Saturday, March 6, 2010

[ZESTCaste] CASTE IN POWER (Opinion)


Caste is one of the thorniest issues in Indian society. Any discussion
of it opens up spaces of ambiguity and hypocrisy. In all that is
considered official and hallowed by the Indian State, caste is not
recognized and is deemed to be non-existent. India's first prime
minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, declared the caste system to be
reactionary and a barrier to progress. B.R. Ambedkar, the chairman of
India's constituent assembly, went even further and wrote, "You cannot
build anything on the foundations of caste. You cannot build up a
nation; you cannot build up a morality. Anything you will build on the
foundations of caste will crack and will never be a whole." According
to the Constitution, any form of discrimination based on religion,
caste, race and gender is punishable by law. Yet no observer can deny
that caste is a ubiquitous aspect of Indian social life. Caste is
something that the State does not recognize and approve of, but its
presence is undeniable.

This ambivalence or contradiction is, in fact, the failure of the
Indian State to engineer social reforms to eradicate an embedded sign
of inequality. This vitally affects some of the operations of the
Indian State. One example of this is the decision taken that the
census operations of 2011 will not collect caste-based data from any
section of the population except those belonging to the scheduled
castes and scheduled tribes. This was announced by the junior home
minister, Ajay Maken, in the context of "request for conducting caste
base [sic] census has been received from government of West Bengal…
among others". One interpretation of this decision is that the 2011
census, like the previous ones, will not reflect a vital aspect of
India's social reality. The other interpretation — and presumably this
will be the State's rationale — could be that the official recording
of caste-based data would reinforce caste divisions in society. The
moot point here, of course, is what is perceived to be the purpose of
a census.

The State, as social scientists following Michel Foucault have pointed
out, enumerates its citizens under various categories through the
census. The census is one of the instruments that the State uses to
gain knowledge of the governed. The British Indian State that started
census operations in India in the late 19th century chose to enumerate
the population by caste. This enabled it to deploy policies of divide
and rule to maintain its dominance over a colony and a subject and an
increasingly recalcitrant population. The aims and priorities of the
independent Indian State are different. To maintain its power over the
governed, it needs to set itself forth as the primary upholder and
protector of Indian unity. The unity of India is one of the raison
d'être of the Indian State. For this purpose, the rhetoric of
castelessness is more useful to it than the enumeration of castes.


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