(this piece was the edit for The Sunday Guardian on 27 June)
The caste-impelled “honour” killings that are blighting parts of North India illuminate just how badly many vital parts of the Indian system function. The greatest failure of six decades of self-rule has been the inability of Indian society to dilute caste from the matrix of social behaviour; if anything, the Indianisation of democracy may have served to strengthen it.
This failure to address the “caste problem” is inextricably linked to the decision by the Indian government in the 1950s to remove from the public sphere any debate on caste at all. Until the rise of Kanshi Ram, it was considered unseemly to discuss caste in matters of policy, politics and national movement. The preference was to use euphemisms such as ‘vote bank’ to describe communities that voted uniformly, whether willingly or unwillingly. The widespread consensus amongst the educated, middle class (and largely upper caste) urban Indian was that caste was a previous evil, a pre-Independence relic that was rapidly vanishing. Its revitalisation in the Indian context was seen as a product of the “encashability” it received through electoral politics, wherein backward status became something poor, rural groups aspired to.
A parallel contemporary belief is that caste no longer plays a public role in urban life, only a private one. For instance, caste may be discussed in a matrimonial website, but must not be discussed with your child’s teacher. That, however, ignores that divisions of labour and domicile in the city are still overwhelmingly determined by caste: how many non-Dalit sweepers are there in Delhi? And what is the proportion of upper-caste residents of the more superior neighbourhoods of the capital? These are questions that can be answered only through a caste-based census.
The caste-based census should not be portrayed, as it has in some parts of the media, as the work of arriviste, lower-caste politicians from the rural hinterland, determined to extract some unidentified political advantage. The truth is that the census already makes important distinctions on the basis of caste, separating the people of India into categories like scheduled, backward and general. More detailed information better equips the Indian government to identify the poorest communities in India and determine the nature of the assistance they need.
As sociologist Satish Deshpande wrote in 2003, “the post-Independence backlash against caste was strong and sustained. It ensured that one of the paradoxical lessons of modern governance – that the state must measure whatever it wishes to eradicate – would not be learnt…we refused to collect such data because we thought we should not collect it and we did not need it. However, the irony is that the end result is not very different from what might have been the case had there been a giant conspiracy to suppress evidence of caste inequality.”
Caste-based reservations have often been criticised for helping out the “creamy layer” of lower-caste groups of India. This criticism is at least partially valid. But the solution is not to eradicate reservations; it is to collect better information.