It's what everyone the world over is most curious about – how does the caste system work in India? Were people always born into castes, or could they choose their castes? Is it still valid? Can people marry outside their castes? What happens to the children of such marriages? Do people still discriminate against other people on the basis of caste? Is it a good thing that India decided to "set things right" by bringing in reservation? Who exactly is gaining from caste privileges?
And the truth is, each of those questions would draw as many different answers as the number of people who are asked.
And whatever our personal responses may be, we all know that as long as India is a democracy with voting rights, caste will be crucial – because politicians have made sure that when people cast their votes, they vote for their castes.
It began with reservations in educational institutions for scheduled castes and tribes, and burgeoned to include various strata of ‘Backward' classes – so much so that hardly anyone remembers anymore than "classes" and "castes" are not synonymous. And if the Promotion Quota Bill is passed, reservations for caste – and not economic class (though I don't believe that should be a basis for promotion either) – will creep into government jobs for good.
I belong to Tamil Nadu, a state where the percentage of reserved seats is 69. The number climbed up in 1979, when then Chief Minister M G Ramachandran hiked the percentage for "Backward Classes" by 19. His decision was made following a sound thrashing for his party's candidates in the Lok Sabha elections, after he passed an order that would exclude the "creamy layer" from benefits.
In the state, it has spawned a "management quota" for admission into professional courses at colleges and universities. What could it lead to in terms of government jobs across the country?
Passing the Bill would involve making amendments to the Constitution – a Constitution penned, ironically, by a man who would now be described as ‘Dalit', a man who overcame the disadvantages of social prejudice to rise to the highest ranks in the leadership of this nation.
Are we saying that, today, we actually need reservation for promotions in government jobs in order for people to be "equal"?
The manner in which the Bill was tabled is an embarrassment to the dignity of the Parliament. When I say ‘Parliament', I refer to the institution and not the current Parliament – what remains to be said of the dignity of a bunch of politicians who have disrupted nearly the entire Monsoon session? Or who come to blows over a piece of paper?
Ironically, the Bill was tabled amidst pandemonium, when the rules for amendment of the Constitution mandate that a two-third majority in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha must be in favour.
While the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party are fighting over the Bill itself, the Congress and the BJP are involved in a tussle over the government's motives for introducing the Bill.
The BJP's contention that the Congress is trying to distract from Coalgate has been batted back rather feebly by the Congress. Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde claims this is a response to MPs and MLAs belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, who have been asking for the amendment for years. Party spokesperson Rashid Alvi was even more equivocal in his response to the media, saying, "If we had brought the bill just in the interest of parliament, one should understand how serious we are towards functioning of parliament."
Once the Bill is taken up for discussion, the BJP could be in a fix – taking a stance against the Bill would draw attention to the party's perceived upper caste bias. And the Bill is being hustled into Parliament by a government whose reign is dotted with scams.
Even a superficial analysis of the current situation makes it clear that the Bill is driven by political interest.
Let's step back for a moment. Isn't it offensive to people of Scheduled Castes and Tribes to insinuate that they need reservations for promotion in government jobs? More pertinently, is it right for anybody to be judged on the basis of any parameter but merit in a democracy that prides itself on hobnobbing with "developed" countries?
If we continue to divide ourselves along caste lines, and write it into the Constitution, aren't we enshrining the institution of caste forever?
It may be that, today, caste isn't so much used to order social hierarchy as to plot political manoeuvres. But whatever its purpose, caste remains an institution that India hasn't got over.
More by the same author:
Scams, terror, economic woes: Who will take over from the Congress?
Good job, India, join your neighbours in paranoia!
Independence Day: Haunted by disillusionment
Are we raising brats?
Train fire: When populism gets dangerous
The author is a writer based in Chennai.
She blogs at http://disbursedmeditations.blogspot.com