Caste as political capital

Prof Rakesh Goswami
Last week when the results of the Civil Services Examination, popularly known as the IAS exam because the elite Indian Administrative Service officers are selected through this, were declared, caste groups circulated congratulatory messages on social media about people of their caste who passed the exam. Suddenly, the students who work assiduously day and night to clear country’s most prestigious examination become Brahmins, Thakurs, Backwards, SCs etc. The success of these candidates is eclipsed by the caste that they belong to.
Similarly, in Rajasthan, when about 1.6 million aspirants took the Rajasthan Eligibility Examination for Teachers (REET) on September 26, WhatsApp groups were full of caste groups offering lodge and board to the candidates belong to their castes because most of them travelled from one district to the other to appear in the exam held in two sessions, from from 10 am to 12.30 pm and from 2.30 pm to 5 pm. The REET was held across around 4,000 centres for recruitment of government schoolteacher, and the state government, assuming that the candidates may face problem in commuting to the examination centres, announced free travel for them in state-run buses.
From these two examples, we see that for caste groups, every person carries a caste tag. If you belong to a particular caste, leaders of your caste propitiate towards you or claim ownership over you. For this very reason, there are hostels for Rajput, Jats etc. in almost every big city of Rajasthan. I am sure similar situation exists in other states, too. When elections are announced or held, almost every news organization, print or electronic and now also digital, does analysis of candidates and constituencies on the basis on caste equations even though no one knows for sure the population of castes in India. Caste census was last held in the country in 1931. All data used in election-related reports subsequently is a crude extrapolation of those numbers on the basis of the decadal census.
Of late there is a lot of hue and cry over holding caste census but the demand is steeped in politics, more specifically politics of the backward classes. As we all know, the reservation in government jobs and education to the other backward classes (OBCs) is a political decision. The Constitution of India only mandates reservation to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes; there’s no mention of reservation on the basis of backwardness. The OBC reservation pandora’s box was opened by the VP Singh Government in the 1990s by introducing quota for the backwards. There was widespread protest across the country, especially on educational campuses, but the anger petered out and today, OBC reservation is a reality. Some states have gone a step ahead and introduced reservation for the special backward classes. The reservation pie has only increased with quota for the economically weaker sections (EWS), also called the reservation for the poor general castes.
The demand for caste census is rooted around this OBC reservation. The OBC list for central government is different from the similar lists for states. As a demonstration, the Jats of Rajasthan are among the OBC in Rajasthan but not in Haryana. Similarly, the Gujjars in Rajasthan are getting SBC reservation while in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, they are not entitled to any such benefits. The demand for caste census is for pruning the OBC lists – weeding out the powerful castes and brining in the deprived castes on the basis of quantifiable data about their backwardness.
So this demand is not related to the main problem which is for announcing one’s caste in government documents. If you go to lodge an FIR in any police station across the country, you will be forced to announce your caste. If you fill any government application form, you are asked to mention your caste. Ditto for application forms in colleges and universities.
The intelligentsia of the country is often seen and heard criticizing the caste system, blaming it for all the ills that plague our society, but there’s no attempt to do it away. How many of us can stop using our surnames indicating the caste we belong to? How many of us can say a steadfast No to mentioning our caste in government documents? How many of us have every gone to courts to challenge this column in forms?
I see nothing wrong is using our castes with our names because I feel caste is a reality since our birth. We are born to a particular caste and no matter if we mention it or not, it remains our identity. I reckon that according to the Indian shastras, the caste and varna systems are a reality. Those who say caste is not Sanatan are wrong. They have either not read the scriptures or are ignorant.
What is objectionable about castes is the fact that Indian politicians use it for their political gains. Even when we want to elect a candidate on the basis of his/ her performance or the potential that we see in them during political elections, at any level – panchayati raj, urban local bodies, Assembly or Parliamentary elections – we are told about the candidates’ caste. The electoral arithmetic revolves around caste equations, which I have already said is a crude extrapolation of the 1931 numbers.
For caste to cease as a political capital, political parties need to take a lead in basing their prospects on the basis of their promises related to development works and not on the basis of their castes. When that happens, caste will only be our identity but not a political good.
(The author is Regional Director, Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Jammu)