Can I have an opinion on how to annihilate caste?

Social reform is too important an issue to surrender to an ideological monopoly

It’s twitter. So it should not be surprising that it didn’t long for my tweet supporting ACLU against Donald Trump’s executive order on refugees to turn into a debate on caste. I also found out that I am not qualified to have an opinion on the latter because, well, of who I am.

Responses from thoughtful, otherwise sensible and non-partisan people prompted me to write this post. It cannot be that on an issue that is so central to Indian society, we weigh arguments not on their merits, but on the caste identity of the people who make them.

This is not to belittle the sufferings of those who are at the receiving end of discrimination. Rather, it is to reject the dangerous argument that we ought to discount opinions of people based on the community they belong to. It is also to reject the dangerous argument that only members of a community or group have the legitimate right to debate issues concerning their group. I’ve criticised Islamism without being a Muslim, supported women’s rights without being a woman, commented on Pakistani politics without being a Pakistani and recommended military strategy without being a soldier. I could go on, but nowhere have I encountered people telling me I lack the legitimacy to have an opinion on these subjects. On caste, though, terms like “savarna” and “privilege” are flung about as disqualifications by some, and epithets by others.

It may well be that privilege allows some citizens the luxury to be identity-agnostic and caste-blind. Condemning them for this makes no sense: is it wrong to be privileged, to be caste-blind or both? Votaries of an egalitarian society ought to celebrate every additional child that is raised caste-blind. Instead, political correctness requires the caste-agnostic to feel guilty, stay silent and become caste-conscious. This leaves the field only to those who will fight, violently, to protect their social power. Such rancour and strife is counterproductive to the progress towards an egalitarian society.

So here’s my argument. As I wrote, “the annihilation of caste cannot come without the annihilation of caste discourse; you can’t erase it if you keep talking about it.” Now, progressive conventional wisdom is—as one well-meaning person pointed out—“constantly acknowledging and talking about it is actually a very powerful way to erase it.”

Unfortunately, this is not borne out by empirical evidence. Caste consciousness is much stronger today than it ever was. It has become the very currency of political power. I do not see it being erased — on the contrary, it is being reinforced in every generation. The social and political empowerment of historically weaker sections of our society is a wonderful achievement, yet caste-based policies cannot remain the primary mechanism to achieve this. A couple of years ago, for the first time in independent India, the state conducted a caste census. If it were on its way of being erased, this wouldn’t have happened. People even declare their castes on their car bumper stickers now. Given this trend, the best we can hope for is not the annihilation of caste, but merely a caste-conscious society with less social discrimination. It might be a realistic assessment of where we are going, but it’s not the destination I would like for my country.

Indeed, there is evidence that reminding people of their caste adversely affects their performance. One experimental study found that “there were no caste differences in performance when caste was not publicly revealed, but making caste salient created a large and robust caste gap.” A more recent study using NSSO data found that “that caste identity in contemporary India does shape perceptions of self-worth. Among the fully self-employed, we find that controlling for other characteristics, lower-ranked groups earn lower amounts and perceive lower amounts as being remunerative.”

There is enough here to suggest that perhaps not reminding people of their caste will make them perform to their true potential. It is morally repugnant to ignore such evidence merely to conform to conventional wisdom or worse, political correctness. It would be tragedy to dismiss such insights because the researcher is born into the ‘wrong’ community.

Finally, a point about of privilege: what we should care is not whether a person enjoys privilege (or sits in an air-conditioned armchair), but what he or she chooses to do with it. Most members of the Constituent Assembly were men and women of privilege. That didn’t prevent them from producing a Constitution that was far ahead of its times. Should we summarily dismiss their arguments as being the result of privilege?

The poet and social reformer Kabir offers the necessary wisdom:

Don’t ask what his caste is, ask what he knows
Value the sword, not the scabbard it came out of.

8 thoughts on “Can I have an opinion on how to annihilate caste?”

  1. One way to reduce the caste discourse – to stop reminding people of their own caste and also to stop communicating one’s caste to others…is to remove the surnames indicating caste, from the name.

    Every time one reads a name with a surname indicating a particular caste, it’s getting into the subconscious mind. Biases do creep in. As long as names have caste surnames, one doesn’t need to deliberately remind people of their caste or other’s caste, it automatically gets in, subconsciously. Mere self-imposed gag orders don’t help.

    A caste agnostic name will go a long way in stopping this kind of subtle caste discourse.

    Following the arguments in this post, would be great if you can legally replace your surname with a caste-agnostic one (may be Kumar?). An affidavit and an advertisement in newspaper is all that’s needed.

    Having said that, one should remember that there is a limit to this approach. Just similar to the evidence that reminding people of one’s caste affects their performance, remembering people of their gender also affects performance. Gender and the name indicating one’s gender can’t be addressed through this approach.

  2. So called caste agnostic have no clue to the depth it is ingrained in our mindset, our culture.
    Probable reasons are having no acquaintances with people from lower castes. Or more important never bothered to listen to their stories. Their apprehensions. Lack of confidence. Even their willingness to tell their story cause of the smirk. Keyword LISTEN.
    All people from small towns laugh at the naivety of urban folks. Coz they r clueless about the rural side, their way of life. Villages not more than 15-20kms from their residence.
    If any ‘privileged’ person has actually peeked into the lives of a Dalit cannot give such rhetoric n meaningless arguments as you have mentioned. Hence, so called caste-agnostic maybe shielded n don’t practice casteism in their small circle of world. But their opinions are rejected coz of their ignorance.
    Even urban areas have their caste discrimination methods bit they are very subtle. If you haven’t seen them adds to ur ignorance. Separate lifts for servants. Societies for specific community people.
    N these so called caste agnostics r easily spotted for their hypocrisy us when they read an article about caste atrocities, they will say it is a one off incident. Thats a diffferent matter that every state, every district in every state has sometime or other been in news for caste atrocities. But they continue to be one off incidents.
    Basically if caste atrocities are not acknowledged, how can such people be considered caste agnostic.

  3. I was looking forward to this piece because I was conflicted by the reaction to your tweets earlier. However, I am disappointed that this is poorly argued because it:

    1) Misrepresents evidence to support the claim that reminding people of their caste is problematic
    2) Assumes that caste discourse rather than ‘caste practices’ is the what of ‘reminds’ people of caste identity
    3) Ignores ‘types’ of caste discourse and assumes all have the same intent and content

    1) Misrepresenting evidence:
    The argument is that ‘caste discourse’ leads to ‘reminding people of their caste identity’ and that the mentioned studies provide evidence that this adversely affects their performance. Here the first flawed assumption is that it is the ‘caste discourse’ of those challenging caste based discrimination is what ‘reminds’ people of their caste identity. The second flawed assumption is that the studies support the claim. Nowhere do either of the articles make this claim.

    They instead make the claim that in a context where caste awareness is already high DUE TO PRE-EXISTING CONDITIONS (which have existed over centuries if not millenia), expectations are lowered .

    Goel/Deshpande study: This one directly CONTRADICTS the claim put forth regarding ‘reminding’ of caste identity. The paper presents a correlation and there is no claim of causality being attributed to level of self-professed caste-identity among the lower castes. Indeed they say “Causality between the two could run the other way around too. Actual earnings might impact perceptions: lower-ranked groups internalise existing disparities as “normal” and/ or expect discriminatory treatment, and thus, have lower perceptions.”

    …and from the last line of the paper

    “Our data do not allow us to test for causality between the two, so we can only speculate about whether perception gaps cause gaps in actual earnings or the other way around. That exploration could be the matter of future research”

    Even if it were a test for causality there is nothing here about ‘reminding’ or the role of ‘caste discourse’ in ‘reminding’.

    Hoff & Pandey study:
    The authors are clear that they are presenting evidence that mistrust undermines motivation and not that the act of ‘reminding’ of caste identity reduces their motivation.
    The study which is set in rural UP where caste identity is already very strong. Note that this was not strong because of the rise of post-independence caste politics. It was strong for atleast many centuries before. Even in the present day, the study states that majority of lower castes were made to follow discriminatory practices such as living in separate areas,outside the village and standing up in the presence of higher castes. The caste identity of the students was not introduced by the study but was already a part of their daily lived experience.
    The authors are clear that it was not awareness of caste identity that drove lower expectations BUT the fact that the evaluator was concerned with their caste identity (by announcing it before the start of the test). It was not the students self-awareness of their caste identity (which, by the way, was common across the three variants) but the fact that they saw the evaluator (presumably higher caste as it is a safe assumption in villages) was concerned about their caste. The authors mention in the summary ‘mistrust undermines motivation’. The mistrust only comes into the picture when they see the person evaluating them being concerned with their caste not as in the 3rd variant where the discretionary power of this evaluator is eliminated.
    If this study was to even begin to support your claim, then there would need to be a fourth test where the same participants would be reminded of their caste identity in a manner where they know that the evaluator does not have access to this information. Then if this act of reminding them of their of caste were the reduce their performance, it would begin to support your claim. To be of full support, a study would need to be done in a situation where the likes of Nitin Pai are mixed with other subjects who although of historically lower-castes , were able to grow up ‘caste agnostic’ were assesed for their expectations BEFORE and AFTER their caste identity was brought up (this acts as a test of ‘reminding’ and its impact on performance). If the results of such a study showed that the latter group had lower expectations after their caste was made salient then the role of caste identity in reducing expectations would have been proven. Instead both studies were about rural areas where ALREADY caste expectations are well-ingrained.

    To summarize, their concern is with the evaluator knowing this fact and NOT the fact itself or their level of awareness of the fact.

    In fact, a close reading of both papers show that they actually (if partly) contradict the claims of the author of this post.

  4. Also,talking about empirical evidence, is there none in the clear contribution of the ‘caste discourse’ of Gandhi,Ambedkar,Periyar,Phule to the current status of many millions? Or is it your point that the waters have been muddied by the Mayawatis and Ramadosses? (note that Goel/Deshpande seem to conclude that a ruling BSP contributed to improved pride and expectations among dalits)

    2) Assumes that caste discourse rather than ‘caste practices’ is the what of ‘reminds’ people of caste identity :
    As covered in the previous comment caste discourse of those challenging discrimination only follows caste discourse causing / supporting caste practices of discrimination. It is anybody’s guess which of these leads to caste identity among the majority of Indians who are not privileged to be ‘caste agnostic’. To assume that the discourse of those challenging caste discrimination is the sole or main cause of caste identity is by any means a stretch of the imagination. Especially considering that one of these has a short and chequered (meaningful) history of less than two centuries and the other maybe ten times more.

    3) Ignores ‘types’ of caste discourse and assumes all have the same intent and content:
    The kind of caste discourse that most of Mr Pai’s well-meaning critics would have in mind would be the kind that exhorts the lower castes to not accept discrimination as the norm and that which asks the historically privileged to be aware of their blind-spots. Both of these are different from the pre-dominant,lived,internalised caste discourse which is the exact opposite.
    If one who has historically gotten a raw-deal is reminded that
    a) statistically he has a high chance of the same happening again
    b) he should fight for equality
    c) not unthinkingly accept the ‘received wisdom’ of his ancestors who may have told him ‘but this
    is how its always been’ because he likely has the same capabilities as everyone else
    How would this kind of ‘reminding’ of caste lead to lower ‘performance’?
    In fact given the immense weight of the factors a,b and c above there needs to be a national campaign of ‘caste discourse’ to ensure that a large portion of India can reach its true potential

    I think one of the points being missed that caste is one of those things which does not disappear because one individual chooses to ignore it. If the context in which he is embedded continues with the status quo, his choice makes very less difference. In a crude sense, the argument is similar to those of poverty and structural inequality.

    Ofcourse anyone can have any opinion. But, if the opinion appears to betray fundamental biases, people may suspect these are a result of your background as the cause. Consider also your position of relative social power as a head of a ‘think-tank’ and the size of your twitter following which raises expectations on the kinds of arguments you put forward. With great power comes great criticism especially when making sweeping/unqualified statement on a medium with a 140 character constraint known for knee-jerk reactions on sensitive topics.

  5. “Dear Nitin,

    A very good article. I fully agree that talking “loud” about caste can only be detrimental to the purpose of achieving a caste-agnostic society. But firstly, what exactly is caste-“agnostic” society? My understanding is it is one where people don’t just care about caste. But that is contradictory in my opinion. As long as there is caste and since our’s is very hierarchical, the society will be very “conscious” about caste. So the goal or should I say dream, should be caste-“less” society.

    In my observation coming from a semi-urban; urban background, if I can (over) simplify the situation, there are 4 basic groups. Brahmans and other “vegetarian” communities, Other forward castes(OFC), Other Backward castes(OBC), Scheduled castes. Brahmans want to distinguish themselves from others in every aspect of life and they still seem to define their identify in terms of purity. On the other extreme, all the other 3 groups discriminate very badly against SC/STs. But “within” OFC, OBC people seem to be “agnostic”. Now each group have many castes within them. If these groups can inter-marry, one generation down the line we will have only 4 groups and since we are a democracy, demographics and politics will ensure that OBC becomes more powerful and therefore economically advanced and then OFC’s and OBC’s can converge and become one entity as people tend to define their identity by “class”. I don’t really know how can SC/ST group and merge with the “others” given massive social prejudice, but I am very sure only inter-marriage can eliminate caste.

  6. Lot of (private) companies ask for religion and caste to be fIlled up in their joining/application forms with no option such as ‘I don’t want to declare’. What are they doing with this data? This brings caste consciousness to a place where it has no relevance.
    Such practices need to be termed illegal.

    Similarly, another annoying habit of strangers to first check for the caste. Rather than oblige, we must ask them why do they want to know!

  7. When you ask about how to annihilate caste, you are asking how to prevent creating boundaries or divisions. The fact of the matter is that there are deep rooted divisions in our minds, it could be caste, class, religion, race, or gender. I’d say we need, not just an opinion on how to annihilate the divisions we have in our minds, but a technology to get address it. For that we might have to expand our identities beyond just being human, once our identities are about being a life form, we can aspire to treat everything around us with dignity.

  8. What you have in mind is a laudable goal but its a 100 yr project. And such projects need institutions dedicated to the cause.

    That said, annihilation, if i understand you correctly, is a very difficult objective. Much more achievable is probably the merging and intermingling of castes. Which in the long run produces the same result. This is of course best achieved through inter-caste marriages. So probably the best way to get there is to encourage inter caste marriages. From where we stand, just defending it would be a start.

    (returning to this blog after very long time, good to see it active again!)

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