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.

The genesis of a draconian section

Bad laws pave the way for worse ones

You only have to look at Section 66A of the Information Technology (IT) Act 2008 to realise that it is so badly worded that it not only permits draconian abuse by the government but allows individuals to get fellow citizens arrested for merely sending an electronic message that they consider grossly offensive. Don’t take this blogger’s word for it. Read it yourself.

It is obviously ultra vires of the Constitution’s Article 19, which enshrines freedom of speech as a fundamental right. If a statute renders “blasphemy” a crime in the Republic of India—as the IT Rules for Intermediaries, 2011, which draw their authority from the IT Act, have done—then it doesn’t take a legal genius to notice that a lot of things have gone ultra vires of the Constitution. The higher courts ought to strike it down when the matter comes up for hearing in a few public interest litigations that are in the works.

The question is how did this appalling section make it into the statutes in the first place? Here’s where it gets murky. By all accounts, the IT Act was sought to be amended in 2006, when Dayanidhi Maran was the IT minister. The concern at that time was over hacking and circulation of covertly-shot pornographic videos on mobile phones. An expert committee, of which Kiran Karnik, then the chairman of NASSCOMM was a member, recommended changes to the Act. In its Summary Report it said:

“Language of Section 66 related to computer related offences has been revised to be in lines with Section 43 related to penalty for damage to computer resource. These have been graded with the degree of severity of offence when done by any person, dishonestly or fraudulently without the permission of the owner. Sometimes because of lack of knowledge or for curiosity, new learners/Netizens unintentionally or without knowing that it is not correct to do so end up doing certain undesirable act on the Net. For a country like India where we are trying to enhance the positive use of Internet and working towards reducing the digital divide, it need to be ensured that new users do not get scared away because of publicity of computer related offences. Section 43 acts as a reassuring Section to a common Nitizen (sic). IT Act in order to ensure that it promotes the use of e-commerce, e-governance and other online uses has been cautious not to use the word cyber crime in the text.” [Expert Committee’s Summary Report at MCIT, doc]

This, however, does not sound like an explanation for the wording of Section 66A. That’s because it explains the Expert Committee’s draft of Section 66, which is very different from what eventually went into the amendment.

Somewhere between then and the report being tabled in the Lok Sabha for vote, during Andimuthu Raja’s controversial tenure IT minister, the wordings were changed. We do not at whose behest these changes were made. We do not know why. The Union Cabinet and the Ministry of Communications and IT are accountable, of course, but there is no transparency at all on the motives and the actors behind these changes. If there were national security reasons, they should at least have been mentioned as reasons. Without transparency, we will not be wrong in assuming that the draconian measures were intentionally introduced to stifle free speech and target political opponents of the parties in power. CIS India’s Pranesh Prakash has more on where they got the wording from in his detailed deconstruction of the offending section.

There’s worse.

Shouldn’t one of the hundreds of members of parliament noticed this section for its potential abuse, and flagged the issue? Shouldn’t the parties in Opposition, from the BJP to the Communists to the various regional parties, held the Government’s feet to the fire? After all, that’s what the parliament is for. How could this Bill make it past the two houses of Parliament, where there still are many individuals with the knowledge, inclination and position who could have intervened? Well, because it was passed in mindless haste at the fag end of the 2008 Winter Session of Parliament, when eight bills were passed in a mere seven minutes!

This happened because of the anti-defection laws introduced in the 1980s has turned Parliament from a debating chamber to a puppet theatre where the MP’s strings are pulled by the party leaderships. Bills are passed more through political deal-making between the party leaderships than through debate. It was not always like this. It changed because of one bad law. So bad is that law that it is hard to change it, because changing it requires the consent of the very party leaderships that it will disempower. Shanti Bhushan, now associated with India Against Corruption, was one of its drafters. It was enacted by the Rajiv Gandhi government.

This begs the question. How seriously can we take the laws made by a parliament that overlooked such a flagrant assault on our fundamental rights? The legitimacy of every single law, every single section made by this parliament is suspect. That does not mean citizens can disregard them. It means citizens ought to scan every bit of legislation going in and coming out of parliament with extreme diligence. This is where the work of neutral research bodies like PRS Legislative Research becomes extremely useful. It’s out there, for those willing to pay attention and act.

Parliament must redeem itself. If it wants to restore its credibility, parliamentarians should act in ways that corrects their big mistake. They must get rid of Section 66A in its entirety.

Related Link: See what Kiran Karnik says in on NDTV 24X7’s We The People show, where I was also a panelist.