What is new about caste today is that, whether as idea or as experience, it is now articulated – in both senses of the word. Used as a verb, articulated means ‘made distinct’, ‘set forth’ or ‘expressed’; used as an adjective, it describes something ‘having segments united by joints’, or ‘consisting of elements joined in a flexible arrangement’. Thus, caste today is spoken, expressed, made explicit – it is no longer silenced or repressed as it was in the Nehru era. And caste today is very much a jointed, segmented or multi-layered reality – it is no longer something singular and homogenous. The problem is that these two aspects are in active tension with each other. The political language in which caste has been spoken is unable to acknowledge its segmented nature; indeed, it even seems as though caste assertion is only possible by insisting that it is singular and indivisible. This is not a problem unique to caste, it reappears in other contexts as well. To fashion new political languages that can voice concerns without evading fractured and contradictory realities – this is the crucial challenge of our time.
The loudness and omnipresence of caste in India’s public arena today needs to be contrasted with the mute marginality that preceded it. What might be called the ‘silent era’ of caste stretches across the five decades that separate the Poona Pact of 1932 and the emergence of the ‘caste atrocity’ in the 1980s. Of course, the silence is only in the so-called ‘national sphere’, and in public discourse. At the regional level, caste was always prominently public; and outside public discourse, in everyday life everywhere, caste was an integral if constantly changing part of social existence.
The Poona Pact is the name given to the arrangement by which the Depressed Classes (as the ‘untouchable’ castes were then known), led by B R Ambedkar and others, were forced by M K Gandhi to forego a separate electorate and agree to be represented by the Indian National Congress. In return, they were promised special concessions, later included in the Indian Constitution and popularly referred to as ‘reservations’ – caste-specific quotas in the legislatures, in government jobs and in education. The shift from the flawed but fertile mechanism of separate electorates to the politically emasculating device of reservations manoeuvred the untouchables into the position of supplicants dependent on the largesse of the very society that had excluded them. Thus, well before Independence, Gandhi had almost singlehandedly ‘settled’ the caste question at the national level. This settlement involved two crucial moves – equating caste inequality and oppression with untouchability; and presenting reservations as a sort of ‘full and final payment’ of the material debt owed to the untouchables.
The Nehru era simply cemented the Gandhian settlement by insisting on a ‘caste-blind’ state. Apart from reservations – which it treated as a regrettable political-moral compulsion – the new state refused to see, hear or speak caste, in deference to the formal equality decreed by the Constitution. Both oppressors and oppressed were exhorted to join the virtuous conspiracy of silence about caste, or risk being denounced as ‘casteist’. Whether it was due to naive idealism or an upper-caste conspiracy, the fact is that such even-handedness was not just ironic or unfair, but politically unviable.
It took a spate of spectacular violence for the caste question to reappear on the national scene as the ‘caste atrocity’. Beginning with Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (Pipra, Paras Bigha and Belchhi), through the southern states (notably Chunduru and Karamchedu in Andhra Pradesh), and on to more recent incidents in Maharashtra (Khairlanji) and Haryana (Jhajjar, Gohana), murderous pogroms against Dalits in villages and small rural towns acquired an undeniably ‘national’ character. By the 1980s, the atrocity had demolished the belief that caste oppression was a relic of the past, a historical debt discharged by reservations.
If the ‘caste atrocity’ ended the era of silence and sanctimony, the dynamic encompassed in the term Mandal inaugurated a new era of caste assertion in the 1990s. Derived from B P Mandal, the chairperson of the Second Backward Classes Commission, the popular term Mandal refers to the forces unleashed by the Indian government’s 1990 decision to (partially) implement the Commission’s recommendation to provide reservations for the Other Backward Classes, or OBCs. In the last two decades, this acrimonious acronym has transformed the landscape of Indian democracy, altering not just the strategies and tactics of parties and movements but the very shape of politics itself.
Accepting the risks involved in a simplified summary, one may say that Mandal advances the theory and practice of Indian democracy in three main ways. First, it demonstrates the integral (rather than exceptional) place of caste in Indian society; second, it foregrounds the complexities of aggregative social groups; and third, it prompts us to revisit the terms of the social contract on which our republic was founded.
Post-Mandal politics has undermined the dominant common sense of caste. Aided by the Gandhian reduction of caste to untouchability, this common sense presented Dalits (and, in a different sense, Adivasis) as the caste-marked exception to the universal norm of the unmarked, casteless citizen – the ‘general category’. This allowed the upper castes to occupy the universal, to speak for and as ‘we the people’, while simultaneously positioning Dalits and Adivasis as the particularistic, aberrant category. The political assertion of the OBCs has exposed the close congruence between the upper castes and the privileged minority. It is now clear that the privileged ‘few’ are overwhelmingly upper caste (though some upper castes may be underprivileged), just as the underprivileged ‘many’ are overwhelmingly lower caste (though some lower castes may be privileged). With the exit of the OBCs from the general category, this category is now no more than a euphemism for the upper castes, and cannot sustain its earlier claims to representing the nation.
Conventional wisdom presented the OBCs as a negatively defined residual category – neither upper caste, nor Dalit or Adivasi – that receives meaning passively from the other elements of the caste system. On the contrary, OBC turned out to be an active, meaning-giving category that has forced the other elements to redefine their identities. Thus, in the post-Mandal era, there is a renewed effort by Dalit activists and intellectuals to foreground the ‘excess’ – loosely expressed as untouchability – that is unique to Dalits and makes them the quintessential ‘other’ for both OBCs and upper castes. The pressure to do this is generated by the emergence of the OBCs, who also claim to be victims of caste discrimination. This prompts Dalits to try to capture the difference between the kind of inequality-producing discrimination that OBCs may have suffered from, and the kind of deeply humiliating and oppressive caste prejudice that only Dalits face.
By contrast, the upper castes are responding to post-Mandal pressure by defining themselves as having no caste, or being ‘casteless’. This may seem on the surface to merely reiterate what liberal upper castes have been saying since the Gandhi-Nehru era, but it acquires an entirely different meaning after the advent of the OBCs. Now, the claim to be casteless is itself a sign – it is instantly recognisable as the unmistakable mark of upper-caste identity, because the experience of apparent castelessness has been available only to the upper castes.
In sum, the OBC category has taken us from a situation in which caste was repressed and no one was supposed to have it (Dalits and Adivasis being an aberrant residue of the past), to a situation where everyone has caste and is talking about it, even when they are claiming to be casteless. Despite its short-term costs, this is much healthier than being in denial, as India has been for most of the six decades of Independence. It is only by confronting caste and working through it that the country can hope to get beyond it. This, after all, is the difference between mere censorship and true transcendence.
A second lesson offered by the OBC category concerns the inevitable complexity of aggregative social categories. The OBCs remind us that it is not the ritual-religious hierarchies of purity and pollution that keep caste alive today, but the material inequalities that it systematically reproduces, which eventually invite political mobilisation. The OBC category is crucial for the understanding of caste inequalities because it discourages presumptions based on caste membership alone. Since their relative status is more ambiguous than either the lower or upper castes, the OBCs encourage us to investigate – rather than take for granted – the relationship between caste and privilege or disprivilege. The complex, multi-dimensional profiling required to determine the material status of specific segments of the OBC category is now becoming the norm for all caste groups. For example, a relatively ‘good’ position in one sphere, say land ownership, may be offset by a ‘bad’ position in another sphere, say education or employment. This raises questions about appropriate standards of comparison and procedures for aggregating across different dimensions of material status to arrive at a ‘net’ result. State interventions for social justice in today’s world cannot avoid these issues, and the OBCs provide useful testing grounds for policy design.
Because it is so clearly an artificial construct, and so obviously heterogeneous and segmented, the OBC category alerts us to the presence of similar traits in other groups, including those wrongly perceived as ‘natural’ or homogenous. It teaches us that, in the modern world, all large social groups are constructed by a complex mixture of past inheritance, colonial or imperial intervention, and contemporary mobilisation. The OBCs remind us that internal disparity is simply an empirical fact about all large groups – it cannot be used to de-legitimise their political claims, even if it inevitably complicates the response to these claims.
Renegotiating the social contract
The third lesson taught by the OBC category is diametrically opposed to the managerial metrics of measuring group disadvantages. It urges us to ‘return to politics’ and revisit the terms of the social contract on which the nation is founded. Rights and entitlements in a democracy are of broadly two kinds – the unconditional (eg, fundamental rights) and the conditional (eg, deprivation or needs-based rights). Conceptually, the nation state is defined by an absolute and unconditional distinction between citizens and non-citizens. But within the nation state, the question of whether and to what degree a particular right is treated as conditional or unconditional depends on the distribution of power – in short, on politics. Whatever their problems, separate electorates emphasised the unconditional aspect of power-sharing among the different social groups that were to constitute the nation. By contrast, ‘reservations’ reposition lower-caste rights as a conditional entitlement, a special exception to the rule of equal citizenship. This formulation completely erases the power-sharing dimension inherent in any group right. Translated into the cruder terms of popular common sense, reservations become a gift from ‘the nation’ to the lower castes, who must produce proof of their deservingness.
Whatever their own motivations, the OBCs have made India collectively and self-consciously aware of what the country has always known – namely, that the lower castes and Muslims are a largely disprivileged aggregation constituting roughly three-quarters of the Indian population, while the largely privileged upper castes account for the remaining quarter. That is why post-Mandal politics packs a new punch into an old question: Who constitutes ‘the nation’? Asking this question today promises a political re-education. It enables us to see that, in effect, the Gandhi-Nehru dispensation positioned the upper castes as the casteless ‘owners’ of a nation of lower castes. It also makes visible the bad faith in ‘merit’ arguments that confuse group entitlements with individual qualifications.
Can a democracy founded on the promise of nation-sharing survive the public awareness that a large majority is being systematically excluded? If the majority consists of disparate and conflicting groups, are its political-moral claims invalidated? If not, how are these claims to be settled – how is the nation to be shared? Can the seemingly indivisible form of sovereignty on which nation states are founded be transformed into a shareable form? If political voice can only be acquired by mimicking the grand, implacable rhetoric of nationalism, then how is nation-sharing possible? How do we go about inventing a post-national political language that can be uncompromising without being secessionist, and can articulate demands that are compelling yet circumscribed? Obviously there are no easy answers to these questions, but not asking them is no longer an option.
~ Satish Deshpande teaches sociology at Delhi University.