My article “Insincerely Shocked”, published a few weeks ago locally received encouraging responses from readers. Not only did a relatively large number of readers respond, the core message of the readers’ reaction was powerfully against the evil caste system. However, a few came up with an eerily bizarre suggestion. They said the ‘abolition of the caste system must be reciprocated by closing down of the reservation system in government services’. Such statements are inherently injurious for the following reasons. One – it presupposes that we have had a free society all along and that the social discrimination, economic exploitation and political marginalization faced by lower castes are the result of their lack of effort. In other words, all had equal opportunities but they squandered it. Two – it shows how lightly such people take the indignity and lifelong exclusion faced by lower castes, particularly Dalits. It is as if they are saying, “Hey guys, don’t make a big issue about social exclusion and indignity. C’mon, we have given you job reservation!” Third – it reveals the most dangerous attitude of such people who want to use the issue of the ‘caste system’ as a bargaining point against those lower castes who want society to eradicate the caste system mentality from their mindset. These strange high caste fellows are saying, “We will remove the caste system from our mind but you guys must give up the reservation system. It’s a trade off.”
Whoever we are, we must generously concede that the India that was there in whatever form before the midnight of 15 August, 1947 was vertically divided along several caste hierarchies. These divisions were not just skin deep. It was ‘hypothetically’ gene-deep. The India that was born on that fateful midnight had to be completely new – a born again India where all citizens, no matter what caste, rank or community they belonged to were “equally poised for the forward march”.
With this mind, India adopted constitutionally recognized classifications such as Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Our founding fathers agreed upon the fact that inclusive and equitable development would be greatly weakened by an unequal caste stratification. Nehru and Ambedkar had differences of opinion but both agreed that practical inclusiveness was not possible without making special reservations for those who had been languishing at the lower levels of the vertical caste system. The erstwhile Indian establishment conceded that the empowerment of marginalized groups was central to the promotion of human dignity and then to development.
If the impact of the caste system is so appallingly painful today, how much graver it must have been a hundred years ago? Their exclusion and deprivation not only deprived them materialistically and religiously, but depressed them emotionally. Imagine the long term impact upon people over generations of the stigma of untouchability, for example. Nicholas B. Dirks in his Caste of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, writes: ‘Caste defines the core of Indian tradition, and it is seen today as the major threat to Indian modernity.’1 K. Kondala Rao, an activist committed to the empowerment of the backward classes aptly captures the spirit of Indian society when he says: ‘The notions of “purity and pollution, reverence and contempt, superiority and inferiority, privileges and indignities, deification and despise” are some of the attributes that have come to be ascribed to and associated with caste-ranking or the ladder of the system as different ascriptive groups are sought to be fixed in traditional occupations and status.’
The starkest example of the hierarchical character of Indian society can be seen in the disproportionate power sharing in the distribution of Central Cabinet Ministerial positions right from 1947 to 1991. Here are a few figures to mull. During the period between 1947 to 1991, Brahmins, who constitute 5 percent of the Indian population held 70 posts with a share of 30.86 percent; non-Brahmin Hindu upper castes, who constitute 10 percent of the Indian population held 97 posts with a 39.92 percent share and SCs and STs who constitute 24.40 percent of the Indian population held 16 posts with just an 11.52 percent share. OBCs who account for 43 percent of the country’s population held only 11 posts with a 4.53 percent share. That is how terribly skewed the power sharing was in this caste-system ridden civilization. What does the caste composition of central cabinets, 1947–91suggest? Among other things, in a country like India which has an age-old caste system entrenched in its culture, hoping for lower castes to come on par with their higher caste counterparts is akin to expecting a hungry, starving child to compete with a well-fed child in an athletic competition. India, in 44 years saw that the high caste –low caste power share cannot be fixed without political intervention.
Look at the administrative machinery until the mid 1970s. The 15 per cent upper castes enjoyed a nearly 90 per cent share in Class-I services as opposed to the 43 per cent OBC’s 4.69 and nearly 15 percent STs and SCs’ 5.68 per cent share.
This is not to discredit the success of individuals by simply dismissing their abilities and crediting all their accomplishments to their higher castes ranks. Although at an individual level, success is mostly the reflection of the degree of personal genius and hard work, the significance of opportunities and privileges cannot be denied. Moreover, the lack of success amongst the people of the non-high caste segment can be attributed to the utter lack of a level playing field. Their social marginalization, economic backwardness and inferiority complex never bottomed out. Most of them never had the socio-economic leverage to capitalize on.
Such an argument may be faulty as it adopts a sweeping generalization. There are many high castes families who are equally poor and there are those non-high-castes who are wealthy and advanced in their social status. Ironies are inbuilt into every human society. But these exceptions are hardly rampant enough to gloss over the deep socio-cultural and economic marginalization of the underprivileged section of the low caste population. One must concede that the reservation system is now beginning to have a reverse discrimination impact, because of which many high castes individuals are being deprived of opportunities. The country has witnessed the tension and stress of those victims. But these are primarily a political issues and India has to grow up to find solutions to these issues. But it is not just foolishness but inhumanity to mix political issue of reservation with the social issue of caste discrimination and stigma attached. Any suggestion, attitude and gesture to underplay the deep-seated agonies and age-old indignity faced by the wrongly so-called low caste citizens is utterly uncalled for and highly condemnable. Let no one mix the romanticism of reservation politics with the harsh reality of the caste system.
“Whoever we are, we must generously concede that the India that was there in whatever form before the midnight of 15 August, 1947 was vertically divided along several caste hierarchies. These divisions were not just skin deep. It was ‘hypothetically’ gene-deep. The India that was born on that fateful midnight had to be completely new – a born again India where all citizens, no matter what caste, rank or community they belonged to were “equally poised for the forward march”.’
By Jiwan Rai, the author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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