I was recently forced to overhear a conversation between strangers, two Indian women, who met on the Bhopal-Delhi Shatabdi Express. They quickly zeroed in on each other’s caste. One was a Kayastha (a privileged non-Brahmin) and the other, the younger woman, a Brahmin. Both were happy to discover that they had a Kayastha connection – the Brahmin woman revealed that she had married a Kayastha man. Then they dwelt briefly on the many subcastes and hierarchies within the Kayasthas – Mathur, Sinha, Saxena, Nigam and Shrivastav. The Brahmin woman, employed in the information-technology department of an insurance company, stated with distinct pride that, when all is said and done, Brahmins had ‘sharper minds’ and were born more ‘intelligent’. To substantiate, she talked of how her Brahmin brother always outwitted her non-Brahmin husband in decision-making.
The Brahmin brother, it seems, could always convince his Kayastha brother-in-law of his point of view, whether on a financial matter or where to go on holiday. The quieter Kayastha woman did not protest any of this. Even when the diminutive Brahmin woman later concluded – with her own theory of caste eugenics – that her children had developed a ‘better physique’ owing to the Kayastha father, she underscored that she did not compromise on a vegetarian diet. Now, what would be the caste of the children of this Brahmin-Kayastha marriage, with its own power dynamics? Surely, given an option, it is unlikely they would register as ‘no caste’ in the forthcoming Census of India – the first to include a section on caste in nearly seven decades. Even in such mixed-caste offspring, the importance of caste in their minds would not be discounted.
That caste inflects almost every aspect of life in India, and large parts of Southasia, is a fact, as highlighted in Himal’s April 2010 issue on its pervasiveness. In a society where caste is an overwhelming reality, it would seem that counting castes would have begun long ago. Surely it is not as though India will now become a caste society when caste is, finally, counted; but when every caste does get counted, there would be official recognition of what post-Independence India has been trying to ignore for decades, seeking to present a homogenised identity to the rest of the world. So far, since only the Scheduled Castes and Schedules Tribes have been getting counted, debates around caste have tended to focus on issues of reservation and atrocities against Dalits. For long, questions of ameliorating the disabilities forced upon people owing to the practice of caste or its utopian annihilation (which someone like B R Ambedkar dreamed of) have been jettisoned. Among the Brahminical castes, the question of caste has been reduced to a skewed debate around quotas – wherein the incursion of the Dalits and Backward Classes into hitherto-reserved public spaces is equated with the loss of ‘merit’ and therefore lamented. While maintaining the ideological bulwark, a majority of urban Brahmins also deny the very existence of caste, and behave as if they have ‘exited’ caste.
While conceding the need to count castes, what might be the political fallout of such an exercise – especially in terms of how it might affect the polarisation between Dalits and the ‘Backward’ and ‘Other Backward’ Classes (BCs and OBCs, as a bulk of the Shudra castes are designated by the Indian Constitution)? For the moment, let us set aside what could be characterised as the Brahminical objections to counting castes – represented by a medley of both liberal and neo-con voices that includes Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Barkha Dutt, Dipankar Gupta, Nandini Sundar and Gopalkrishna Gandhi, among others. That ‘empirical’ need for this ostensibly comes from the fact that in 2007 the Supreme Court of India stayed the order against the admission of OBCs to educational institutions citing lack of ‘reliable data’. The demand for this, however, predates the reservations-related recommendations of the Mandal Commission, of 1980, or more recent debates around the issue.
Calculus of backwardness
It is often believed that Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, was opposed to reservation for the Backward Classes, and he limited himself to being concerned with Dalits and Adivasis (the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, in official parlance). However, while resigning from Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet in October 1951 (primarily over the failure of the Hindu Code Bill), he referred to ‘another matter’ that had left him ‘dissatisfied’ with the government of the day. ‘It relates to the treatment accorded to the Backward Classes and the Scheduled Castes,’ Ambedkar said. ‘I was very sorry that the Constitution did not embody any safeguards for the Backward Classes.’
Subsequently, the first Backward Classes Commission, under the chairmanship of Kaka Kalelkar, was constituted in January 1953. It submitted its report two years later, preparing a list of nearly 2400 backward castes or communities for the entire country, of which 837 had been classified as ‘most backward’. Its major recommendations included undertaking a caste-wise enumeration of the population in the census of 1961; deeming women as a class as ‘backward’; and reserving 70 percent of seats in all technical and professional institutions for qualified students from the backward classes. The report was partly rejected by the government of the time, on the grounds that it had not applied any objective test for identifying the backward classes.
Today, the demand for inclusion of caste in the census, for the first time since the colonial 1931 census, has been led by the dominant castes within the Backward Class and OBC groups – the Yadavs of the Hindi heartland and the Vanniyars in Tamil Nadu. Reiterating the need for a caste count, S Ramadoss, the founder-leader of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (representing Vanniyar interests), has even pointed to how the minority community of Isai-Vellalars, to which Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi belongs, has managed to corner important jobs and resources despite having around just 10,000 members in the state. The Vanniyars, on the other hand, are not getting a proportionate share. In Tamil Nadu, the Vanniyars’ grouse is that they are clubbed with 108 other communities in the state’s Most Backward Classes (MBC) list, and hence lose out. Currently, Ramadoss’s party is leading an agitation demanding a clear and separate quota for Vanniyars, seeking to be delinked from the MBC club.
Meanwhile, in the north, the Jats are also in a mood to agitate, seeking inclusion in the national OBC list. They demonstrated their power earlier in June by blocking water supplies to Delhi, and have threatened disruption of the Commonwealth Games in October. A caste census would offer demonstrable proof to Ramadoss, and the ‘oppressed’ Jat and Yadav politicians, to bolster their cases for proportionate share for their castes in all resources.
Within the Congress, Law Minister Veerappa Moily says that the party in many states had lost OBC support because it was seen as opposed to the implementation of the Mandal report, and that the mistake should not be repeated. The caste count is thus being seen as some kind of a corrective action being taken by the Congress party to address this lost support. This is happening even while education is being increasingly privatised, public-sector undertakings are being sold and there is a freeze on government recruitment. When combined with the brazen non-implementation and subversion of the policy of reservation, the neoliberal state can be seen to be shrinking the space for social justice, while simultaneously offering the illusion of proportional quotas by counting every caste.
Let us briefly look at how Tamil Nadu has fared in its policy of reservation for Backward Classes. This is a state with the legacy of a non-Brahmin movement (since the 1920s), where the Backward Classes have seen social, educational and political empowerment owing to 69 percent reservation. In a state with a population of 19 percent Scheduled Castes and one percent Scheduled Tribes, as of 1999 the share of Dalits and Adivasis employed in Group A and B posts (the higher-grade white-collar jobs in government service) stood at 7.2 and 12.8 percent, averaging 10 percent. The Backward Classes, on the other hand, accounted for 57.5 percent of the posts – nearly double their actual share in population, an estimated 30 percent. A recent persistent effort under the Right to Information Act by a Dalit in Tamil Nadu revealed a backlog of 19,530 vacancies for Dalit-reserved posts across 98 government departments. The Dalits of the state seem to be at the receiving end of Backward Class dominance, a pattern likely to extend itself to other parts of the country.
Caste over religion
The implication of counting castes, however, is not just in extending the scope and rationale for the benefits of reservation, but also to stake a claim to political power on the basis of numbers. Crucially, counting castes will be a serious blow to the idea of being ‘Hindu’. As Ambedkar once said, ‘Hindu Society is a myth. The name Hindu is itself a foreign name … Hindu society as such does not exist. It is only a collection of castes. Each caste’s … survival is the be-all and end-all of its existence.’ When the census factors in caste as an identity, the so-called Hindu will be forced to acknowledge his or her primary identity as a caste identity, not a religious one. In many ways, the imminent inclusion of caste in the census brings to a head the battle between the forces of Mandal and mandir (Hindutva’s penchant for a temple in Ayodhya) that began in the mid-1980s. In this battle, OBC power was on the rise even within the rightwing Hindutva brigade, but finally it is the Mandal brigade that seems to have won.
Should the apparent success of the Mandal (OBC) brigade then be read simply as a ‘secular’ victory, where the forces of religious majoritarianism – of Hindutva – have been defeated? Is not just the governing logic of Hindu majoritarianism – that the Hindus, as a numerical majority, must be the ruling class and that other minorities must acknowledge this and make way – being redeployed by Backward Classes and OBCs to argue for representation and stake in resources according to their share in population? What will be the implications of the logic of such ‘caste majoritarianism’ for social minorities? Will not a caste census unwittingly pave the way for displacing Hindu majoritarianism with caste majoritarianism – or will it be argued that, since castes and subcastes are so numerous and region-specific, caste majoritarianism is not possible?
Ultimately, any kind of majoritarian logic can be detrimental to democracy, especially to social minorities. In this case, OBC majoritarianism could directly impact Dalits, since the two groups are pitted against each other in a battle for resources, especially in rural India; and ever so often, we have seen the Dalits bearing the brunt of BC/OBC power. In most areas, the dominant Shudra castes do not fight amongst themselves or try to maim, rape or kill one another. We have not in a long time heard of Yadav-Kurmi antagonism in Bihar, a Gounder-Naicker clash in Tamil Nadu or a Maratha-Brahmin fight in Maharashtra.
The implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations in 1990 was preceded by the introduction of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities (PoA) Act in 1989. Spurred by the awakening created by the centenary of Ambedkar’s birth, in 1991, when Dalit assertion led to attempts to file cases under this Act, the backlash from the Backward Classes was strong. While the urban Dalits supported Mandal in principle and opposed the overall ‘meritocratic’ critique of affirmative action, at the rural level the blows suffered by Dalits at the hands of the Backward Classes saw a sharp increase. Those Brahminical and liberal voices that are opposed to any kind of reservation and are reluctant to forfeit any traditional privilege have gleefully pointed to these contradictions. But that does not mean we turn away from this picture.
It would be useful to remember here Ambedkar’s suspicions on the limitations of democracy in a caste context. In India, he had warned, the majority is not a political majority. ‘In India the majority is born; it is not made,’ he said. ‘That is the difference between a communal majority and a political majority.’ Ambedkar also argued that majorities are of two kinds, communal and political:
A political majority is changeable in its class composition. A political majority grows. A communal majority is born. The admission to a political majority is open. The door to a communal majority is closed. The politics of a political majority are free to all to make and unmake. The politics of a communal majority are made by its own members born in it.Despite India’s system of parliamentary democracy, Ambedkar noted, the overriding role of caste and community ensures that ‘a majority community carries the seat by sheer communal majority’. So, he wondered how a communal majority could run away with the title deeds given to a political majority to rule.
The data that might be thrown up by the counting of castes could possibly lead to trans-caste unity across BC/OBC groups to the detriment of Dalits. The already beleaguered PoA Act is likely to be further weakened, and might even be scrapped. Ironically, while many Dalits, as individuals and groups, were at the forefront of supporting the Mandal recommendations (and today they largely seem to support the need for factoring caste into the census), the other non-Brahmin groups have rarely supported Dalits. For instance, various castes that belong to the powerful, politically dominant Maratha cluster in Maharashtra went on a rampage against Dalits in 1978, when the government sought to rename Marathwada University after Ambedkar. Today, the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party’s antipathy to the Dalit-led Bahujan Samaj Party and Dalits is well known. In 1997, after the I K Gujral United Front government assumed power, it was the turn of a Dalit, Mata Prasad, a senior Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, to be the nation’s top bureaucrat. Prasad would have made history as the first Dalit cabinet secretary, but Mulayam Yadav threatened to bring down the government if that happened.
It is worth comparing the Indian government’s attitude to caste in the census with its attitude on the issue vis-à-vis the United Nations. Whenever Dalits, as the worst victims of the caste system, have sought to get caste discrimination recognised on par with racial discrimination, the state has resolutely argued against such a move. (Notably, most OBCs and Backward Classes have not supported Dalits in their efforts to internationalise the issue of caste discrimination.) Irrespective of the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) being in power, India has claimed that caste is an ‘internal’ matter; it is a non-issue, officials in New Delhi suggest, and there are enough laws within India to deal with it. This is an old script that even Ambedkar had to battle with when he spoke of caste discrimination at the Round Table Conferences in London, in 1930-32, and the Congress and Mohandas K Gandhi opposed him on ‘nationalist’ grounds. Yet when it comes to counting castes – and thus internally acknowledging an inescapable social reality – there seems to be today an all-round political consensus. In other words, when the Dalit-led discourse posits caste as discrimination and violence, the state opposes it; but when non-Dalit non-Brahmins highlight caste as a source of gaining (eventual) political advantage, the state seems to embrace the idea, albeit with some reluctance.
A headcount of all castes in 2011 is not going to be a benign exercise. It would be naive to simply harp on how such data will be useful for sociologists, anthropologists, policymakers and editorial writers (the caste census issue having elicited perhaps the largest number of editorials and commentaries in India in recent times). The data will unleash social energies whose power we, as yet, have no idea about. Ambedkar had always argued that caste and democracy cannot coexist; that the democratic spirit is antithetical to caste. But we have seen how successfully – if not very peaceably – caste and democracy have coexisted in an India that boasts of six decades of parliamentary democracy. While holding a fascinating mirror to the complex diversities that caste produces, this census could also lead to several castes falling in love with their self-image.
Powerful, resource-rich castes that are educationally and socially backward will lay compelling and competing claims to victimhood, much to the detriment of Dalits. Unless the state shows a willingness to fight caste head-on – something about which there has not been an iota of proof over six decades – the caste census might uncork the discourse of caste majoritarianism, the implications of which could be far more dangerous than religious majoritarianism.
The author would like to thank Ravikumar for his inputs.