Part 3 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 3 of 3.

This is the link for Part 1 of 3 (

This is the link to Part 2 of 3 (

Part III – After Mandal: The Crystallisation of the ‘General Category’

One of the defining events of the 1990s – probably the most momentous decade in the life of our republic – is the social revolution now known simply as ‘Mandal’. The Mandal moment marked the long delayed arrival on the national stage of the critical category of the ‘Other Backward Classes’ or the OBCs. Given its electoral weight and socio-political significance, this was like an avant garde plat where the Godot-like protagonist arrives very late and disrupts the narrative, forcing the audience into hurried retrospective revisions of the storyline. I will focus here on only those aspects of Mandal that are immediately relevant for the ‘general category’.   

Although it might seem rather obvious in retrospect, the first consequence of OBC assertion for the ‘general category’ was not immediately recognized. It took some time for the realization to sing in that, with the OBCs too being added to the ‘reserved category’, the ‘general category’ had now become an euphemism for the upper castes. In fact this had been true since the advent of the republic, because the OBC participation in the general category was actually negligible – this being the very fact that had been easy to maintain, given that reservations were locked into the exceptional mode from the beginning. The constitutional attempt to be ‘caste blind’ had worked against the public naming of caste (outside the reserved categories), this offering anonymity to the upper castes and OBCs.

One of the curious facts about Mandal – perhaps also the reason why it gets elevated into a rare instance of national catharsis – is the way in which it seemed to drive home lessons that should have been learnt already. This, the basic trajectories of OBC politics had already been traced in many regional contexts, notably in the southern states, for whom Mandal was just so much déjà vu. Despite this, the national media and even academia seemed to realize for the first time that the upper castes who had been accustomed to regarding the general category as their ascriptive birthright were actually a minority of the population. Even though the absence of reliable statistics on the OBCs fuelled skepticism and controversy, this conclusion was hard to resist. With the publication of separate statistics for the OBCs by the National Sample Survey Organisation at the end of the decade, many doubts could be resolved, and the logic of numbers was strengthened. What this brought to light was the long forgotten “power sharing” or consociational argument for reservations. If power flowed from aggregated majorities in a democratic polity, then it was hard to explain why the distribution of opportunities could be allowed to be so far skewed in favour of a minority that it supported stark forms of “durable inequality”. And though the traditional meritocratic arguments continued to be advanced, they seemed to lose their lustre. Mandal provoked a re-evaluation of the symbolic and practical scope of the general category.

One instance of such a revaluation is in the so-called Mandal case of 1992. Here the Supreme Court consciously invokes the history of the checks and balances played out between non-discrimination, equal protection of the law, and the special charge of the state represented by the SCs and STs o the one hand, and the other unspecified ‘weaker sections’ and/or the socially and educationally backward classes (SEBCs). Coming full circle from the ratio of the Madras High Court in its Dorairajan and Venkatramana decisions of 1951 that quashed the Communal GO, the court reiterates that the unreserved or general category cannot be treated as a de facto quota for upper castes. It states unequivocally that those reserved category candidates who qualify to be included in the general category must be included in it – they must not be forced into the quota seats, nor can the size of the quota be reduced because of such inclusion in the ‘merit category’. Although, once again, this is not new (various High Courts as well as the Supreme Court itself had reached similar conclusions several times since 1958), there is something about the context that adds weight to this revaluation.

However, the most recent national level assertion of castelessness is that provoked by the proposal to enumerate caste in the 2011 Census. It is here that we see the media and civil society organisations mounting campaigns claiming precisely a casteless identity. Similar proposals to count caste in the 2001 Census had been summarily rejected by the then Home Minister L.K. Advani. The discussion at that time had remained largely confined to the pros and cons of gathering such data; castelessness did not emerge as a visible and vocal identity. Despite efforts to delay, block or otherwise scuttle the proposal, efforts which were ultimately successful, it did seem for a while that caste was actually going to be counted in the 2011 Census. It was this prospect that energized the upper caste elite and crystallised its claims to castelessness. For the first time, the weight of the anti-caste enumeration campaigns was placed more on the claim of castelessness rather than on other consequentialist arguments. One of the best known instances of protest came from the veteran actor Amitabh Bachhan who declared on his blog that Census enumerators who came to his home would be told that the caste of its inhabitants was ‘Indian’ and nothing else. Soon after, a new civil society initiative led by similarly inclined upper caste elites calling itself ‘Meri Jati Hindustani’ was launched. As its name suggests, the campaign urged citizens to join in the effort to scuttle the counting of caste by insisting on returning themselves as ‘hindustani’.

One sees the emergence here of a voice and a sensibility that is beginning to believe in its own castelessness. That such claims invariably emanate from the upper castes (and that toofrom the elite among them) continues to elude proponents. Once they are successfully interpellated by the ideology of castelessness, upper caste subjects see their caste identities as incidental or irrelevant to the claim. They can thus assert with some sincerity that it is mere coincidence that everyone who makes such a claim happens to be upper caste. This is the generation that is in most cases far removed from the process of the conversion of traditional caste capital into secular modern casteless capital that previous generations effected, It is objectively true that for such individuals – who, it must not be forgotten, may still constitute a minority within their own caste group – caste plays little or no role in their lives. It is for this group that family seems to have replaced caste as the source of social capital (Beteille 1991). Long accused o a comfortably homogenous environment populated almost entirely by people like themselves, this group is unsettled by the recent arrival of hitherto excluded and therefore strange and unknown social groups in their vicinity. It is the double coincidence of the maturation of a sense of castelessness and the arrival of strangers in the social neighbourhood that confirms and amplifies this response.

This is a good time, then, to be working towards a biography of the general category. The problem of false universals is already known to us from feminist theory and from critical race theory. We can use the insights of this literature to understand how the general category has fared as a universal in our context. We can also examine the possibility of reclaiming and re-posting this category in the light of what we have learnt. Can we imagine a different avatar of the general category as a ‘true universal’?

It is in the nature of utopias to be ill-defined. So it is hardly surprising that Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s cherished ideal, ‘the annihilation of caste’, remains to this day an inspiring but vague destination without a reliable route map. But located as we now are within the postnational condition, with the Nehruvian naivetes of yesteryear a distant memory, it is time perhaps to interrogate this utopia more closely. If one meaning of annihilation must be to render caste irrelevant as a determinant of life chances, but also how another such habitus might enlarge or amplify them. Recent social science research offers us some accounts of the former but almost nothing on the latter. When it comes to the positive and productive facets of caste we have one broad correlations between outcomes; we lacked detailed accounts of processes and modalities, the concrete ways in which an upper caste identity secretes and synergises the dispostions and embodied competences that add up to that abstract term, ‘merit’. To understand the productive side of caste we need not one but many detailed biographies of the ‘general category’. In the last analysis, then, the call to interrogate the upper caste self is not about the end of illusion as it might first seem, but about the revitalization of what is perhaps our most intimate utopia.


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