“India lives in several centuries at the same time. Somehow we manage to progress and regress simultaneously. As a nation we age by pushing outward from the middle – adding a few centuries on to either end of our extraordinary C.V”- Arundhati Roy.
I was silently nodding my head in acceptance when I first read that quote by Ms.Roy. We live in a country caught between modernisation, which threatens to tear apart ancient institutions and a large society which tries to hold on to those values. The Mumbai terror attacks on November 2008, masked the passing away of V.P.Singh. He can arguably, be called the father of coalition politics. He was also a very controversial figure in our nation’s political history. So controversial that after a short reign of one year, as the prime minister of India, he resigned from active politics and took to art and poetry. He stirred upa controversy that has had repercussions till date. From being considered a reformist leader, he sunk into infamy for trying to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations that advised reservation of 49.5% for backward classes (up from an existing 27 % for SC’s and ST’s). The ‘not so old’ struggle by students of central institutions, the court cases, and the implementation of quotas for OBC’s are fallouts of the decision made by him.
My aim here is not to debate on his actions. Primarily because of the gray areas between what is right and wrong, the gray areas in which most of the world’s dynamics lie. What I intend to do is to try and shed some light on this controversial topic. For caste based reservation is not something that is pointless nor is it the panacea. For some of us ‘caste based reservation’ is something that prevented our entry into top engineering colleges, For some of us it is something that made it possible to get into the same top colleges. For some of us caste is something that is a part of our traditional cultural entity, for some of us it is a relic of the past, and to some of us it is immaterial as long as it does not stand in our way. But whatever be the case, we the student community in colleges have come in contact with caste and have either benefited or suffered due to it. An interesting thing that I would like to note here is that caste is not uniquely Indian. The Vedas define the structure of a Hindu community to consist of the Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishnavas, and Sudras. This classification is similar to what was followed in Europe along with the guild system. They had the nobles, priests, soldiers and serfs. Serfs were the labourers and servants who worked for the other classes. But that was back in the 10th century. So what has made their societies move on? The founding of America, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and Renaissance have all played their role in the development of the European society.
But why is that when someone mentions caste, it has become to mean the castes in India. So why did not the caste system in India ‘almost disappear’ like it did in the western world? The main reason is that Hinduism, more than being a religion, is a way of life for the people. The caste system has been written into the Hindu religion by the scriptures so strongly that it is not possible to change the system without religious reform. Any religion’s main goal is to provide a code of morality for its followers to believe in and follow. Religion helps create responsible individuals who will be easy to govern. The fear of god strikes terror in those who think of committing crimes and faith in god acts as a source of hope to those in need. In Hinduism, the moral code is called ‘Dharma’. In this life, if you live by the rules laid out in the Vedas and also do the work that your caste decides for you, you will get a chance to be reborn in an upper caste (being). The concept of caste when mingled with that of reincarnation and the core values of the religion makes reform difficult. The system is (was) so rigid that it provides(ed) no social mobility during a person’s lifetime. So the next logical question is that if Caste system is a byproduct of the Hindu Vedas, why do people of other religions too have caste identities? This question can be answered by the observation made by analysing the reports by various commissions like the Kalelkar commission of 1955 and the Mandal Commission of 1980. Kalelkar notes that “He found that the special concessions and privileges accorded to the Hindu castes acted as a bait and a bribe inciting Muslim and Christian society to revert to caste and caste prejudices and the healthy social reforms effected by Islam and Christianity were being thus rendered null and void. Muslims came forward to prove that except for the four upper castes, all the other Muslim castes were inferior and backward. The Indian Christians also were prepared to fall in the trap…”
We can see that caste as seen by the Indian government is there just to identify backward communities. Mandal commission reports do make good reading for those who have time for it. For those who still believe that the term OC that they saw when they appeared for counseling meant “Other Castes”, this might as well be an enlightening experience. Our Indian Society has never been a perfect one right from its beginning. Any reform done to the system has to come from us, Indians. The British had no need to enforce reforms and it would have been catastrophic to them even if they had tried. Caste was just another card in their pack of divide and rule. It took great leaders like Periyar, Mahatma Gandhi, and Ambedkar to address the imme-diate evils of untouchability in the society. These practices continue to this date in the rural regions of India, best portrayed by films like ‘Swades’. Just because the urban population does not face the full brunt of the evils of caste system and sees the all rosy side of tradition and culture in the continuance of caste, does not mean that casteism is not similar to racial discrimination. It took great reformists like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the founder of Arya Samaj, to bring customs practiced in Indian society like sati and polygamy to an end. These issues have more or less disappeared from mainstream society. But after that there have been very few reform movements.
I remember this small incident that happened during a train journey to Chennai with 3 of my friends. My dad had always advised me against talking about politics in the public. I was discussing with my friends about options available to us after college. The talk dragged on from placements to higher studies. Then the issue of implementation of reservation in IIMs came up. I was arguing in favour of reservations being there to make sure that backward communities got due representation. I was of the opinion that once social equality is es tabl i shed, reser vat ions would be unnecessary and that the practice will cease to exist. This was when one of the passengers who had been a silent observer so far, made a remark. “Reservations in India will not be gone as long as India remains a democracy. There is not enough political will to do something like doing away with reservations. Look at them, already trying to implement more and more reservation” he said. I tried to point out to him that the IIMs were implementing reservations in a phased manner, and that they were increasing intake to make sure that the general candidates are not being affected. To this, he said, “Well I don’t know those things, I am FC you see.” I didn’t see, but I knew why my dad had laid down those rules when I was a kid.
Caste based reservations instead of their stated objective of ensuring social equality have been quite counterproductive with people from backward castes trying to ascertain their caste identity. Even commissions appointed to review these reservations have come to the same conclusion. Kalelkar himself says that, “Two years of experience have convinced us of the dangers of the spread of casteism and… have also led us… to the conclusion that it would have been better if we could determine the criteria of backwardness on principles other than caste” (page xiv, para 60). But these reservations still continue because of the unavailability of any other metric to gauge social inequality and backwardness. In a country where communal strife is already the order of the day and parties flaunt their secularism or Hindutva ideology to create vote banks, caste based politics is also on the rise. People are becoming more caste conscious in a very unhealthy way. Unless a powerful social reform movement takes place, this trend is going to continue.
Kalelkar notes in his report, “All communal and denominational organisations and groupings of lesser and narrower units have to be watched carefully so that they do not jeopardise the national solidarity and do not weaken the efforts of the nation to serve all the various elements in the body politic with equity” (page iv, para 14). Our constitutional goal is to establish a casteless and classless society. And any belief that reservation based on caste is helping us achieve that is an illusion. A society that our constitutional charter desires can only be achieved through a conscious demand for change by the public. The reform has to start with oneself first. We will not achieve a caste free society, a reservation free society tomorrow. But if we are ready to make a sincere attempt at creating one, it is surely possible to do so.