Today's Editorial

20 May 2018

Cast in Caste

Source: By Devendra Saksena: The Statesman

The framers of our Constitution wanted our society to gradually evolve into a casteless society; however, close to 71 years after Independence, caste divisions have become even acuter. Caste pervades Indian society to the extent that followers of egalitarian religions like Christianity, Islam or Sikhism frequently divide themselves according to their original castes.

Caste follows Indians even beyond Indian shores; the Indian diaspora has often been accused of caste-based segregation. One can think of many reasons why even today, Indians define themselves first by their caste or communitysecondly by the place of their residence and only finally as Indians. The best reason could be that fellow Indians define them in the same way.

Implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations worsened caste divisions; a number of caste-based parties were formed, which further cemented the concept of caste. This was anathema to the certitudes of our Constitution which had no place for such divisions in our society. However, regardless of constitutional niceties, caste-based parties have flourished … lending post facto legitimacy to the concept of caste.

No harm would be done to anyone if caste was only a basis for social grouping. But this is seldom the case; caste-based violence is a grim reality in our country with caste enmities being the root factor behind much of the violence in rural India. In extreme cases, castes have organised themselves in militant organisations like the Ranveer Sena or radical outfits like the Karni Sena which violently espouse communal issues. Mob involvement ensures that the perpetrators of caste violence are seldom brought to book. In their anxiety for votes, politicians generally support caste-based organisations. This leads to the mushroom growth of caste-based entities.

The unfortunate Kathua case provides an apt illustration; ministers, politicians, MLAs and lawyers all came out in defence of the rapists only because these criminals belonged to their own community. At the time of Independence, the country suffered from huge caste-based inequalities. So, the framers of the Constitution introduced provisions of reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in employment and education for 15 years ~ a period that the framers thought would be sufficient to bridge the gap between the social and economic status of different castes.

Unfortunately, reservation benefited the truly deserving only to a limited extent. Unscrupulous elements in all castes saw reservation as an opportunity for undeserved betterment. Instances abound where people have secured admissions or jobs on fake caste certificates. At the macro level, many castes clamoured to get the benefit of reservation; as a result, reservation was extended to Other Backward Castes and the percentage of reserved posts went up from up from 22.5 per cent to 50 per cent. Jobless growth and the worsening employment scenario have made caste-based reservations appear as a panacea to frustrated youth and their equally distressed parents. Instead of the number of backward castes coming down, a number of new castes have over the past few years been added to the list of beneficiaries and many more castes are in the race to be declared as eligible for reservation.

This competition for backwardness points to some collective flaw in our character. It would appear that most Indians view Government jobs as a licence to loot and caste groupings want the Government to dole out jobs not on merit but on the basis of the proportion of their particular caste in the population. The race for admission to good colleges and employment in non-existent jobs intensifies the friction between the different segments of society. To appease their own vote-banks, politicians routinely espouse outlandish ideas like “reservation within reservation”, reservation in the private sector and reservation in promotion, further widening the caste divide.

Elections also intensify caste and communal divides; indeed, political parties actively work towards creating such divides where none exist. Elections get over but the divisions persist. Mayhem on the scale unleashed in the run-up to the panchayat elections in West Bengal is the norm in most states. Gandhiji would have forgotten his dream of village republics if he had seen the fragmented nature of village society of today. Gram Pradhan elections are the most keenly contested and marked by violence and murders. Such divisions were unimaginable a generation ago. Rather, in earlier times villages displayed commendable unity in the face of common problems like dacoit attacks and the depredation of wild animals. In those days, elders of all castes were respected. Over time politics and the race for Government subsidies have reduced such niceties to irrelevance.

Instead of correcting the fault lines between communities, literacy and technological progress have immeasurably exacerbated caste and community-based divisions. Such is the innate mistrust between communities that hate speeches are welcomed and fake news is circulated at lightning speed via WhatsApp and Facebook. History is often twisted to demonise a particular caste or community; the damage is already done by the time someone notices that outrageous lies are being circulated as facts. Random dissemination of fake news would have still been a problem but large well-equipped set-ups manufacturing and propagating fake news have aggravated the problem considerably. Well-equipped corporations have joined the fake news bandwagon; during the recent investigation of the Facebook affair, it was revealed that the personal data of 70 million users was stolen after which they were targeted with fake news.

It would be elementary to submit that elimination of caste and community from the national discourse would be the ideal solution to a host of societal problems, but no one in power appears to be willing to take any effective step to mend the deep fissures in our society and polity. The beneficiaries of the current state of affairs would like to perpetuate the existing arrangement, while right-thinking people would like to avoid the problems that would arise from a principled stand. Again, referring to the Kathua case, it was widely reported (and shown on TV) that advocates formed a mob and obstructed the filing of the charge-sheet in the case. However, a fact-finding committee of the Bar Council of India, constituted by the Supreme Court, reported that the bar associations in Kathua had not obstructed the police or the counsel representing the victim’s family in any manner.

Significantly, for the same incident, the District Judge and High Court gave damning reports diametrically opposite to the one submitted by the Bar Committee. However, instead of upbraiding the Bar Committee and taking action against the lawless lawyers, the Supreme Court chose to prevaricate and adjourned the case to 30 July. If this be the way the Supreme Court, which is mandated to deliver complete justice, handles the obstruction of justice in a serious communal crime then politicians can hardly be faulted for siding with the majority when the majority is enforcing majoritarianism.

So, is there a way to get out of the caste tangle? Since the so called “general castes” feel so strongly about reservation, it is time to strive for a consensus among all castes. The raison d’etre of reservation being economic and social upliftment, reservation should be available only for the really needy; for example, families with an income of less than Rs 50,000 per month only should be entitled to take advantage of reservation. This simple step would also take care of the situation where succeeding generations take advantage of reservation.

To determine reservation only on the parameter of poverty, regardless of caste, is an eminently logical idea which has not found favour with the courts. The next best option could be to have an agreed time-barred agenda to gradually reduce reservation. However, the surest antidote to any need for reservation is to provide equal opportunity to all citizens. The Government would have to work really hard to achieve this goal. We would have to provide quality education to all students; for this purpose, the neglected Government school system has to be revamped.

Many persons from the earlier generation, who have done well in life, were products of the Government school system but today those very same Government schools, largely built by the British at the turn of the 20th century, are collapsing with crumbling classrooms and playgrounds that have been encroached upon. If the Government formulates a scheme of turning over the management of such schools to their alumni, who are willing to contribute financially, a sea-change in the education system would be visible sooner rather than later.

We should have a policy of discouraging divisive views on the social media. If the propagators of such posts cannot be brought to book under the existing laws, the Government should establish a dedicated cell to counter such posts which can issue rebuttals and issue advisories about really nasty content. Doing this would be much more productive than arresting a person who lampoons the PM or a CM for sedition or under the scrapped sections of the Information Technology Act. Aristotle had said: “The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal”. Which is what we should all avoid to get out of the caste tangle?



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