Caste Cauldron Yours vs Mine?

Poonam I Kaushish
The caste genie unleashed by our polity nearly three decades ago has bared its poisonous fangs once again in Karnataka in the run-up to polls, whereby casteism is the cause célèbre. No matter it gives further impetus and widens the caste divide. Who cares?
With 2024 polls round the corner the cacophony for a caste census among Opposition Parties Congress, JD(U), RJD, DMK, NCP and SP is rising as there is no documented data on OBC population. Making it, the most luscious mistress to be measured through the prism of power glass politics. With each Party defining it according to its own warped and selfish needs.
Rahul avers it’s a necessity to ensure social equality, as the caste arithmetic is 90 years old with the last caste census released in 1931. He demands 2011 caste census made public (done by UPA) and wants Karnataka to breach 50% reservation cap terming it “need of the hour”. The present census is not acceptable amid fears that caste, a crucial base for formulation of multiple welfare schemes, which form a large section of beneficiaries were left out of Government handouts. They need economic and social power.
Fueled by Mandalistation, politics, is now polarised on caste basis with elections being fought on caste considerations. Voters are regressively but decisively voting along caste lines. After all, why should Brahmins and Thakurs, a mere 15% of the vote bank, rule the roost? Plainly, today political consciousness terminates at the caste and community level.
Besides, a caste census would help address historical injustices and discrimination. It would be useful in formulating appropriate policies to target Government welfare schemes and policies ensuring they reach intended beneficiaries. Thereby, giving the rootless down-trodden a new identity and attitudinal changes.
The Government is opposed to this stating that a caste census (except for SC and ST which is done traditionally), is unfeasible, “administratively difficult and cumbersome” and it discourages community distinction based on caste which is against the spirit of the Constitution. Any such exercise would inflame caste-based social and political sentiments and harm Hindutva nationalist project.
Moreover, it would pose significant logistical challenges including accurately identifying and counting individuals from different castes and communities, requiring expertise and could result in data errors. Alongside, give rise to increased reservations for backwards which could be seen as threat by other communities and backlash from upper castes.
It cited Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv who were opposed to dividing India on caste lines which would be no different from what Britishers did. Also, several castes are named differently in different States.
The BJP has so far not taken an official position as it could pose a big challenge to its Hindutva campaign which would cause its votes to fragment prior to polls, even as it tries to consolidate different castes in the name of Hindutva. Notwithstanding it had passed a unanimous resolution supporting a caste census in Bihar Assembly when it was partner in Nitish JD(U) Sarkar. The first phase was conducted in January and second one begins next month.
Further, conducting a caste-based census could lead to political risks. An enumeration of OBCs in a caste census would provide not only hard data about their numerical strength in different States but also help examine OBC share in State institutions specially judiciary, educational institutions which are controlled and monopolized by social elites giving Dalits and Bahujan groups miniscule presence.
It could lead to demands for increased representation and reservation for these groups potentially disrupting the existing power dynamics and political representation. Resulting, in new political consciousness among the socially marginalized groups, consequently initiating a new movement for social justice which could marginalize BJP.
For example if the Bihar census comes out prior to 2024 polls the biggest beneficiaries would be caste-based JD(U) and RJD, Kurmi and powerful Yadav blocks. Conversely, it might ignite a fresh round of 1990’s Mandal-Kamandal politics, rekindle their OBC politics and catapult them to national centre-stage. The Mandal brigade is banking on a new cycle of social justice politics to churn and push BJP back.
In fact, disdain for “untouchables” inherited over generations, coupled with entrenched misogyny in a patriarchal society and social justification flowing from patriarchy make upper castes extremely intolerant to lower castes trying to rectify their mis-fortune by birth.
Shockingly, 75 years after caste untouchability was abolished by the Constitution, India has failed to democratize the powers and privileges associated with ‘upper’ caste identity with the socially marginalized community remaining distanced from the corridors of power and merely surviving as passive recipients of State’s welfare policies.
Over 27% people say they continue to practise it in some form in their homes. A startling finding of a survey done by the National Council of Applied Economic Research and the University of Maryland sometime back. Those who admit to practising untouchability belong to virtually every religious and caste group Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Muslims.
More. Untouchability is the most widespread among Brahmins (52%), followed by 35% Jains, 33% OBCs, 24% forward castes, 15% SC and 22% ST. Among religious communities, it is most widespread among Hindus (30%), Sikhs (23%), Muslims (18%) and Christians (5%). Besides, high incomes do not dent the practice, but education, especially among Brahmins and OBCs, makes a difference.
Further, it is most widespread in the Hindu heartland. Madhya Pradesh is on top (53%), followed by Himachal (50%), Chhattisgarh (48%), Rajasthan and Bihar (47%), UP (43%), and Uttarakhand (40%). West Bengal appears to be the most ‘progressive’, with only 1%, Kerala comes next with 2%, Maharashtra 4%, Northeast 7% and Andhra Pradesh 10%. Indicating conversion has not led to a change in mindsets.
Clearly, in the Kafkaesque world where caste identity is sticky baggage, difficult to dislodge in social settings and where caste vs caste fight and decide one’s fate no Party wants to jeopordise its caste vote banks. Wherein, the fight for getting the upper hand and votes has been reduced to politics of optics and perception, underscoring present reality and exposes the socio-political undercurrents at play.
Leading to rising tensions between castes over perceived injustices and demand for quotas stem from unfulfilled aspirations of employment and upward mobility. Simultaneously, quotas have failed to either solve the job problem or promote inclusion.
Woefully, our leaders refuse to see the Frankenstein they have unleashed and are unwilling to learn from history. The past tells us that all clashes in India have been based on caste. From Bihar’s Thakur-Dalit violence in Belchi 1976, Punjab’s Jat-Sikh insurgency 1980-1990’s and Kashmir’s two-decades of continuing Hindus-Pandits ethnic cleansing by pro-Pak militants.
With all merrily playing the caste zero-sum game it is now difficult to recognize India as the same country which Emerson described as the “summit of human thought”. Bluntly, if political consciousness terminates at the caste level, the day is not far when divisive caste combinations will dominate Indian politics.
As it stands, vote-banks on caste lines are easier to build. At the same time, it is equally dangerous to indulge in ongoing caste census power games, which, if not arrested, could well boomerang on them and spell danger to our democracy. What gives? (INFA)