Almost the first task that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru undertook after winning independence was to abolish caste. All government records, registers and application forms deleted the column of caste. A colonial practice was renounced and the pre-independence promise redeemed. It had taken the nation some 88 years to rub off the ignoble stigma of discrimination.
Little did freedom fighters suspect that parliament of sovereign Indian Republic would bring back the relic of British rule within 62 years of freedom. Ironically, the same Congress party, which was instrumental in throwing out the British, announced this week that the next census in 2011 would have the column to record caste. Indeed, the enumerators would ask who belonged to which zaat (caste). The Manmohan Singh government was reluctant to introduce such a step because some cabinet members argued that caste was against the ethos of freedom movement. But none of them seemed to have the conviction or commitment to a casteless society, a pre-requisite of a sound democratic system.
Political parties in the opposition had their way because the government after putting up a brave front caved in. True, the ruling Congress does not have a majority in the Lok Sabha. But it could have mustered a majority if it had stood firm on principles. It did not have to placate the leaders of the Other Backward Classes (OBC) for the sake of staying in office.
The government does not seem to understand the repercussions of turning the country parochial. This was the British way which followed the policy of divide and rule. The society has to be integrated however strong are the forces to stratify it.
The government should have at least held consultations with the National Integration Council which is meant to discuss such problems. Caste is something that will affect the nation on the whole. Parliament which does not represent more than 50 per cent of the electorate cannot push back the country to the dark ages.
The electoral politics has blinded the three Yadav leaders—Sharad Yadav of the Janata Dal’s splinter group and the two former chief ministers, Mulayam Singh Yadav from UP and Lalu Prasad Yadav from Bihar. They have betrayed their mentors, socialist Dr Ram Manohar Lohia and Gandhite Jayaprakash Narayan, who propagated a casteless society. But for the latter’s successful movement after the emergency the two would not have made the chief ministership.
Yadav leaders have argued that their flock, the OBC, would be entitled to more reservations in employment and educational institutions after the census, which they expect will show their caste followers in larger proportion. They already enjoy a quota of 27 per cent, four per cent more than the Scheduled Castes and Tribes which are the only ones to have got reservations through the constitution.
The Supreme Court has limited reservations to 50 per cent. If OBC leaders want more, they have to go in appeal to the Supreme Court. The census will not give them more reservations. Nor can parliament. The forum is the Supreme Court which in its judgment thought that at least the 50 per cent of jobs or admission to education institutions had to be on merit.
Where is the guarantee that the census would quantify the numbers accurately? There are risks of fudging. An enumerator goes to an ordinary person and asks him about his caste. The latter can say anything in reply. There is no authority or guidelines with the enumerator to check whether the answer given is correct. His job is merely to write what is told to him.
Traditions and customs have moulded India and the rest of the subcontinent in such a way that the caste system has also affected Muslims, Sikhs and Christians. Islam preaches equality and this is the reason given by Hindus why caste barriers should not be recognized among Muslims for reservations. A Karachi labour leader who met me at Delhi a few days ago told me that even the workers in Pakistan have come to be divided on the basis of caste.
In India, the Muslims belonging to OBC, for example carpenters, weavers and iron smiths have been enjoying reservation like their Hindu counterparts. There is a demand to accommodate the Muslim dalits in the quota given to the Scheduled Castes. The Sachar Committee on the plight of Muslims too has recognised that there were dalits in the Muslim community.
My knowledge of law, however limited, tells me that the column of caste in the form that enumerators would fill violates the basic structure of the constitution. The preamble says that the people resolve to constitute India into a “sovereign socialist democratic republic”. In the Keshvanand Bharti case, the Supreme Court has said that objectives in the preamble contain the basic structure of the constitution which cannot be amended by the power that parliament exercises after the constitution (Article 368).
Caste is antithesis of democracy or socialist ideology. Any action to reintroduce caste identities, which the census will seek to do, is unconstitutional. Still, if the government wants to go ahead with caste categorization, it should refer the matter to the Supreme Court for advice. Since ultimately the matter will be decided by the Supreme Court, why not go over the exercise now?
The BJP’s agreement to caste identification is surprising. The party is all the time crying hoarse about the country’s emotional unity. Its support for something divisive is because of electoral considerations. It wants to be seen with the Yadav leaders who are trying to project the census of caste a step towards progress. The BJP, like other political parties, know that elections are increasingly contested on an appeal to sub-castes, not the caste alone.
Poverty is not confined to the OBC. In a country where 40 per cent people earn less than a dollar, the concerted effort of political parties should be how to extract people from deplorable economic conditions in which they are stuck. It is time to change the basis of reservations from caste to poverty. The criterion should neither be caste nor creed but how much a person earns.
Whatever the benefits of reservations, they have been primarily cornered by leaders belonging to the creamy layers of OBC and the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. The Supreme Court has said more than once that the creamy layer should be defined so that the benefits go to the next generation. But the leaders of these communities, particularly the Yadavs, refused to do so because they want to appropriate the gains. How to end their monopoly is the real problem, not the census of caste. They have to be curbed if India has to remain a casteless society.