‘Not counting caste is as political an act as counting it’

‘The upper caste elite’s belief that they are casteless is a belief that is available only to the upper castes. Because all the lower castes are reminded by society every day what their caste is.’

On Gandhi Jayanti, October 2, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar did the unthinkable — he published the caste survey, or Bihar Jaati Adharit Ganana.

With this move, the caste factor, which was put on the backburner in Indian politics post Prime Minister Narendra D Modi’s entry into national politics riding the Hindutva wave, has started gaining traction among Opposition parties.

They believe this is the only way to bring down Modi in the 2024 Lok Sabha election, and that the Bihar caste survey is like letting the caste genie out of the bottle.

The last national caste census in India was conducted in 1931 by the British after which the practice was discontinued in Independent India.

The Bihar caste survey is startling, for it shows that the Other Backward Castes account for 63 percent of the state’s 130 million population whereas the upper castes are a mere 15.52 percent.

The Scheduled Castes accounted for over 19 percent and Scheduled Tribes made up 1.68 percent.

By releasing the data, Nitish Kumar clearly wants to create a rift in the BJP’s Hindu vote bank. He is trying to show the OBCs that though numerically they are much larger, power sharing is not done according to their population as the upper castes dominate India’s politics and bureaucracy.

Syed Firdaus Ashraf/Rediff.com spoke to Professor Satish Deshpande, the eminent sociologist, to understand more about India’a caste politics.

Why is it important that 76 years after Independence to know which caste each Indian belongs to? How will make a difference to our society?

At the time of Independence it was the belief of our leadership, which was widely shared, or at least there was no strong countering opinion at that time.

The belief was that caste would wither away with economic development and therefore the State’s first responsibility was to bring about development which would take care of all other problems, including caste.

It was felt at that time that people needed to forget their caste. They needed to rise above their caste identity, and therefore public talk about caste was discouraged. At that time, speaking of caste was considered a retrograde thing.

This was the dominant view after Independence, and it had no serious challengers at that time, at least at the national level.

The silencing of caste in the public discourse also served to hide the fact that the benefits of development were flowing disproportionately to the upper castes.

The opportunities that were being created by development and what was then called as the great task of nation-building were taken advantage of mostly by the upper castes.

The Nehruvian strategy of development, which emphasised heavy industries and the leadership of the State in the economy, served to expand greatly both the demand and the supply for what was then called ‘scientific and technical manpower’.

The State invested in higher education, particularly technical education, to increase the supply of technical professionals. The State’s development strategy also massively increased the demand for technical personnel.

At that time the people best situated to take advantage of these new opportunities — on the one hand, high quality higher education heavily subsidised by the State; and on the other hand, expanding job opportunities in the public sector enterprises and government administration — were the upper castes.

The Nehruvian era thus enabled a crucial social change — the conversion of caste capital (or the material advantages based on caste status) into ‘merit capital’ (or the material advantages based on secular qualifications and credentials).

This was not exactly a conscious conspiracy, but it did help to modernise and entrench caste inequalities in post-independence India.

Do you mean it was not done by design to see upper caste Hindus getting plum postings or educational seats, but it just happened?

Yes, it was not by design in the beginning, but it is also true that the State and politicians and intellectuals all turned a blind eye towards the cementing of caste inequalities in conformity with the traditional caste hierarchy.

This was made possible by the fact that the dominant ideology at that time was to discourage the discussion of caste. So this provided protection, so to speak, for policies that carried an inherent caste bias

But Dr Ambedkar was speaking about caste issues even then?

He was doing his own struggle and that is a different story. His was a single-handed fight. He did manage to get reservations for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes included in the Constitution, but it all happened under the shadow of Partition and the tension around the question of minorities.

But though the reservation policy was there as the State’s intention or Sonstitutional goal, it was not making a difference on the ground until the 1970s.

This happened because there was a lot of silent opposition against the reservation policy by those who were running the administration who happened to be upper castes. Lot of prejudice was there against this policy at that time, and it continues to this day.

But today, there are countervailing voices and there are stricter Parliament regulations that oversee the working of reservations.

Therefore, despite reservations the caste hierarchy remained entrenched. Though the rising tide of development raised the living standards of all castes, these benefits were very unequally distributed, with the upper castes cornering most of the benefits.

In fact, when the pace of development became a little faster, the inequality (of castes) remained more and more stark.

The one who is demanding a caste census is being called a casteist by opponents of the caste census. In a way, don’t you think it is right?

It is easy to see and say that anyone who explicitly invokes caste identity — shouts about it on the street — is a casteist. But is that the only kind of casteism?

What name would you give to a durable social arrangement that systematically reproduces your caste advantages without your having to publicly invoke your caste identity?

Isn’t that the most powerful and effective form of casteism, which does its work silently under the cover of ‘normal’ politics and economics? It is a potent form of casteism that resists being named as casteism.

This is the silent, normalised casteism that the upper caste elite — including people like myself — have benefited from.

For upper castes it is not that their caste is absent or not at work — their caste is doing their work without them having to demand it through the political arena.

So the upper caste elite’s belief that they are casteless is a belief that is available only to the upper castes. Because all the lower castes are reminded by society every day what their caste is.

So the idea that not talking about caste will make it go away is a product of Nehruvian optimism, or innocence or illusion or whatever you want to call it. Not counting caste is as political an act as counting it.

The route of converting caste capital into merit capital is not open to lower castes in the seemingly natural way it was open to the upper castes in the early post-Independence decades.

When this conversion happened on a massive scale under the aegis of the State in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the lower castes were not in the game at that time, they were too busy climbing out of abject poverty, gaining basic education and so on.

By the time they were ready to make the same transition, the State had changed its nature. It had become more of a neoliberal State, it was not expanding and offering secure jobs.

Lower castes have always had to use the political route to demand their rights, so they are marked as casteist. But the upper castes have ‘the system’ in their favour — the ‘normal’ working of society reproduces their caste advantages, so they never have to demand things in the name of their caste, because they demand it in the name of their merit, which is originally based on their caste capital.

That is why upper caste people from the second or third generation after this great conversion of caste capital into merit capital — people like me — have the luxury of believing that we have no caste and that everything we are or achieve is due solely to our merit, and that really speaking there is no caste discrimination.

Just because we have not been part of caste associations and we never demanded caste reservation for ourselves (which is, of course not true, but this was the popular belief until EWS reservation happened so smoothly without any protests). The upper castes had a natural, normalised, unspoken form of reservation working for them.

But the upper castes, it is said, have brains and talent, so they get it on merit.

Yes, the upper castes do have ‘brains’ — but so do the lower castes. So does every human being.

What we mean by brains is actually only partially the product of nature; this natural endowment has to be cultivated and developed. There is nothing genetic about this later process. It is in the realisation of the potential that ‘brains’ represent that the caste inequalities reappear.

Talent may be inborn, but it will never be discovered unless it is recognised and nurtured, and that nurturing requires resources. And these resources are not equally distributed across society. There is a systematic patterning of society along class, caste and gender lines.

Those who are privileged tend to have more resources to develop their natural endowments and so it begins to seem as though, for example, upper caste people are more brainy than lower caste people, or men are more intelligent than women and so on.

Most of this development is not natural. Natural differences play a very small part. They are real, yes, some people are wired differently and they are gifted. But these abilities require other non-natural resources for their development.

So, natural brains are presumably distributed randomly across gender, class or caste or other distinctions like nationality or religion.

In the 21st century we have to believe that they are spread in a random manner across large groups, we cannot believe that, for example, white people are intelligent and black people are stupid etc.

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