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Caste discrimination a British invention, bigger than steam engine

Caste discrimination a British invention, bigger than steam engine

Author: Prof R Vaidyanathan
Publication: DNA (Daily News & Analysis)
Date: February 26, 2008
URL: http://www.dnaindia.com/money/column_caste-discrimination-a-british-invention-bigger-than-steam-engine_1152940

A major debate on reservation in institutions of higher learning like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), etc is being conducted at the Supreme Court.

A five-member bench is looking into the issues pertaining to the validity of the recently passed Act and also related matters like creamy layer exclusion, etc.

It has recently come to light that the Aryan invasion theory is a concoction by British politicians and academicians to justify their invasion of the country.

Perhaps a similar situation is emerging in the context of caste discrimination since the British had a vested interest in inventing discrimination and viewed the heterogeneous and non-hierarchical Indian society using the European framework of a feudal-bourgeoisie divide.

The colonizers were part of the Abrahamic tradition, which believes in homogenization, and the heterogeneous and non-conflicting Indian society would not have suited their design. That might have led them to construct a class-based discriminating society out of the multiple sampradayas and castes co-existing peacefully. After all, history is constructed to suit the colonisers and victors.

A discussion about backward classes is very often a debate on the backward castes. The backwardness is defined to include social, educational and economic aspects.

In practice, it is identified more with social and educational backwardness and hence, many castes are classified (or, shall we say declared) as backward and provided reservation in institutes of higher learning in most states.

In Tamil Nadu, for example, a whopping 69% is reserved for these categories. One of the major arguments in favour of reservations is that the backward castes are educationally backward due to discrimination in the past and hence cannot compete with others.

History does not support the thesis of discrimination

A renowned Gandhian, Dharampal, visited British and Indian archives and reproduced reports based on surveys conducted by the British in Madras, Punjab and Bengal presidencies during 1800-1830.

According to a detailed survey undertaken during 1822-25 in the Madras Presidency (present day Tamil Nadu, a major part of present day Andhra Pradesh and some districts of Karnataka, Kerala and Orissa), 11,575 schools and 1,094 colleges were in existence in the Presidency and the number of students in them were 1,57,195 and 5,431, respectively.

More important in view of the current debates and assumption is the unexpected and important information provided with regard to the broad caste composition of the students (see table). We find that the position as early as the first part of nineteenth century was significantly in favour of the backward castes as far as secular education was concerned.

Hence, the British-inspired propaganda that education was not available to the so-called backward castes prior to their efforts is not valid. The "secular" education was always a major tool in social transformation prior to British rule.

It is also assumed that caste is a rigid hierarchical system, which is oppressive. However, as observed by renowned sociologist Dipankar Gupta, "In fact, it is morerealistic to say that there are probably as many hierarchies as there are castes in India.

To believe that there is a single caste order to which every caste from Brahmin to untouchable would acquiesce ideologically is a gross misreading of facts on the ground. The truth is that no caste, howsoever lowly placed it may be, accepts thereason for its degradation." (Dipankar Gupta; Interrogating Caste; pp1; Penguin Books 2000).

The debate also does not take into account the fact that backwardness is not a static phenomenon, but a dynamic one.

The great sociologist, M N Srinivas said, "An important feature of social mobility in modern India is the manner in which the successful members of the backward castes work consistently for improving the economic and social condition of their caste fellows.

This is due to the sense of identification with one's own caste, and also a realisation that caste mobility is essential for individual or familial mobility."(Collected Essays; pp196-197, Oxford University Press 2005).

May be, the time has come for us to question many of the beliefs and myths perpetuated on educational backwardness. Politics does play a major role in shaping the perceptions of the common man, but it is the duty of academicians and other experts to look at issues more dispassionately so that the future of educational enhancement of our country is not impaired by mythical dogmas. We need "enquiring minds" to investigate the inventions of British other than that of the steam engine.

The writer is Professor of Finance & Control, Indian Institute of Management - Bangalore, and can be reached at vaidya@iimb.ernet.in. Views are personal.

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