An indelible stamp

Caste census: A non-issue

Caste is such a devilish word in India. Divisions along caste lines are considered to be the biggest fault-lines in India’s socio-economic structure. So, a lot of hullaballoo is being made in the media of the caste census as planned by the Centre.

The argument is: ‘Aren’t we giving sanction to the social evil by actually counting people belonging to different castes? Have we not removed the word ‘caste’ from our so-to-say official dictionary?’

What is so distinctive about caste? Caste is attached to a person by virtue (or vice?) of his/her birth. A person born as a ‘darji’ (tailor) by caste will remain a darji irrespective of whether s/he becomes a high-ranking civil servant or a low-wage domestic help. It is an indelible stamp or birth mark. In Indian polity and social setup, this stamp can be used to the detriment or benefit of the stamp-bearer.

But caste is only one such stamp. In India, we have many such stamps. The reality of India, even in the 21st century, is that the birth-stamp matters – the birth-stamp may be of any kind including caste. We are very ‘lineage-conscious’ people. We may talk derisively about dynasties. But, lineage does matter to us.

Political dynasties are the talk of the town amongst the middle class folk. But, these dynasties are rampant at all levels and in all regions of Bharat –– be it Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Haryana, Nagaland, or Tamil Nadu. Dynasties abound in the film industry too ––  Hindi, Tamil, Bengali or Telugu.

Look at the manufacturing industry or even the new types of industries; the phenomenon of dynasty is not an exception.

 Wherever there is gain –– of money or of power –– there we have this dynasty. We want to concentrate or retain power, position and wealth within the narrow confines of our own family or extension thereof. India is tremendously family-oriented; it is, therefore, dynasty-oriented or birth-stamp oriented.

There are various classifications by birth. Caste and/or religion are only the obvious aspects. Language is also another classification. Again, this stamp is quite permanent. A Tamilian cannot be a Kannadiga and vice versa. A ‘Murthi’ in Maharashtra cannot be a Marathi; he is a ‘south Indian’ – i.e. not a Marathi. A ‘Shetty’ in Gurgaon can never be a Haryanvi; he is a ‘Madrasi’ living in Haryana.

 A ‘Goenka’ from Kolkata is always a Marwari irrespective of the number of generations having lived in Bengal.  Likewise, a Tripathi from Chennai is always a ‘Punjabikaaran’. It may be amusing at times. But, it reflects the stark reality of ‘Indian’ society. We are always bothered about one’s blood-line. Blood is thicker than water. 

Similarly, an individual is a Muslim or Christian or Hindu and branded as such irrespective of whether s/he practices the faith or not. The point is: s/he is seen with the coloured glasses of being a Muslim or Christian or Hindu or a Sikh. One’s entire life will be spent having been seen by all the people around with an ever-present filter of suspicion. 

By simply wishing them away, the root causes of caste do not disappear. By official promulgation of a ‘casteless society’ India has not become so even 63 years after Independence. If any, divisions like caste, sub-caste, religion, language, dialect, region, sub-region continue to be used by one and all and, therefore, also exploited by the opportunistic politicians. Politics is not very different from the social reality.

Always an exclusionist

Indian society has been and continues to be exclusionist. ‘You are not our kind’ is the basic sentiment. This ‘our’ is ever-shrinking. Say, you are from south Karnataka, and then you may be seen to be different because you are a Lingayat and ‘not a Brahmin like me’. If you are a Brahmin, then you are ‘not a Vaishnavite like me’. If you are a Vaishnavite then you are not a Kannadiga Vaishnavite like me. And this exclusion goes on. Everybody is ‘cast’ aside.

Indian society is fragmented. That is the grim reality. The reason may be the deep-rooted individualism tracing back to our ancient culture; or it could be our excessive emphasis on family to the preclusion of the society outside the family boundaries. This is manifest in the way we treat our public property and public spaces.

No one is arguing that the horrible inhuman aspects of the caste system need to be perpetuated. We should get away from this caste system totally. But, we cannot just wish it away. A lot more concerted and deep-reaching effort is required. Not the lip service done all these years. Having a caste census or not having it is not going to make any difference to the evil of the caste system. Caste census is really a non-issue.

What is required is a transformation of India from an exclusivist society to an inclusive society casting aside all differences.

 (The writer is a former professor at IIM-Bangalore) 

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