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Looking backward

Looking backward

Author: Dipankar Gupta
Publication: Hindustan Times
Date: April 26, 2009
URL: http://www.hindustantimes.com/StoryPage/StoryPage.aspx?id=c1309805-4d34-4721-baa4-56840a1fbfbb

Referring abusively to a person's caste background is a crude kind of cultural determinism and inherently divisive. While one kind of determinism that is insulting to Scheduled Castes is both outlawed and in ostensible bad taste, the other kind of determinism goes unchallenged. This second form of cultural abuse is aimed at the so-called 'forward castes' and is considered to be in good taste and par for the course in the political firmament today. The first kind of determinism is a caste slur that stigmatises the Dalits, while the second is a kind of caste sneer that insults the so-called upper-castes. Both suspend judgment and derail rational discussion because culture acts in such instances as a determining factor, as if it had the same force as the law of gravity.

Only recently, a newspaper article, while discussing Narayana Murthy's inept attempts to wriggle out of his faux pas with the national anthem episode, calmly added without context that one cannot expect much from a Brahmin after all. Now where did that come from? As if to explain further, the journalist went on to remind the readers that Narayana Murthy, the Brahmin, as a Brahmin, also opposed reservation quotas. This is clearly a caste sneer!

Now why don't Brahmins and members of the upper-castes get points for supporting Mandal reservations? Why don't we also acknowledge in caste terms that forward castes of all stripes in all parties support OBC reservation in Parliament? Can anyone make a clear deterministic argument linking caste backgrounds of MPs with their endorsement of Mandal recommendations? Obviously not! From Vajpayee to Advani to Anand Sharma to the numerous Singhs who are Bhumihars and Rajputs, not one 'forward caste' MP of any significance has opposed OBC reservations. But no caste comments are made about them because they are the good guys on the right side. Caste sneers are obviously reserved only for those who are politically unacceptable to the current dispensation. This makes it expedient to culturally abuse them in a breathless, breaking news sort of way.

Now, let us look at it another way. When members of the so-called OBC communities go on the rampage and commit atrocities against Scheduled Castes, then a veil is thrown over the perpetrators of the crime to hide their actual origins. As it is politically incorrect to let anybody know of OBC misdeeds, which are rampant in rural India, and at the same time there is the compulsion to report, an interesting subterfuge is often adopted. Take, for instance, the recent case of outrage against Scheduled Castes in Karnataka. When the story appeared in the press, the spin given to it was that "caste Hindus" attacked Scheduled Castes. If one went through the fine print, it was revealed that the crime was committed not by "caste Hindus" but by Okkaligas, who are OBCs. In the popular mind, given the manner in which caste sobriquets are tossed around, a "caste Hindu" connotes Brahmins, Rajputs, Baniyas, et al, and not Yadavs, Kurmis, Jats and Thevars, and, as in this case, the Okkaligas.

Caste determinism works in other ways too. Advocates of OBC reservation seem to believe that once an OBC always an OBC. Many OBCs did exceedingly well before the Mandal storm broke, but our reservation advocates believe that they are culturally incapable of sustaining their 'creamy layer' status without the reservation prop. Such crude forms of identification should have angered members of the OBC communities but, strangely enough, they have not yet taken umbrage at being labelled culturally inadequate.

Against this background, one must commend the Supreme Court for contesting this kind of crude caste determinism that has enthralled politicians and the media. By consistently asking for a clear set of criteria for including people in the OBC category, the judges are trying to steer politicians from taking a deterministic position. This is a function that the courts intended the notion of the 'creamy layer' to perform. They had warned against "demonstrably perverse identification of the backward classes" in the 1992 Indra Sawhney case and the latest judgment in 2007 withholding quotas for OBCs builds on this observation.

It is 'demonstrably perverse' to consider members of certain castes incapable of doing well and getting ahead even if they have the means and the powers to do so. This is as much a cultorological loaded argument as are the caste slurs against the Scheduled Castes. By reminding the government to take a second look at not just the number of OBCs but also the principal of identification, the Supreme Court was doing democracy a great favour.

Caste identities seem non-problematic but they are hardly so. Even in the 1931 census, the Superintendent of the Census noted that certain castes had different statutes in different provinces. The Vaishya Bania for example, was a "forward" caste in some areas, but "backward" in what is Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa today. So the caste name does not say it all. Yet Jats, whether from Rajasthan or UP, are uniformly labelled by Mandal activists as backward, regardless of their actual circumstances on the ground. Again, with cultural determinism at work, nothing else matters but the caste name.

There are also castes that called themselves Brahmins in 1931, but, like the Vishvakarmas, would today be keen to be among the backwards. This might also hold true for a few other converts into that fold, such as the Archak Brahmins, the Nayi Brahmin or the Kayastha Kati Brahmins. How then would the principle of exclusion from the OBC category work today if we were to rely on the 1931 census? This is why the Supreme Court warned against "demonstrably perverse identification" of OBCs.

Caste determinism works against democracy, no matter who the beneficiaries of this mindset might be. It has worked against the Scheduled Castes for centuries, necessitating the provision of reservations for them in the Constitution. These were designed to protect them and help them generate socially valuable skills and assets that were traditionally denied to them. The rationale was that with time, members of the Scheduled Castes would have sufficient confidence in themselves to take the fight against casteism forward and eventually extirpate this curse. No caste determinism here, but a clear respect for the downtrodden and in their capabilities.

But today, the protagonists of Mandal see the matter differently. Casteism, they believe, cannot be eradicated because even the OBC 'creamy layer' is unable to handle its success. That this is culturally degrading to the OBCs as a people is calmly lost sight of. So, instead of seeking to uproot caste, the Mandalites want to represent it everywhere. This is why they're compelled to resort to caste sneers and cultural determinism so that their arguments are never put to a rational test.

Crude determinism in all forms endangers democracy. Economic determinism gave socialism a bad name and eventually dismantled the mighty Soviet Union. Even the charismatic intellectual reputation of Marx was belittled by the dogmatic material determinism of latter-day Marxists. By the same token, let not caste slurs and sneers, and a few tarnished pieces of political silver, undermine our hard-won democracy.

- Dipankar Gupta is Professor, Social Sciences, JNU

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