharing.

Thus it is that six decades after the abolition of caste we have produced a national elite that is overwhelmingly upper caste. We know this but can’t prove it because we have refused to collect data on caste. Despite having one of the world’s most sophisticated statistical systems, we have been strangely reluctant to include social indicators.
Barring exceptions, those who insist on keeping things this way are invariably from the creamy layer of the upper castes.

Lately, they have begun to receive partial support from unexpected quarters — the creamy layers of the backwards and Dalits — who insist that caste is all important, but all other attributes (like income, wealth or education) are irrelevant. So we have a vocal group of urban upper castes, long accustomed to power in the public sphere, who wish caste to remain unspeakable. We also have an emergent lower caste mobilisation beginning to address the incompleteness of independence, who insist that caste alone — and nothing else — must be spoken.

To find a way out, we have to resist the temptation of equating both groups and seeking the pleasures of even-handed liberal exasperation. The upper castes today are infinitely more powerful in the urban public sphere than the lower castes, and it is they who must first acknowledge caste. Once we sincerely recognise caste and begin to track it in the Census, in admission lists, national surveys and every relevant place, we will earn the moral and political right to begin contextualising caste in terms of its internal differentiations and specificities.

Only then can we truly hope to abolish it. To annihilate caste we must first gather the courage to speak it.

Source: TOI

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