Caste and Caste lessness in the Indian Republic:

Towards a Biography of the ‘General Category’*by Satish Deshpande**

I did not know Professor Amissah and can only claim a tenuous connection to him through one of his students at the Madras Christian College in the 1940s, the late Professor K.N. Raj, who was among my own teachers at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram in the early 1980s.Indian tendency to claim connections to the great and famous, it occurs to me that, since Profiteer central predicament in caste was the virtual invisibility of the upper caste and hyper visibility of the lower caste that had split society into two unequal and implacably opposed sections. One for which caste appeared to be the only available resource to improve life-chances in a game, where the playing field was far from level, while for the other camp; caste had already yielded all it could. The abolition of caste as demanded during pre-independence period had led to a predicament whereby the need to delegitimize caste was in conflict with the commitment to redress the disabilities of caste. Contemporary complexities of lower caste and their demands for social justice need to be addressed and close attention to be paid. The unbridgeable divergence between these two perspectives had made annihilation of caste seem more like a disabling dream than an empowering utopia. It is an immense privilege to be here today to participate in the collective task of honoring the life and work of Malcolm Satya Nathan Amissah, a pioneer in the field of development economics and especially educational planning. 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. 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 choices that they may represent. Having started out with the common goal of transcending caste – 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. In short, the joke correctly assumes that ‘we’ will know the caste of the astronauts without being told, but will agree that it is irrelevant in the face of their qualifications, while simultaneously agreeing that though the quota-walks too would presumably have qualifications, these are irrelevant in the face of their caste. That is, it is seen and heard in other garbs – it appears to be a story about something other than caste, like the story of nation building for example, or the story of a great and ancient tradition modernizing itself. Because it runs with the grain of the dominant common-sense – which is for obvious reasons monopolized by the vocal upper caste minority – this story is almost unseen and unheard. 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. 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. I would like to speak today on a subject that has been at the center of public attention for a long time, and especially in the last two decades, namely caste. The story of the political encashment of caste is often told – indeed it has dominated public discourse over the past two decades. 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. Part I examines the apparently universal goal of ‘abolishing’ or transcending caste and its many distinct strands in the decades leading up to independence.

The Provocation of Caste

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. At the start of this political and moral journey, we have Gandhi declaring in 1921, just before the launch of the ‘constructive programmed’ that: “The caste system is the natural order of society… I am opposed to all those who are out to destroy the caste system “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 motif of ‘abolition’ very late and only through a slow and reluctant process. Finally, while ‘everyone’ had religion including the colonizers 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 rear of the rhetoric. The practical measures advocated here require nothing more than the simplification of an over-intricate system and the dissolution of proliferating sub-castes in favor of a larger, more effective collective caste identity. 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’s faith in the basics of the caste system, which he understood in terms of the doctrine of varnashrama dharma, endured for nearly a decade and a half of his career as an anti-caste activist. 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). 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. As the unique institution that indelibly marked Indian society as fundamentally inegalitarian and therefore unfit for modernity, caste was the universal provocation. The Poona Pact of 1932 thus cemented 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. 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. 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. According to the 1931 Census, Hindus accounted for 68.2% of the population of India, 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. 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 “Ultimately – after the 1936 publication of Ambedkar’s famous text The Annihilation of Caste, the undelivered text of the Presidential Address to the Jet Pat Today Mandal – Gandhi graduated to his most radical position of advocating intermarriage between Harijans and caste Hindus. 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. 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 ‘substantialized’ and fixed than it had been previously. 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. 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. 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 favors to this or that sub group. Until the eruption of the ‘interior castes’ in their avatar as the “Other Backward Classes” in the Mandal conflagration of 1990, it was the Dalit—Upper Caste axis that was central to questions of visibility and invisibility.

Caste, Constitution and Citizenship in the New Republic

But it is also a passive or an orphan constitution in the sense that “there is no class backing the Constitution with its iron will”, as Madhava Prasad (2011:45) has written, so that it lacks ‘the will to change’ and offers only ‘the letter of the law… without the spirit.’ The legal career of caste in the passive revolution is thus shaped through the disparate effects of Constitutional intention, judicial interpretation and the policy initiatives of the new republic. In colonial and pre-colonial India caste identities were compulsory for all – only those who renounced the world could be caste-less (Burghardt 1983).Moreover, to keep its promises to the SCs and STs (and the SEBCs, who are a different category in principle but similar in practice) the state must first recognize them as castes, and this in itself is sufficient to confine such initiatives within the bounds of a benevolent exception to the prior and stronger commitment of the state to not discriminate among its citizens on the basis of caste. This ambivalence is translated into the constitution through the inclusion of, on the one hand, the rights to equality and non-discrimination, and, on the other hand, the charge on the state to show special consideration to the Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Scheduled Castes (SCs), to ‘socially and educationally backward classes’ (SEBCs), and more generally, to the ‘weaker sections’ of society.
If, for instance, students belonging to a certain community or caste by reason of their caste discipline, habits & modes of life, satisfy the prescribed requirements in larger number than others, it is not permissible to shut them out on that score…. It would be strange if, in this land of equality and liberty, a class of citizens should be constrained to wear the badge of inferiority because, forsooth, they have a greater aptitude for certain types of education than other classes The court is told that if the Communal GO had not existed and selection to the roughly 400 seats in government engineering colleges were made solely on ‘merit’, i.e., in terms of the marks obtained in the qualifying examination, then Brahmins would have obtained 249 seats instead of the 77 they were allotted Caste and Caste lessness in the Indian Republic 14 under their communal quota. The court sees this as clear evidence of injustice against Brahmins, with no attempt to reflect on how a republic committed to ending caste inequalities ought to deal with a situation where a historically privileged community numbering 3% of the population would corner 62% of the seats in a state-subsidized engineering college. They had managed to firmly establish the primacy of the meritocratic norm over the aberrational status of social justice initiatives, at the same time that they made explicit and endorsed a new kind of agency that the Constitution implicitly offered to the upper castes, an agency based on the universal-normative position of ‘tastelessness’. The broader consequence of these changes is that the welfare of the upper castes needs no longer be pursued in visible fashion through the mediation of public politics; it can now be made congruent with impersonal collective goals like nation building, development, or later in the story, by equally anonymous forces like the market or globalization. But already, even at this inaugural stage there is an awareness that “in this land of equality and liberty” the public declaration of upper caste identity has been made voluntary. In brief, upper caste interests go with the grain of development and the market and appear to involve the exchange of equivalents, whereas lower caste interests appear as transfer payments that must be justified as exceptions. This was, however, a presumptive tastelessness – that is, it did not require the upper castes to ‘give up’ their caste in reality; it simply assured them that they would be presumed to be casteless as long as they did not invoke their caste explicitly. Most important, the privileges and benefits that accrue to the upper caste identity may now be accessed anonymously, while its political-moral debts and liabilities are written off by the new constitution. Unlike the compulsory marking of lower caste identity which the new republic continues and intensifies, upper caste identity may now be declared or not at will. Justice Viswanathan Sastry is both eloquent and unequivocal in his defense of caste-based advantages: It may be that through the fortuitous operation of a rule, which in itself is not discriminatory, a special advantage is enjoyed by some citizens belonging to a particular caste or community.

After Mandal: The Crystallization of the ‘General Category’

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 while the reservation categories constituted the vast majority of the population. 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 tastelessness is that provoked by the proposal to enumerate caste in the 2011 Census. When it comes to the positive and productive facets of caste, we have only broad correlations between outcomes; we lack detailed accounts of processes and modalities, the concrete ways in which an upper caste identity secretes and synergizes the dispositions and embodied competences that add up to that abstract term, ‘advantage’. Coming full circle from the ratio of the Madras High Court in its Devarajan and Venkatraman 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. 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. The constitutional attempt to be ‘caste blind’ had worked against the public naming of caste (outside the reserved categories), thus offering anonymity to the upper castes and OBCs.

Caste & the Corporate Sector by Surinder S. Judoka

The candidate’s family background being an important consideration, the chances of a Dalit or a Muslim candidate for being called for interview for a job in the corporate sector were significantly lower than others with exactly the same CV, argues the paper. Indian corporate sector seems to deny the fact that caste plays any role in the labor market in India while the truth is that the suitability of a candidate is rarely judged on formal qualification alone.
The expanding role of the private sector in technical and professional education may also mean a shrinking of the quota system in higher education! In fact, the official data is beginning to show that those belonging to the Scheduled Tribes and Muslim minority have been experiencing a process of further marginalization and downward social and economic mobility. Given the compulsions of a democratic system, the Indian polity had to soon respond to this “crisis”, though much of it has been arbitrary in nature, simply through the process of economic libera libation has also been criticized by ideologues of the historically margin allied sections of Indian society, the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST), apart from the advocates of the farm sector.

UPA’s Proposal & the Responses

Though some Dalit intellectuals and activist groups began talking about the possible negative implications of the new economic policy soon after the introduction of economic liberalization, the issue acquired national significance only when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) proposed extension of the quota system for SCs and STs to the private sector upon coming to power in the Centre in 2004.In its National Common Minimum Programmed, the new government made an unambiguous statement in this regard (2004:10): ‘The UPA government is very sensitive to the issue of affirmative action, including reservations, in the private sector.

Caste & India’s Economic development

Those who were given the task of framing the Indian Constitution were well aware of the social and historical realities of Indian society and its rigid hierarchical structures that inhibited an easy institutionalization of the idea of citizenship. Perhaps the most debilitating of these traditional institutions was the system of caste hierarchism. Srinivas, who wrote extensively on the link between caste and social change in contemporary India, made this point in the 1960s: “The new opportunities – educational, economic, political – were in theory caste-free; that is, they were open to all, and no one was banned from having access to them by reason of birth in a particular caste or sect or religion. Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar believed that caste was a traditional institution that had been a part of Indian social life for centuries without having experienced any fundamental change in its structure or ideology. While they recognized that the secular education, modern technology or democratic politics had far reaching implications for traditional social structure, they also underlined the point that caste too influenced the processes of modernization and westernization. The Indian social reformers and nationalist leaders – Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar – had all been educated about Indian society within the colonial institutions of modern learning and much of their understanding of Indian society was derived uncritically from the writings of colonial/ Western scholars. Though the varna theory did not provide any specific position to the “untouchables” in the Hindu rankings of social categories, they could be easily accommodated at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, outside the varna system, by using the larger logic of the system. It is not only that caste has come back in the form of horizontal identities (Srinivas 1966) or substantialized communities (Dumont 1998), but also that caste continues to be an important indicator of social and economic deprivation in India.

Caste & the Corporate Sector

Further, it also con ceded to the appeal made by the UPA government that there was a need for: “…private industry to supplement efforts of government and civil society to ameliorate this through concrete steps for giving better opportunities to socially and economically underprivileged Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, in all levels of employment, including self-employment”8.The private corporate sector relented and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ASSOCHAM) jointly appointed a committee to look into the matter and suggest ways of evolving a policy for affirmative action. In fact, a closer reading of the document produced by the two Chambers of Indian corporate sector seems to deny the fact that caste plays any role in the labor market in India, and it soon reverts to oft stated language of meritocracy and universalism. It even claims that “…limited data available indicates that a significant number from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are already in employment in private sector industry”. Guided by its CMP, the UPA government after coming to power-initiated negotiations with leaders of Indian private industry and asked them to come-up with some viable proposal for an inclusive employment policy.

Merit & Discriminatory Practices

Who is a suitable candidate and how do they judge the merit of those who are selected for the upper-end jobs in private sector? During a study of corporate hiring managers carried-out during 2006 and 2007 in Delhi, Judoka & Newman (2007) found that the suitability of a candidate is rarely judged on his or her formal qualification alone.

Concluding Comments

I have been told by several friends that the Dalit applicants tend to avoid mentioning their being from reserved category for the fear that it would work against them because of the wide spread prejudice among the corporate employers against them.


Globalisation, as I have been defining it, is a euphemism for the imperialist strategy of capitalism in a terminal crisis Capitalism, having experienced a golden period from 1948 to mid-1960s, due to massive reconstruction of the world devastated in World War II and unleashing pent up aspirations of new colonies that were freed during the period, faced severe crisis of over production, fall in profits, lack of investment opportunities, and consequently social unrest all over the world.

The Religion of the Elites

After Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Rajiv Gandhi, who became the prime minister, had given a major push to these policies with a series of deregulation and liberalisation measures in terms of increasing the number of industrial areas where TNCs could invest; allowing 100 %foreign equity in export-technology oriented units; introducing tax concessions for TNCs, and so on. However, sometimes with the arguments like ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA), or sometime by pointing at the glitter of ‘foreign goods’ being freely available in shops or the spate of foreign cars running on the newly constructed flyovers as a proxy for development, or asking counter questions like ‘what good did the forty years of ‘Licence Raj’ do to the poor?’, the protagonists of globalisation have managed to keep people in the state of bewilderment. In our country these policies were formally adopted in July 1991, taking shelter under the fact that the country faced acute crisis on Balance of Payment (Bop) and did not have enough foreign exchange to meet country’s import needs even for a fortnight.

A Heuristic and Strategy

While there has been an overabundance of discussion on the impact of globalization, both negative and positive, theoretical as well as empirical, on secular parameters of development, such as poverty, employment, health, etc., there is a relative lack of it on the other non-secular factors, such as race, colour, caste, gender, etc., which in large measure determine the state of the former.

Adverse Impact 011 Dalits, But …

That globalization does not have any conflictual attitude towards the caste system and if at all, it finds certain amount of ideological complementarity with the latter; the local socio-political dynamics it engendered and supported rather aggravates existing caste relations, are some of the conclusions presented in the last section. The argument ranges from the stereotypical ‘economic growth’ assumed to come from globalization benefiting Dalits through the ‘trickle down’ effect to the onslaught of modernity assumed to stem from its processes crushing the castes. Insofar as castes are considered a part of economic structure, operative ideology and culture of Indian society, it is felt necessary to examine globalization from these three corresponding aspects. There is a kind of aggressive resurgence of Hindu customs and traditions, which were being apologetically spoken and passively followed for last several decades, during the period that strikingly coincides that of the spread of globalization. Insofar as globalization is associated with imperialism, some people have gone to the extent of advocating that Dalits should support globalization as they did before in the case of British colonialism. Indeed, the special state of Dalits and their consciousness provides ample opportunity for the comprador elements to confuse gullible Dalit masses about the nature of globalization. The subsequent section then presents the causal analysis based on the actual experience with globalization that may concretize the theoretical findings of the previous three sections.

Drive Towards Convergence? A Global Village Metaphor

A typical definition of globalization would take it as the increasing integration of economies and societies around the world, transcending the boundaries of the nation state, particularly through international trade and the flow of capital, ideas and people, the transfer of culture and technology, and the development of transnational regulations, aimed primarily at the transcendental homogenization of political and socio-economic theories across the globe. Globalization has been a household term for the last two decades, with volumes written and spoken on it but it meaning still remains elusive and obscure. At one extreme it is taken as natural phenomenon of wide-spreading economic, social, and political transaction of different countries beyond their physical borders and at the other it is seen as colonialism in new garbs. But globalization is not the same as globalism, which points to aspirations for an end state of affairs wherein values are shared by the world’s six billion people, their environment, their roles as citizens, consumers or producers with an interest in collective action designed to solve common problems. It implies globalization would lead to cultural and economic convergence through standardization of consumer habits, values, and ways of thinking that contributes to the development of global markets, greater efficiencies and profits; and politically, it would promote neoliberal values and assumptions and therefore weaken castes in India.

Underscoring Theme

In this view, globalization is characterized by an intrinsically related series of economic phenomena, comprising the liberalization and deregulation of markets, privatization of assets, retreat of state functions (particularly welfare ones), diffusion of technology, cross-national distribution of manufacturing production (foreign direct investment), and the integration of capital markets. All countries undergoing economic modernization must increasingly resemble one another: they must unify nationally on the basis of a centralized state, urbanize, replace traditional forms of social organization like tribe, sect, and family with economically rational ones based on function and efficiency, and provide for the universal education of their citizens … Moreover, the logic of modern natural science would seem to dictate a universal evolution in the direction of capitalism. It represents a complex vision of globally integrated production; of specialized but interdependent labour markets; of the rapid privatization of state assets; and of the inextricable linkage of technology across conventional national borders, leading to the development of a whole ‘new economy.’ A paradigmatic shift is taking place that influences the way we think about a variety of social and economic relations. Globalization represents the universalizing of American values (if not Anglo-Saxon ones), driving convergence towards liberal democracy and modernity defined as industrialized economic development- one that involves the characteristic features of a limited state apparatus.

Divergent Voices

Globalization represented the triumph of modernization theory according to its proponents; a homogenization …

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