Part 1 of 3 Caste and castelessness in the Indian Republic – Towards a biography of the ‘general category’

Prof.Satish Deshpande received the Malcolm Adiseshiah Award (2012) for his contributions to development studies. The following is the Malcolm Adiseshiah Memorial Lecture delivered by Prof.Satish Deshpande at Asian College of Journalism, Chennai on 22nd November. The following is Part 1 of 3.

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It is an immense privilege to be here today to participate in the collective task of honouring the life and work of Malcolm Satyanathan Adiseshiah, a pioneer in the field of development economics and specially educational planning. Honours and awards have the entirely appropriate effect of humbling the recipient. So, even as I offer my heartfelt thanks to the Malcolm and Elizabeth Adiseshiah Trust and its Jury for this honour, I am also mindful of the great responsibility it places upon me. I did not know Professor Adiseshiah and can only claim a tenous connection to him through one of his students at the Madras Christian College in the 1940s, the late Professor

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K.N Raj, who was among my own teachers at Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram in the early 1980s. Given the Indian tendency to claim connections to the great and famous, it occurs to me that, Prof. Adiseshiah was himself a student of John Maynard Keynes, perhaps I could use his good offices to stretch my intellectual lineage back to the author of the General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money! But these are delusions of grandeur, as we well know. While we must always acknowledge the giants on whose shoulders we stand, there is not getting away from the fact that we are accountable to our times as they were to theirs. And it is our times that I now turn in order to meet in some small measure the responsibility you have bestowed upon me along with this honour.

I would like to speak today on a subject that has been at the centre of public attention for a long time, and specially in the last two decades, namely caste. Despite being at the centre of our attention, however, caste continues to elude us in fundamental ways – or at least so it would seem. I would like to explore with you this evening some of the ways in which it has proved to be elusive, and the reasons why this has happened.

The quickest way to map the terrain I wish to cover is to recount a joke that has been circulating on the internet. Popularised five or six years ago wen the 93rd Amendment to the Constitution introduced reservations for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in elite educational institutions, the joke goes as follows: India decides to send a space exploration team to the moon. Feverish negotiations begin immediately on the composition of the team, and after much haggling it is decided to include nine OBCs, six SCs, three STs, and, if there is any place left, two astronauts. This simple joke unintentionally offers us a deep insight into the central predicament of caste today. The insight is contained in the fact that the ‘astronauts’ are not identified by their caste but only by their qualifications (as astronauts), whereas the quota-walas are identified only by their caste and not by their qualifications. In short, the joke correctly assumes that ‘we’ will know the caste of the astronouts without being told, but will agree that it is irrelevant in the face of their qualifications, while simultaneously agreeing that though the quota-walas too would presumably have qualifications, these are irrelevant in the face of their caste. To put it differently, upper caste identity is such that it can be completely overwritten by modern-professional identities of choice, whereas lower caste identity is so indelibly engraved that it overwrites all other identities and renders them illegible, along with the choice that they may represent.

This, to my mind, is the central predicament of caste today – its hypervisibility for the so-called lower castes and its invisibility for the so-called upper castes. having started out with the common goal of transcending caste (at independence) – an objective that no one dared to question publicly and everyone seemed to share – we appear to have reached a dead-end where society is split into two unequal and implacably opposed sections. For one section, caste appears to be the only available resource with which to try and improve life-chances in a game where the playing field is far from level. This section, which constitutes the large majority of the population, includes many disparate groups that nevertheless share an interest in caste-based politics. For the other section, which is far less numerous and more homogenous, caste has already yielded all that it can and represents a ladder that can now safely kicked away. Having encashed its traditional caste-capital and converted it into modern forms of capital like property, higher educational credentials and strongholds in lucrative professions, this section believes itself to be ‘caste-less’ today. Not only is there no dialogue possible between the two sides, they are trapped in a perverse relationship where each is compelled to unravel the arguments knitted by the other.

What I would like to emphasize here is the mismatch in the public perception of the two groups. The story of the political encashment of caste in often told – indeed it has dominated public discourse over the past two decades. This is a noisy and raucous account, full of the rough and tumble of political contestation, and it has also attracted ample attention from social scientists, as attested by concepts such as ‘dominant caste’ or ‘the Congress system’. The other story – that of the ‘extra-electoral’ coup effected by the upper castes through the transformation of their caste-capital into modern capital – is not so well known. Because it runs with the grain of the dominant common-sense – which is for obvious reasons monopolised by the vocal upper caste minority – heard in other garbs – it appears to be a story about something other than caste, like the story of nation building for examples, or the story of a great and ancient tradition modernising itself.

I want to suggest to you that one reason why caste has proved elusive is because we have not recognised the consequences of this assymetry. While it is of course necessary to address the question of the lower castes and their demands for social justice, we will not get a purchase on the contemporary complexities of this institution unless we ppay close attention to its taken-for-granted side, namely the ‘naturalisation’ of the upper castes as the legitimate inheritors of modernity. In brief, my contention is that caste can be understood only if we pay as much attention to it when it is invisible or infra-visible as we do when it is hypervisible or ultra-visible. Whether it is represented as a chosen goals or claimed as an actual achievement, castelessness holds the key to caste.

Therefore, my objective today is to attempt an intial account – brief biography – of the emergence and rise of the notion of castelessness and ts main form-of-appearance in everyday life, namely the ‘general category’. Needless to say this is a preliminary and incomplete effort, a rehearsal rather than a performance. Such an effort must begin by asking how a journey originating in a common starting point – the desire to ‘abolish’ caste – could lead to such sharply divergent paths. There are two obvious places where answers may be sought. First, we must examine the starting point to check whether it was in fact common or shared, and the extent to which this was so. Second, we must examine the particulars of the intial part of the journey to check whether something happened along the way that magnified existing differences among fellow travelers or else manufactured new divisions. The next two sections of this lecture attempt to take up each of these options in turn. Part I examines the apparently universal goal of ‘abolishing’ or transcending caste and its many distinct strands in the decades leading up to independence. Part II deals with the ways in which the new republic tried to give expression to the variously understood objective of ‘abolishing’ caste in its constitutional ideals, legal norms and policy practices. The concluding section (Part III) speculates on the current and possible future trajectories of the ‘general category’.

PART I – The provocation of caste

The case of caste offers a paradoxical union of the over familiar and the poorly understood. AS the unique institution that indelibly marked Indian society as fundamentally in egalitarian and therefore unfit for modernity, caste was the universal provocation. No Indian and certainly no Indian wishing to claim modernity in any way could remain indifferent to it. The broad tenor of the response was also pre-given by the encounter with modernity, that is to say, something had to be done about caste – it could not be allowed to continue “as is”. And this generalized urge to change or act upon caste was typically expressed by the term “reform”, which, as Susan Bailey has noted, “proclaimed the existence of a community or confraternity of the enlightened, working in harmony towards improvement and ‘uplift’ in the life of the nation” (Bailey 2008:155). This apparent commonality was, however, very deceptive because of the divergence between implicit intentions and explicit rhetoric. Public statements about caste were more constrained by the normative pressures of modernity than communitarian intentions, which could always manage to create some space for maneuver. What this meant in practice was that the language in which political and social programmed were expressed was far more convergent than the divergent projects that these programmed actually contained. Even when these disparate positions eventually seemed to congregate around firmer and more specific terms like ‘abolition’ they continued to subsume wide variations in perspective and intent.

Thus, when tracked through sites such as the Indian National Congress and its official resolutions, for example, it is clear that the public language in which caste was addressed acquired the most motif of ‘abolition’ very late and only through a slow and reluctant process. As Ambedkar has documented in his famous essay “What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables”, even after talk of ‘abolition’ became common, it remained facile and was rarely accompanied by a concrete understanding of caste and the practical course to be followed to achieve its abolition. Moreover, caste appeared to be unique in the sense that it was the only all-encompassing institution that was slated for abolition rather than reform. The obvious comparison is with religion which, even when it harboured numerous social evils, could still be presented as possessing an indispensable residue that was well worth preserving. Finally, while ‘everyone’ had religion including the colonisers and the moderns, caste was uniquely ours and it was without question ‘un-modern’.

In this sense, therefore, when speaking of the abolition of caste, reformist public rhetoric was leaning far ahead of its constituency which was still located well to the ear of the rhetoric. This ideological overhang is most clearly visible in the early stages of the campaign against caste, namely the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. The most prominent voices here are still those that are seeking the reform of caste groups qua castes. The practical measures advocated here require nothing more than the simplification of an over-intricate system and the dissolution of proliferating sub-castes in favour of a larger, more effective collective caste identity. Examples of such campaigns were man, calling for rationalising and modernizing, say, the kayasths or the Brahmins as a caste by promoting interdining and intermarriage among sub-castes and urging sub-castes to rise above petty rivalries and claims to precedence. Associated measures might include those that were part of the larger social reform agenda such as education of girls, raising the age of marriage, doing away with arcane taboos and superstitions, and so on. So, what might be stated as a campaign to abolish caste was actually one designed to prepare castes to meet the modern world as castes.

A second set of agendas were less parochial and attempted to address the severe disabilities that the caste system imposed on the lower and especially the lowest castes. These efforts matured at the national level into the ‘constructive programmed’ of the INC launched in 1922 soon after Gandhi’s virtual takeover of the Congress. One of the major themes of this programme was the campaign against untouchability, easily the most visible and damaging practice associated with caste. However, it is important to emphasize the self-imposed limits that this programme functioned under. One way of mapping the gradual and reluctant widening of the ambit of the anti-caste campaign within the Congress is to trace the evolution of Gandhi’s positions on caste. Gandhi, too, began with what was essentially a rationalisaton and reform programme whose overall objective was to simplify the needless intricate system of castes into the four broad varnas. The legitimacy of the latter – construed as varnashramadharma – remained an article of faith with Gandhi that he gave up only towards the end of his life, after sustained interaction with powerful opponents like Ambedkar, Periyar and radical anti-caste groups like the Jat Pat Todak Mandal.

At the start of this political and moral journey, we have Gandhi declaring in 1921, just before tha lunch of the ‘constructive programme’ that: “The caste system is the natural order of society.. I am opposed to all those who are out to destroy the caste system”. Frm there, by a gradual process helped along by the constructive programme and escalating in 1932 after the Poona Pact and the launch of the Harijan uplift campaign, Gandhi had arrived, by the mid-1930 at the view that “Caste must go”. Gandhi’s faith in the basics of the caste system, which he understood in terms of the doctrine of varnashramadharma, endured for nearly a decade and a half of his career as an anti-caste activist. During this period, all that Gandhi desired was the purification and simplification of the system that would help it to rediscover its sanatana or eternal virtues. Despite some discomfort with the unjustifiable reliance on birth to determine varnaor station in life, it is instructive from a contemporary vantage point to see just how far even such a committed political reformer was willing to go in his support for caste. Similarly striking instance of reformist political beliefs coexisting with extreme anxiety about losing caste were seen among early Tamil Brahmins supporting the Congress and other pro-change groups in the south (Pandian 2007). The clearest evidence for the gradualism that attended Gandhi’s slowly evolving views are visible in the inter-caste marriages that he began to advocate in the 1920’s. As Mark Lindley has shown, intercaste initially only meant inter-subcaste and strictly intra-varna marriages. This slowly expanded in the late 1920s to intra-savarna marriages that could be across the three twice-born varnas. It took a significant and clearly difficult interregnum before Gandhi could bring himself to advocate the marriage of twice borns with the Shudra castes. Ultimately – after the 1936 publication of Ambedkar’s famous text The Annihilation of Caste, the undelivered text of the Presidential Address to the Jat Pat Todak Mandal – Gandhi graduated to his most radical position of advocating intermarriage between Harijans and caste Hindus. By 1946, two years before his assassination, he publicly declared that the only marriages that could take place in Sewagram Ashram would be those involving a Harijan bride or groom. The point of this excursus into the biography of the most famous campaigner against caste in pre-IndependenceIndia is to show that ‘abolition’ could have many meanings that evolved over time.

Finally, there was a third version of ‘abolition’ that stood at the far end of the spectrum, a position represented by Ambedkar with his stated goal of annihilation. For him, mere intermarriage was necessary but far from sufficient to uproot caste. Unlike his more moderate allies in the Jat Pat Todak Mandal, who were enthusiastic advocates of intermarriage, Ambedkar wanted to attack the ultimate foundations of caste which he believed were located in Hindu religion and specially its revered scriptures. It was precisely his call to disown the scriptures that alarmed his hosts in the Mandal and led to the withdrawal of their invitation to address their national convention in 1936.

In short, the moral pressure faced by the institution made abolition the preferred motif for programmatic public utterances on caste. However this apparent unanimity of purpose concealed a broad spectrum of attitudes ranging from revitalization and rationalization to annihilation. Ambiguity of language was desirable and even sought after because of the pervasive nature of caste. It was (and is) no easy matter to abolish an institution so broad and inclusive that it constitutes a way of life. In the final approach towards independence, therefore, these varied position tended to find expression in similar sounding phrases and slogans that were intentionally vague and imprecise. It is no surprise, then, that the Constitution makers should have carried these ambiguities into the founding document of the new Republic.

But civil society was not the only active force working on caste during this period – the colonial state too was an important actor. Indeed, an influential strand of scholarship has argued that caste as we know it today is, in the words of Nicholas Dirks, “a modern phenomenon, that it is specifically, the product of a historical encounter between India and Western colonial rule” (Dirks 2001:3). Possibly the most consequential intervention of the state was its effort, via the Census of India, to enumerate caste. As has been argued first by Bernard Cohn and then by Arjun Appadurai, Nicholas Dirks and others, the very effort to enumerate caste led to important changes, with the institution becoming progressively more and more substanstialised and fixed that it had been previously. In the 1930’s the enumeration question was also tied to the question of electoral politics as provincial legislatures were formed and a gradually expanding electorate was demarcated, beginning with literate and property-owning individuals and ending with universal adult franchise. Two evens are particularly relevant from this decade, the Census of 1931 and the negotiations around separate electorates that culminated in the so-called Poona Pact of 1932.

The Census is particularly relevant from the point of view of the emergence of castelessness as a possibility and as a conscious political and social desire. Writing in the chapter on “Caste, Race and Tribe” in the Census Report of 1931, J.H. Hutton, the Census Commissioner, observes that:

As on the occasion of each successive census since

1901, a certain amount of criticism has been directed at

the census for taking any note at all of the fact of caste. It

Has been alleged that the mere act of labeling persons as

Belonging to a caste tends to perpetuate the system, and

On this excuse a campaign against any record of caste

Was attempted in 1931 by those who objected to any

Such returns being made. It is however, difficult to see

Why the record of a fact that actually exists should tend to

stabilise that existence. It is just as easy to argue and

with at least as much truth, that it is impossible to get rid

of any institution by ignoring its existence

like the proverbial ostrich, and indeed facts themselves

demonstrate that in spite of the recognition of caste

in previous decades the institution is of itself undergoing

considerable modification. (Census of India, 1931, Ch. XII, p. 430).

He goes on to wonder whether, by aggregating castes across regions wherever feasible, the census “may claim to make a definite, if minute, contribution to Indian unity”. He also speculates about the relative importance of different possible motives for the campaign against the recording of caste data in the census, including “a bona fide desire to see caste abolished”, as different from “entirely other considerations of a political nature”, and also the sectarian desire to see an expansion in the numbers of particular communities and groups. But his most interesting revelations concern the “no caste” category which was specifically provided for in the census of 1931, “as distinct from the individuals who on account of ignorance or accident failed to state any caste at all”. Nearly 19 lakh people seem to have made use of this category in 1931, with 98% of them being fromBengal. Although this amounts to a little less than 0.8% of the total population of Hindus inIndia, it is still true nevertheless (as pointed out by Kingsley Davis) that the number of “no caste” returns in 1931is greater than that in any previous census.

There is evidence to suggest, therefore, that the possibility of refusing a caste identity – at least in response to the colonial state – was already well established by the 1930’s. However, we need other sources of socio-historical evidence to evaluate the precise nature of this response and the reasoning that lay behind it. On the other hand, the censure results can also be said to demonstrate the pervasiveness of caste as a ubiquitous form of identity. As Kingsley Davis has shown, the vast majority of Indians were willing and able to state their caste, including most of those belonging to small sects like the Arya Samaj or Brahmo Samaj that were opposed to caste. Caste was reported extensively by Muslims – indeed, wel l over 80% of them reported castes, with 133 castes being exclusively Muslim. Caste was also reported by Sikhs and to a lesser extent by Chistians. (Davis, The Population of India and Pakistan, Ch. 18: The Demography of Caste).

Equally important, if not even more so, is the question of the electoral significance of caste identities. With the Muslim demand for a separate electorate having already crossed the point of no return by the 1930s, intense attention was focused on the Depressed Classes. Gandhi and the Indian National Congress had particularly high stakes in this issue because of the way the numbers stacked up. According to the 1931 Census, Hindus accounted for 68.2% of the population ofIndia, while Muslims made up 22.2%. Given that the Exterior Castes (mostly corresponding to the Depressed Classes) accounted for as much as 21.1% of the Hindu population, the grant of a separate electorate to them would reduce the Hindus to a minority. More importantly, this would be a major blow to the moral authority and hence the eventual political power of the Congress as the representative ofIndiarather than only a caste Hindu minority. While there were strong inequities marking the relationship of even the so-called interior castes (or Shudras) with the twice-born minority within the caste Hindus, these divisions could be papered over and prevented from emerging into the open. The disabilities imposed on the Depressed Classes were so severe and shocking that no amount of propaganda could hide them. Thus, the distinctness of the untouchable castes was already an established empirical and political fact.

It is this fact that Gandhi was addressing in his negotiations over the question of separate electorates for the Depressed Classes being demanded by Ambedkar. By embarking on a preemptive fast unto death – the very first time that he had taken such a radical step – Gandhi ensured that Ambedkar would have no option but to succumb. The Poona Pact of 1932 thus cemented that the claims of the Congress and specifically of Gandhi to represent all of India, thus helping to conceal the fact that the leadership was exclusively upper caste and the even more closely guarded “public secret” that these castes represented a very small minority of the Hindu population. The muting of caste identities was a necessary precondition for the construction of a Congress “majority” – a development of immense significance in the emerging era of electoral democracy.

However, a peculiar and paradoxical twist was imparted to this by Ambedkar’s vigorous championing of the untouchable cause. The Poona Pact agreed to significantly increase the guaranteed political representation (in the form of reserved seats in the legislatures) for the Depressed Classes, but a very heavy price was paid for this concession, as Ambedkar realized only too clearly. Separate electorates could be seen as articulating a demand for a full share in the nation, a demand that underlined the equal claims of the untouchables. Although this was not immediately obvious, the grant of reservations reduced the Depressed Classes to the status of supplicants for whom a special concession was being made by the majority that ‘owned’ the nation. This effectively positioned the upper caste minority (which was in control of the majority) as the de facto owner of the nation, with the power to grant favours to this or that sub-group. It is this mindset that has shaped upper caste common-sense on issues of caste and specially reservations. Its effects are visible even today whenever there is a controversy on these issues. This is also the origin of the hypervisibility of the lower castes, with the untouchable castes being at the extreme end of hypervisibility. Until the eruption of the ‘interior castes’ in their avatar as the “Other Backward Classes” in the Mandal conflagaration of 1990, it was the Dalit – upper caste axis that was central to questions of visibility and invisibility.

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