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.

Non-opposition is costly

The BJP didn’t forcefully counter the UPA government’s communal socialism. It’s paying for it in Rajasthan

Let there be no mistake: those who organised the violent mass agitation demanding entitlements that go with a scheduled tribe (ST) status, including its leader Kirori Singh Bainsla, are responsible for the deaths and injuries that resulted. Surely in a country where Chauri Chaura is taught in history textbooks, public protests involving burning down police stations and public transport buses can’t be called non-violent protests? Mr Bainsla’s claim to a Gandhian parallel—he was fasting while blocking railway traffic—is a macabre parody. The Gujjar riots are not about non-violence. They are about cynical use of violence and the threat of violence to press political demands.

And let there also be no mistake that even ‘non-violent’ tactics that disrupt normal life—blocking railways and holding up traffic—have no place in a constitutional democracy. As B R Ambedkar said, such methods are the “grammar of anarchy“. The political demands that the Gujjar protesters had should have been pressed in constitutional ways: through electoral politics and the judicial system. Arson and vandalism are crimes. Nothing in the Gujjar agitation must desensitise us from seeing them for what they are.

The police and law-enforcement authorities acted correctly. The loss of lives is unfortunate. But the police were not firing on a group of peaceful satyagrahis, but rather, on mobs that were resorting to mass violence. Mr Bainsla and his colleagues cannot escape moral responsibility for these deaths. They also cannot escape responsibility for diminishing the legitimacy of whatever genuine grievances some in the Gujjar community might have had.

These riots have come at a time when tensions between the BJP government in Rajasthan and the UPA government at the centre came to the fore after the terrorist attacks in Jaipur. The Congress Party is revelling at the Vasundhara Raje government’s discomfiture, at the hands of a monster that the UPA government nursed back to health.

It’s useful to be blunt about it. The rhetoric of ’social justice’, ‘reforms with a social face’ and ‘inclusive growth‘ is largely about doling out entitlements based on group identities. The prize—the status of ‘backwardness’, with its attendent benefits in terms of reservations in educational institutions, government jobs, and if the UPA government were to have its way, in the private sector too. The designation of backwardness was subject to electoral promises, not hard-data or economic rationale. Do this long enough and you run into the Gurjjar-Meena clashes in Rajasthan and the Dera Sacha Sauda tensions in Punjab. Continue to persist along this path, and such incidents will be repeated in hundreds of places. [The Acorn, 4 June 2007]

Dr Frankenstein will face his creation eventually, but the BJP cannot escape its share of blame for failing to prevent, or at least draw attention to, the UPA’s larger project of divide and rule. It did complain when entitlement were sought to be handed out along religious lines, calling it minority appeasement. But it remained cynically silent when entitlements were handed out along caste and ethnic lines.

A party claiming to represent the whole of India should have protested loudly inside and outside parliament when the UPA government began its divide and rule project. Why, even a party claiming to champion the interests of the Hindu majority should have protested loudly when its base was being vivisected. If the Congress Party has succeeded in pulling the rug from under the BJP it is only because the latter could not muster up the leadership and courage to speak out against entitlements. As the Gujjar riots indicate, it will have to play the game by the rules set by its opponents.

Periyar, Bhagat Singh, untouchability and poverty

And a very faulty analogy

In a piece commemorating Bhagat Singh’s hanging by the colonial British government, historian Irfan Habib describes how the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu interpreted his politics. Bhagat Singh’s views on the political use of religion struck a chord down south. As did his economics.

Periyar wrote further in the editorial that “to abolish untouchability we have to abolish the principle of upper and lower castes. In the same manner, to remove poverty we have to do away with the principle of capitalists and wage-earners. So socialism and communism are nothing but getting rid of these concepts and systems. These are the principles Bhagat Singh stood for.” [The Hindu]

The fallacy should be clear: one cannot change one’s caste, but one can get richer.

Now it is possible to argue, with some justification, that the social structure and colonial policies made it practically impossible for people of the early decades of the 20th century to break out of poverty. But the analogy was philosophically wrong then, as it is now. Economic fortunes of people did change, albeit very slowly. Instead of calling for economic freedom and individual liberty that would create avenues for upward mobility that generation of leaders fell for the easy seduction of Socialism and Communism.

Those short-cuts didn’t work. The tragedy is that almost a century later, with abundant empirical evidence that these short-cuts are cul-de-sacs, India’s leaders still fall for the same faulty premise.