Thursday, May 13, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Caste and liberals

Opinion > Column
Caste and liberals
R Jagannathan

Wednesday, May 12, 2010 23:22 IST There has been much liberal
hand-wringing over the Centre's decision to include a caste-count in
the 2011 census. This is wrong-headed because a caste-count is not
going to promote further casteism just as its absence will not usher
in a caste-free society. If we have a reasonably accurate estimate of
how many people belong to what caste, we can at least know where we

Of course, no caste enumeration is going to be right. In the last
count in 1931, the British found that entire groups of jatis used the
opportunity to move up the hierarchy. This time around, the reverse
could happen. Our guilt-ridden upper classes may stop indicating their
castes while the rest may try to up their numbers in the hope of
pressing for more reservations. What is not going away is our
obsession with caste.

The real problem with caste is the liberals' approach to it. Thanks to
a deep sense of guilt about the inequities of the system, the Indian
liberal (which usually means upper caste Hindus) is overapologetic
about caste, and refuses to make peace with it. He is thus giving
caste-based politicians an emotional handle with which they can stifle
rational arguments for change and greater inclusiveness.

It is time for all liberals, and especially the Hindu upper classes,
to abandon unwarranted guilt about caste. Caste may have originated in
the religious-civilisational system we now call Hinduism, but it is
owned by all Indians. Islam and Christianity have embraced caste even
though these religions have no scriptural sanction for it. The
bottomline: caste is an Indian system rather than just a Hindu

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Caste is not something that could have been invented by anyone. It can
grow only when almost everybody accepts it. It grew from this soil and
struck deep roots. With every invasion and religious or reformist
attack, its roots went deeper. Caste has proved to be a stronger
binding force than religion precisely because it is rooted in Indian

The biggest attacks on caste —all futile — have come from sons of the
soil, and not Islamic invaders or Christian proselytisers, as some
liberals are prone to believe. The Buddha didn't succeed. Neither did
Vivekananda, Kabir, Guru Nanak, Ram Mohun Roy, Dayanand Saraswati,
Ramanujam, or even Gandhi and Ambedkar. All frontal attacks on caste
have been repulsed. The post-Ambedkar Dalits, and especially Kanshi
Ram and Mayawati, have gone the other way and embraced caste with a

They opted for a political consolidation of the Dalits and lower
castes. The other backward castes have also made a virtue of caste
consolidation and reaped huge gains from it — it started in the south
and moved north. In the south, caste oppression today means
non-Brahmin oppression of the lowest castes.

To get an arm around caste, you first need to understand it. For one,
it is not just a system of discrimination; it became one. Caste is
about kinship and community ties. It offers a protective cocoon for
members in turbulent times. Caste will weaken and disappear only when
people feel secure about themselves and their future. It will dissolve
when the state protects individual rights, without necessarily setting
it against community rights.

Caste survived in India because we took a different approach to
diversity. In the west, diversity was treated as a threat, and thus
met with annihilation and destruction. The Americans annihilated the
Red Indians, the Australians massacred the aborigines, and so on.
Ambedkar, quoting 19th century French theorist Ernest Renan, makes
much the same point about the role of brutality and extermination in
creating homogeneity in society. "Unity is ever achieved by brutality.
The union of northern and southern France was the result of an
extermination, and of a reign of terror that lasted for nearly a
hundred years."

In India, diversity was not seen as a threat. The approach was to
accommodate, with minimal violence, different groups without
disturbing the power structure. This is how castes grew with every
invasion, with every expansion of the Hindu economy. In hindsight,
perhaps we could have achieved a casteless society through much
brutality in the past. But we chose the other route of peace and

Does this mean caste, and its negative consequences, will be with us
forever? Not quite. Market forces, urbanisation and globalisation are
chipping away at the edifice. It will be diluted in due course.
Socially, we can help the process by making simple changes in the
institution of caste by drawing up objective entry and exit rules.
Caste cannot remain an institution driven purely by birth. Once it
behaves like a regular club, with proper entry and exit rules, its
worst excesses will tone down. We can allow demography and market
forces to finish the job.

Liberals should not wallow in guilt about caste. They need to reform
caste, not fight it.


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