Why am I being asked my caste?

Last Updated: Mon, Jul 19, 2010 07:51 hrs

Three weeks ago
the census workers knocked on my door. After asking me about my educational qualification, profession et al, they popped the question, “What is your caste?”
I was taken by surprise since, as per the news reports, the issue of whether to include caste in census is still being debated. But obviously, like many things in India, our rulers have no clue what is happening outside the limits of Lutyen’s Delhi.

My answer to that loaded question was “my caste is Indian.” The enumerator did give me a quizzical look, but did not comment. She made her notes and went away. I do not know what she is going to report anyway.

I was then reminded of the stern warning given by our honourable Law Minister that it was my duty to co-operate in census operations and failure to do so would invite the charge of obstructing a government servant from doing his duty.

But, Mr Law Minister, I have some genuine doubts and I hope you will clear them since you have been very vocal about including caste in census operations.

My place in the caste system

The origin of caste is the Chatur Varna, or fourfold division. The Bhagavad Gita, chapter IV, stanza 13 says that God divided humankind into a fourfold division - the Brahman or the intellectual, teacher and administrator, Kshatriya or the defender and ruler, Vaishya or the trader, artisan and farmer, and Shudra, the menial worker.

The stanza clearly says that this division is based on Guna and Karma (qualities or ability and deeds or application). There is no mention of birth. 

Incidentally, before the ignorant start screaming Brahminical conspiracy, the Bhagavad Gita was told by an OBC to a Kshatriya and was written by an SC/ST (with a thousand apologies to Purushottam Lord Krishna, who was a Yadav, Arjun, who was a Kshatriya,  and Sage/Maharishi Ved Vyas,  who was from a scheduled caste).

I am aware that our esteemed cultural minister would say all this is fiction and myth, but nevertheless, I will stick to my guns.

I was born in a Brahmin family; my father was a minor civil servant, so I suppose he qualified as a Brahmin.

But then, I broke the family tradition and joined the armed forces; that should, in all fairness, make me a Kshatriya.

But post retirement, about 20 years ago, I took up teaching and research. That should make me a Brahmin again.

The new caste - Rajnitigya

However, while this may be fine in theory, in practice, the caste or varna system over the years has certainly degenerated into becoming birth-based. Why just the varna system, in the last 60 years we have seen birth of a new caste, that of ‘Rajnitigya’ (Politician).

It would be an interesting exercise under the RTI (Right to Information) Act to find out how many of our rulers (MPs, MLA’s and sundry elected representatives) are brothers, sisters, sons or daughters or sons-in-law, wives or daughters-in-law of the rulers.

Mr Law Minister, since you represent the biggest feudal party of India, I would be obliged if you could provide me this information.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the enthusiasm for a birth-based caste is, like the good old Brahmins, a clever attempt by the Rajnitigya caste to perpetuate their monopoly over power. 

Who is backward in today’s India?

Coming back to the distortion of the caste system, it was most cruel to the shudras, who suffered all kind of indignities and did not have a chance to move upwards till the modern era and pioneering work of Hindu social reformers, saints and leadership of Dr. Ambedkar.

That is why there is a national consensus on quotas for the scheduled castes and, to some extent, scheduled tribes as well.

But in case of the OBC, the issues are very different. It is common throughout Indian history for the farmers to have become soldiers/rulers.

This has been observed in the Jats in Haryana and Punjab, Marathas in Maharashtra and various farming communities in the South. These communities are also the biggest landholders, dominate politics and are in virtually all professions.

Even in the case of other professions, like potters, barbers etc, how many are still carrying on their ancestral profession?

Let us look at some concrete examples.

One of the largest princely states in Madhya Pradesh was ruled by a family that came from the caste of shepherds.  Are they to record their caste as shepherds and enjoy concessions?

Yadavs from UP and Bihar, at the forefront of caste-concession movement, may consider themselves backward, but in Maharashtra, they were the last major rulers at Daulatabad (Devagiri near Aurangabad).

And what of the several Generals and Colonels? Are they of backward castes and a soldier of a forward caste?

In my avatar as Kshatriya, I vividly remember an incident. I joined an infantry battalion in 1968. The battalion was posted in Ladakh at that time.

One day, the battalion barber, while giving me a haircut, asked me if I knew an officer called Trivikram Singh. It so happened that he was one term my senior in Zozila Company (of the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun).

So I said yes, of course I knew him, and that he was my senior. With obvious pride, the battalion barber told me that Trivikram was his younger brother!

As an officer of the Indian Army, Mr Moily, what caste should Trivikram fall into? Barber?

Incidentally, some of the battalions including the one that I joined were entirely composed of the so-called forward castes. All our soldiers are Kshatriyas and Thakurs. It is also mandatory that all our cooks are Brahmins, for traditionally, the upper caste will only eat food cooked by a Brahmin.

But a lot of water has flowed down the Ganga since then, and in the 1980s, out of the ten-twelve officers of the battalion, no less than half were Yadavs, a supposed backward caste.

So we had a paradoxical situation. While the educationally, socially and economically backward jawans were supposedly ‘forward’, their officers were ‘backward’, and their children were to get special treatment and concessions.

If this is not travesty of justice, then what is?   

What about mixed marriages? Does the caste of girl/boy change after marriage? Before the casteist bloggers howl blue murder, let me clarify that in my closest family we have had several such inter-caste marriages. So Mr Moily, it is not just an academic question for many like us.

Caste and class

Caste does not equal Class.

Late Ram Manohar Lohia, possibly the most destructive personality of independent India, propagated a concept that equated caste with class.

Class in this sense is both economic and social classification. Thus it was a short leap for the casteist leaders to justify their approach and then take shelter under the constitution that mandates ‘special measures’ to help backward classes.

Let us look at this skulduggery in the light of Indian reality.

The King who was Kshatriya, was at the top of social hierarchy. The soldier who guarded his palace was also a Kshatriya and of the same caste. But do they belong to same class?

A Brahmin was the minister and advisor to King. Another Brahmin cooked his meals, while yet another was the priest of the royal temple.  Can they be of same class?

The Nagar Seth, or the chief merchant, often a member of the royal court, was lower in the so-called caste hierarchy than both the Brahmin and Kshatriya. But were the soldier guards of the palace or the royal cook, of a higher class than he?

The truth is that even in the most regressive period of the Indian caste system, class and caste were not synonymous. In the modern era, it is even more so. 

But equating them for reservation at the national level has played havoc with the country. For instance, in Maharashtra, thanks to Dr. Ambedkar and efforts of the community, the Mahars have virtually monopolised the SC reservations. We now have families of IAS/IPS monopolising the concessions. This has left the real deserving out of the net.

Even more glaring is in inequity of Tribal reservations. Virtually the entire quota is usurped by the tribals from North East. Can anyone show me a single Gond, Katkari, Madia or Warli tribal in the elite central services?

The growth of Naxalism in Central India is the direct result of this terrible distortion. Sadly, there is no exit clause from this. So we have even a daughter of a former President, former Speaker or such worthy, eligible for concessions.  

Caste in census – and what next?

Let us not kid ourselves - the whole rationale behind asking for caste in census is to then ask for more reservations on the basis of percentage in population.

Are we to then become a country that follows proportional representation in all walks of life?

Let us also look at a hypothetical case of a caste that calls itself backward. What is going to be the criterion for its educational and social backwardness? Will a caste be declared forward if, say, 51% of its members become graduates? Or will we await a day when 100% are graduates?

How do we measure social backwardness? Can social backwardness be cured by reservation in jobs or with social reforms? Can the government legislate social reforms?

It is another Shah Bano moment for the Congress party (when the party bowed to obscurantist elements and denied alimony to a Muslim divorcee).

A misstep at this stage will be a trigger for another bout of Mandal-like divisiveness and would mean handing over the country to Khaps (caste panchayats) and take the country backwards.

Perhaps we should declare everyone backward so that there is no conflict, and then begin a race to the starting line, running backwards.

Historically, India was at the top during the agricultural epoch of the history of mankind. The whole focus was thus towards the perfection of existing technology and skills.

There was thus no incentive to be inventive and all benefits and profits were seen in refinement of existing skills. It can be seen in many walks of life that Indians continue to use instruments and techniques practised for thousands of years. In no small measure, this gave rise to birth based ‘caste’ system where a son followed the profession of his father. It was practical.

There were several exceptions, where people changed their professions, but the norm was to follow tradition.

Dr. Ambedkar was one of the severest critics of Gandhi on this ground, as Gandhi extolled the virtues of village life while Ambedkar rightly saw that as a disaster.

The result of this feudal approach was that war was seen to be an activity exclusive to the warrior caste, with the rest of the society being bystanders.

Despite its huge population, in all its major wars, the Indian armies were generally numerically inferior to the invaders. Not only was the caste system the cause of India’s loss of independence, it was largely responsible for the country’s other misfortunes.

Courting disaster

Through the caste survey, caste leaders want to turn the wheel back to bad old days, shun social reform and jeopardise the dream of egalitarianism.

Urbanisation and industrialisation are the forces that break caste barriers.

Soon more than 50 per cent of our population will be living in urban areas. To revert to rural caste identities at this stage is a retrograde step.

The main motivation behind this resurrection of caste is the fear of becoming politically irrelevant.

So should we say to hell with the future peace and security of our nation?

Should we further divide the country on caste lines, and have a repeat of the violent Gujjar agitation in Rajasthan, with people fighting to be declared backward?

The saddest part is that even the so-called young leaders of this community, who should know better, do not dare to swim against the current.

These are not leaders, but followers, of their followers.

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